2424051Mary Lamb — Chapter V.1883Anne Gilchrist


Personal Appearance and Manners.—Health.—Influence of Mary's
Illnesses upon Her Brother.

No description of Mary Lamb's person in youth is to be found; but hers was a kind of face which time treats gently, adding with one hand while he takes away with the other; compensating by deepened traces of thought and kindliness the loss of youthful freshness. Like her brother, her features were well formed. "Her face was pale and somewhat square, very placid, with grey, intelligent eyes" says Proctor who first saw her when she was about fifty-three. "Eyes brown, soft and penetrating" says another friend, Mrs. Cowden Clarke, confirming the observation that it is difficult to judge of the colour of expressive eyes. She, too, lays stress upon the strong resemblance to Charles and especially on a smile like his, "winning in the extreme." De Quincey speaks of her as "that Madonna-like lady."

The only original portrait of her in existence, I believe, is that by the late Mr. Gary (son of Lamb's old friend), now in the possession of Mr. Edward Hughes, and engraved in the Memoir of Lamb by Barry Cornwall; also in Scribner's Magazine for March 1881 where it is accompanied by a letter from Mr. Gary which states that it was painted in 1834 when Mary was seventy. She stands a little behind her brother, resting one hand on him and one on the back of his chair. There is a characteristic sweetness in her attitude and the countenance is full of goodness and intelligence; whilst the finer modelling of Charles' features and the intellectual beauty of his head are rendered with considerable success,—Crabb Robinson's strictures notwithstanding who, it appears, saw not the original, but a poor copy of the figure of Charles. It was from Gary's picture that Mr. Armitage, R.A. executed the portraits of the Lambs in the large fresco on the walls of University College Hall. Among its many groups (of which Crabb Robinson, who commissioned the fresco, is the central figure), that containing the Lambs includes also Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, and Southey. By an unfortunate clause in the deed of gift the fresco, which is painted in monochrome, is forbidden to be cleaned, even with bread-crumb; it is therefore already very dingy.

In stature, Mary was under the middle size and her bodily frame was strong. She could walk fifteen miles with ease; her brother speaks of their having walked thirty miles together and, even at sixty years of age, she was capable of twelve miles "most days." Regardless of weather, too, as Leigh Hunt pleasantly tells in his Familiar Epistle in Verse to Lamb:—

You'll guess why I can't see the snow-covered streets,
Without thinking of you and your visiting feats,
When you call to remembrance how you and one more,
When I wanted it most, used to knock at my door;
For when the sad winds told us rain would come down,
Or when snow upon snow fairly clogg'd up the town,
And dun-yellow fogs brooded over its white,
So that scarcely a being was seen towards night,
Then—then said the lady yclept near and dear:
Now, mind what I tell you—the Lambs will be here.
So I poked up the flame, and she got out the tea,
And down we both sat as prepared as could be;
And then, sure as fate came the knock of you two,
Then the lanthorn, the laugh, and the "Well, how d' ye do?"

Mary's manners were easy, quiet, unpretending; to her brother gentle and tender always, says Mrs. Cowden-Clarke. She had often an upward look of peculiar meaning when directed towards him, as though to give him an assurance that all was well with her; and a way of repeating his words assentingly when he spoke to her. "He once said, with his peculiar mode of tenderness beneath blunt, abrupt speech, 'You must die first, Mary.' She nodded with her little quiet nod and sweet smile, 'Yes, I must die first, Charles.'" When they were in company together her eyes followed him everywhere; and even when he was talking at the other end of the room, she would supply some word he wanted. 'Her voice was soft and persuasive, with at times a certain catch, a kind of emotional stress in breathing, which gave a charm to her reading of poetry and a captivating earnestness to her mode of speech when addressing those she liked. It was a slight check that had an eager yearning effect in her voice, creating a softened resemblance to her brother's stammer'—that "pleasant little stammer," as Barry Cornwall called it, "just enough to prevent his making speeches; just enough to make you listen eagerly for his words." Like him, too, she took snuff. "She had a small, white, delicately-formed hand; and as it hovered above the tortoise-shell snuff-box, the act seemed yet another link of association between the brother and sister as they sat together over their favourite books."

Mary's dress was always plain and neat; not changing much with changing fashions; yet, with no unfeminine affectation of complete indifference. "I do dearly love worked muslin," says she, in one of her letters and the "Manning silks" were worn with no little satisfaction. As she advanced in years she usually wore black stuff or silk; or, on great occasions, a "dove-coloured silk, with a kerchief of snow-white muslin folded across her bosom," with a cap of the kind in fashion in her youth, a deep-frilled border, and a bow on the top.

Mary's severe nurture, though undoubtedly it bore with too heavy a strain on her physical and mental constitution, fitted her morally and practically for the task which she and her brother fulfilled to admiration—that of making an income which, for two-thirds of their joint lives, could not have exceeded two or three hundreds a year, suffice for the heavy expense of her yearly illnesses, for an open-handed hospitality and for the wherewithal to help a friend in need, not to speak of their extensive acquaintance among "the great race of borrowers." He was, says de Quincey, "princely—nothing short of that in his beneficence. . . . Never anyone have I known in this world upon whom for bounty, for indulgence and forgiveness, for charitable construction of doubtful or mixed actions, and for regal munificence, you might have thrown yourself with so absolute a reliance as upon this comparatively poor Charles Lamb." There was a certain old-world fashion in Mary's speech corresponding to her appearance, which was quaint and pleasant; "yet she was oftener a listener than a speaker, and beneath her sparing talk and retiring manner few would have suspected the ample information and large intelligence that lay concealed."

But for her portrait sweetly touched in with subtle tender strokes, such as he who knew and loved her best could alone give, we must turn to Elia's Mackery End:—". . . I have obligations to Bridget extending beyond the period of memory. We house together, old bachelor and maid, in a sort of double singleness, with such tolerable comfort, upon the whole, that I, for one, find in myself no sort of disposition to go out upon the mountains, with the rash king's offspring, to bewail my celibacy. We agree pretty well in our tastes and habits, yet so as 'with a difference.' We are generally in harmony, with occasional bickerings, as it should be among near relations. Our sympathies are rather understood than expressed; and once, upon my dissembling a tone in my voice more kind than ordinary, my cousin burst into tears, and complained that I was altered. We are both great readers, in different directions. While I am hanging over, for the thousandth time, some passage in old Burton, or one of his strange contemporaries, she is abstracted in some modern tale or adventure, whereof our common reading table is daily fed with assiduously fresh supplies. Narrative teases me. I have little concern in the progress of events. She must have a story—well, ill, or indifferently told—so there be life stirring in it and plenty of good or evil accidents. The fluctuations of fortune in fiction—and almost in real life have ceased to interest, or operate but dully upon me. Out-of-the-way humours and opinions—heads with some diverting twist in them—the oddities of authorship, please me most. My cousin has a native disrelish of anything that sounds odd or bizarre. Nothing goes down with her that is quaint, irregular, or out of the road of common sympathy. She holds nature more clever. . . . We are both of us inclined to be a little too positive; and I have observed the result of our disputes to be almost uniformly this: that in matters of fact, dates, and circumstances, it turns out that I was in the right and my cousin in the wrong. But where we have differed upon moral points, upon something proper to be done or let alone, whatever heat of opposition or steadiness of conviction I set out with, I am sure always, in the long run, to be brought over to her way of thinking. I must touch upon the foibles of my kinswoman with a gentle hand, for Bridget does not like to be told of her faults. She hath an awkward trick (to say no worse of it) of reading in company; at which times she will answer yes or no to a question without fully understanding its purport, which is provoking and derogatory in the highest degree to the dignity of the putter of the said question. Her presence of mind is equal to the most pressing trials of life, but will sometimes desert her upon trifling occasions. When the purpose requires it, and is a thing of moment, she can speak to it greatly; but in matters which are not stuff of the conscience she hath been known sometimes to let slip a word less seasonably. . . .

"In seasons of distress she is the truest comforter, but in the teasing accidents and minor perplexities which do not call out the will to meet them, she sometimes maketh matters worse by an excess of participation. If she does not always divide your trouble, upon the pleasanter occasions of life she is sure always to treble your satisfaction. She is excellent to be at a play with, or upon a visit; but best when she goes a journey with you."

"Little could anyone observing Miss Lamb in the habitual serenity of her demeanour," writes Talfourd, "guess the calamity in which she had partaken, or the malady which frightfully chequered her life. From Mr. Lloyd who, although saddened by impending delusion, was always found accurate in his recollection of long past events and conversations, I learned that she had described herself, on her recovery from the fatal attack, as having experienced while it was subsiding such a conviction that she was absolved in heaven from all taint of the deed in which she had been the agent—such an assurance that it was a dispensation of Providence for good, though so terrible—such a sense that her mother knew her entire innocence and shed down blessings upon her, as though she had seen the reconcilement in solemn vision—that she was not sorely afflicted by the recollection. It was as if the old Greek notion of the necessity for the unconscious shedder of blood, else polluted though guiltless, to pass through a religious purification, had, in her case, been happily accomplished; so that not only was she without remorse, but without other sorrow than attends on the death of an infirm parent in a good old age. She never shrank from alluding to her mother when any topic connected with her own youth made such a reference, in ordinary respects, natural; but spoke of her as though no fearful remembrance was associated with the image; so that some of her most intimate friends who knew of the disaster believed that she had never become aware of her own share in its horrors. It is still more singular that in the wanderings of her insanity, amidst all the vast throngs of imagery she presented of her early days, this picture never recurred or, if ever it did, not associated with shapes of terror."

Perhaps this was not so surprising as at first sight it appears; for the deed was done in a state of frenzy, in which the brain could no more have received a definite impression of the scene than waves lashed by storm can reflect an image. Her knowledge of the facts was never coloured by consciousness but came to her from without "as a tale that is told." The statement, also, that Mary could always speak calmly of her mother, seems to require some qualification. Emma Isola, Lamb's adopted daughter, afterwards Mrs. Moxon, once asked her, ignorant of the facts, why she never spoke of her mother and was answered only with a cry of distress; probably the question coming abruptly and from a child confronted her in a new, sudden and peculiarly painful way with the tragedy of her youth.

"Miss Lamb would have been remarkable for the sweetness of her disposition, the clearness of her understanding, and the gentle wisdom of all her acts and words," continues Talfourd, "even if these qualities had not been presented in marvellous contrast with the distractions under which she suffered for weeks, latterly for months in every year. There was no tinge of insanity discernible in her manner to the most observant eye; not even in those distressful periods when the premonitory symptoms had apprised her of its approach, and she was making preparations for seclusion." This, too, must be taken with some qualification. In a letter from Coleridge to Matilda Betham, he mentions that Mary had been to call on the Godwins "and that her manner of conversation had greatly alarmed them (dear excellent creature! such is the restraining power of her love for Charles Lamb over her mind, that he is always the last person in whose presence any alienation of her understanding betrays itself); that she talked far more, and with more agitation concerning me than about G. Burnet [the too abrupt mention of whose death had upset her; he was an old friend and one of the original Pantisocratic group] and told Mrs. Godwin that she herself had written to William Wordsworth exhorting him to come to town immediately, for that my mind was seriously unhinged." To resume. "Her character," wrote Talfourd, "in all its essential sweetness, was like her brother's; while, by a temper more placid, a spirit of enjoyment more serene, she was enabled to guide, to counsel, to cheer him and to protect him on the verge of the mysterious calamity from the depths of which she rose so often unruffled to his side. To a friend in any difficulty she was the most comfortable of advisers, the wisest of consolers. Hazlitt used to say that he never met with a woman who could reason and had met with only one thoroughly reasonable—the sole exception being Mary Lamb. She did not wish, however, to be made an exception, to the general disparagement of her sex; for in all her thoughts and feelings she was most womanly—keeping under even undue subordination to her notion of a woman's province, an intellect of rare excellence which flashed out when the restraints of gentle habit and humble manner were withdrawn by the terrible force of disease. Though her conversation in sanity was never marked by smartness or repartee, seldom rising beyond that of a sensible quiet gentlewoman appreciating and enjoying the talents of her friends, it was otherwise in her madness. Lamb in his letter to Miss Fryer announcing his determination to be entirely with her, speaks of her pouring out memories of all the events and persons of her younger days; but he does not mention what I am able from repeated experiences to add, that her ramblings often sparkled with brilliant description and shattered beauty. She would fancy herself in the days of Queen Anne or George the First; and describe the brocaded dames and courtly manners as though she had been bred among them, in the best style of the old comedy. It was all broken and disjointed, so that the hearer could remember little of her discourse; but the fragments were like the jewelled speeches of Congreve, only shaken from their settings. There was sometimes even a vein of crazy logic running through them, associating things essentially most dissimilar, but connecting them by a verbal association in strange order. As a mere physical instance of deranged intellect, her condition was, I believe, extraordinary; it was as if the finest elements of the mind had been shaken into fantastic combinations, like those of a kaleidoscope."

The immediate cause of her attacks would generally seem to have been excitement or over-fatigue causing, in the first instance, loss of sleep, a feverish restlessness and ending in the complete overthrow of reason. "Her relapses," says Proctor, "were not dependent on the seasons; they came in hot summer and with the freezing winters. The only remedy seems to have been extreme quiet when any slight symptom of uneasiness was apparent. If any exciting talk occurred Charles had to dismiss his friend with a whisper. If any stupor or extraordinary silence was observed then he had to rouse her instantly. He has been seen to take the kettle from the fire and place it for a moment on her headdress, in order to startle her into recollection." Once the sudden announcement of the marriage of a young friend—whose welfare she had at heart—restored her, in a moment, after a protracted illness, "as if by an electrical stroke, to the entire possession of her senses." But if no precautions availed to remove the premonitory symptom, then would Mary "as gently as possible prepare her brother for the duty he must perform; and thus, unless he could stave off the terrible separation till Sunday, oblige him to ask leave of absence from the office, as if for a day's pleasure—a bitter mockery! On one occasion Mr. Charles Lloyd met them slowly pacing together a little foot-path in Hoxton fields, both weeping bitterly and found, on joining them, that they were taking their solemn way to the accustomed asylum." Holiday trips were almost always followed by a seizure; and never did Mary set out on one but with her own hands she packed a strait-waistcoat.

The attacks were commonly followed by a period of extreme depression, a sense of being shattered, and by a painful loss of self-reliance. These were but temporary states, however. Mary's habitual frame of mind was, as Talfourd says, serene and capable of placid enjoyment. In her letters to Sarah Stoddart there are some affecting and probably unique disclosures of how one who is suffering from madness feels; and what, taught by her own experience, Mary regarded as the most important points in the management of the insane. In reference to her friend's mother who was thus afflicted, she writes:—

"Do not, I conjure you, let her unhappy malady afflict you too deeply. I speak from experience and from the opportunity I have had of much observation in such cases that insane people, in the fancies they take into their heads, do not feel as one in a sane state of mind does under the real evil of poverty, the perception of having done wrong, or of any such thing that runs in their heads.

"Think as little as you can, and let your whole care be to be certain that she is treated with tenderness. I lay a stress upon this because it is a thing of which people in her state are uncommonly susceptible, and which hardly anyone is at all aware of; a hired nurse never, even though in all other respects they are good kind of people. I do not think your own presence necessary, unless she takes to you very much, except for the purpose of seeing with your own eyes that she is very kindly treated.

"I do long to see you! God bless and comfort you."

And again, a few weeks later:—

"After a very feverish night I writ a letter to you and I have been distressed about it ever since. That which gives me most concern is the way in which I talked about your mother's illness, and which I have since feared you might construe into my having a doubt of your showing her proper attention without my impertinent interference. God knows, nothing of this kind was ever in my thoughts, but I have entered very deeply into your affliction with regard to your mother; and while I was writing, the many poor souls in the kind of desponding way she is whom I have seen came fresh into my mind, and all the mismanagement with which I have seen them treated was strong in my mind, and I wrote under a forcible impulse which I could not at the time resist, but I have fretted so much about it since that I think it is the last time I will ever let my pen run away with me.

"Your kind heart will, I know, even if you have been a little displeased, forgive me when I assure you my spirits have been so much hurt by my last illness, that, at times, I hardly know what I do. I do not mean to alarm you about myself, or to plead an excuse; but I am very much otherwise than you have always known me. I do not think anyone perceives me altered, but I have lost all self-confidence in my own actions, and one cause of my low spirits is that I never feel satisfied with anything I do—a perception of not being in a sane state perpetually haunts me. I am ashamed to confess this weakness to you; which, as I am so sensible of, I ought to strive to conquer. But I tell you, that you may excuse any part of my letter that has given offence; for your not answering it, when you are such a punctual correspondent, has made me very uneasy.

"Write immediately, my dear Sarah, but do not notice this letter, nor do not mention anything I said relative to your poor mother. Your handwriting will convince me you are friends with me; and if Charles, who must see my letter, was to know I had first written foolishly and then fretted about the event of my folly, he would both ways be angry with me.

"I would desire you to direct to me at home, but your hand is so well known to Charles that that would not do. Therefore, take no notice of my megrims till we meet, which I most ardently long to do. An hour spent in your company would be a cordial to my drooping heart.

"Write, I beg, by the return of post; and as I am very anxious to hear whether you are, as I fear, dissatisfied with me, you shall, if you please, direct my letter to nurse. I do not mean to continue a secret correspondence, but you must oblige me with this one letter. In future I will always show my letters before they go, which will be a proper check upon my wayward pen."

But it was upon her brother that the burthen lay heaviest. It was on his brain that the cruel image of the mother's death-scene was burnt in, and that the grief and loneliness consequent on Mary's ever recurring attacks pressed sorest.

"His anxiety for her health, even in his most convivial moments, was unceasing. If, in company, he perceived she looked languid, he would repeatedly ask her, 'Mary, does your head ache?' Don't you feel unwell? and would be satisfied by none of her gentle assurances that his fears were groundless. He was always fearful of her sensibilities being too deeply engaged and if, in her presence, any painful accident or history was discussed, he would turn the conversation with some desperate joke." Miss Betham related to Talfourd that, once when she was speaking to Miss Lamb of her brother and in her earnestness Mary had laid her hand kindly on the eulogist's shoulder, he came up hastily and interrupted them saying, 'Come, come, we must not talk sentimentally' and took up the conversation in his gayest strain.

The constant anxiety, the forebodings, the unremitting watchful scrutiny of his sister's state, produced a nervous tension and irritability that pervaded his whole life and manifested themselves in many different ways.

"When she discovers symptoms of approaching illness," he once wrote to Dorothy Wordsworth, "it is not easy to say what is best to do. Being by ourselves is bad, and going out is bad. I get so irritable and wretched with fear, that I constantly hasten on the disorder. You cannot conceive the misery of such a foresight. I am sure that for the week before she left me I was little better than light-headed. I now am calm, but sadly, taken down and flat." Well might he say, "my waking life has much of the confusion, the trouble and obscure perplexity of an ill dream." For he, too, had to wrestle in his own person with the same foe, the same hereditary tendency; though, after one overthrow of reason in his youth, he wrestled successfully. But the frequent allusions in his letters, especially in later years, to attacks of nervous fever, sleeplessness, and depression "black as a smith's beard, Vulcanic, Stygian" show how near to the brink he was sometimes dragged. "You do not know how sore and weak a brain I have, or you would allow for many things which you set down to whim," he wrote to Godwin. And again, when there had been some coolness between them: ". . . did the black Hypochondria never gripe thy heart till thou hast taken a friend for an enemy? The foul fiend, Flibbertigibbet leads me over four-inched bridges to course my own shadow for a traitor. . . ."

"Yet, nervous, tremulous as he seemed," writes Talfourd, 'so slight of frame that he looked only fit for the most placid fortune, when the dismal emergencies which chequered his life arose, he acted with as much promptitude and vigour as if he were strung with Herculean sinews.' 'Such fortitude in his manners, and such a ravage of suffering in his countenance did he display,' said Coleridge, 'as went to the hearts of his friends.' It was rather by the violence of the reaction that a keen observer might have estimated the extent of these sufferings; by that 'escape from the pressure of agony, into a fantastic,' sometimes almost a demoniac 'mirth which made Lamb a problem to strangers while it endeared him thousandfold to those who really knew him.'

The child of impulse ever to appear
And yet through duty's path strictly to steer,
O Lamb, thou art a mystery to me!
Thou art so prudent, and so mad with wildness—

wrote Charles Lloyd.

Sweet and strong must have been the nature upon which the crush of so severe a destiny produced no soreness, no bitterness, no violence but only the rebound of a wild fantastic gaiety. In his writings not only is there an entire absence of the morbid, the querulous, I can find but one expression that breathes of what his sombre experiences were. It is in that most masterly of all his criticisms (unless it be the one on Lear), the Genius and Character of Hogarth, where, in the sublime description of the Bedlam scene in the Rake's Progress, he tells of "the frightful, obstinate laugh of madness," In one apparent way only did the calamity which overshadowed his life, exert an influence on his genius. It turned him, as Talfourd finely suggests, "to seek a kindred interest in the sterner stuff of old tragedy—to catastrophes more fearful even than his own—to the aspects of pale passion, to shapes of heroic daring and more heroic suffering, to the agonising contests of opposing affections and the victories of the soul over calamity and death which the old English drama discloses, and in the contemplation of which he saw his own suffering nature at once mirrored and exalted." In short, no man ever stood more nobly the test of life-long affliction: 'a deep distress had harmonised his soul.'

Only on one point did the stress of his difficult lot find him vulnerable, one flaw bring to light—a tendency to counteract his depression and take the edge off his poignant anxieties by a too free use of stimulants. The manners of his day, the custom of producing wine and strong drinks on every possible occasion, bore hard on such a craving and fostered a man's weakness. But Lamb maintained to the end a good standing fight with the enemy and, if not wholly victorious, still less was he wholly defeated. So much on account of certain home anxieties to which Mary's letters to Sarah Stoddart make undisguised allusion.