Mary Lamb (Gilchrist 1883)/Chapter 8

Mary Lamb  (1883)  by Anne Gilchrist
Chapter VIII.


The Tales from Shakespeare.—Letters to Sarah Stoddart.

1806.—Æt. 42.

Once begun, the Tales from Shakespeare were worked at with spirit and rapidity. By May 10th Charles writes to Manning:—

"[Mary] says you saw her writings about the other day, and she wishes you should know what they are. She is doing for Godwin's bookseller twenty of Shakespeare's plays, to be made into children's tales. Six are already done by her; to wit, The Tempest, A Winter's Tale, Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado about Nothing, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Cymbeline. The Merchant of Venice is in forwardness. I have done Othello and Macbeth, and mean to do all the tragedies. I think it will be popular among the little people, besides money. It is to bring in sixty guineas. Mary has done them capitally I think you'd think."

"Godwin's bookseller" was really Godwin himself, who at his wife's urgent entreaty had just started a "Magazine" of children's books in Hanway Street, hoping thus to add to his precarious earnings as an author. His own name was in such ill odour with the orthodox that he used his foreman's—Thomas Hodgkins—over the shop door and on the title pages, whilst the juvenile books which he himself wrote were published under the name of Baldwin. When the business was removed to Skinner Street it was carried on in his wife's name.

"My tales are to be published in separate storybooks," Mary tells Sarah Stoddart. "I mean in single stories, like the children's little shilling books. I cannot send you them in manuscript, because they are all in the Godwins' hands; but one will be published very soon, and then you shall have it all in print. I go on very well, and have no doubt but I shall always be able to hit upon some such kind of job to keep going on. I think I shall get fifty pounds a year at the lowest calculation; but as I have not yet seen any money of my own earning, for we do not expect to be paid till Christmas, I do not feel the good fortune that has so unexpectedly befallen me half so much as I ought to do. But another year no doubt I shall perceive it. . . . Charles has written Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and has begun Hamlet; you would like to see us, as we often sit writing on one table (but not on one cushion sitting), like Hermia and Helena in the Midsummer Night's Dream or rather, like an old literary Darby and Joan, I taking snuff and he groaning all the while and saying he can make nothing of it, which he always says till he has finished, and then he finds out he has made something of it.

"If I tell you that you Widow Blackacre-ise you must tell me I Tale-ise, for my Tales seem to be all the subject matter I write about; and when you see them you will think them poor little baby-stories to make such a talk about."

And a month later she says:—"The reason I have not written so long is that I worked and worked in hopes to get through my task before the holidays began; but at last I was not able, for Charles was forced to get them now, or he could not have had any at all; and having picked out the best stories first these latter ones take more time, being more perplext and unmanageable. I have finished one to-day, which teazed me more than all the rest put together. They sometimes plague me as bad as your lovers do you. How do you go on, and how many new ones have you had lately?"

"Mary is just stuck fast in All's Well that Ends Well" writes Charles. "She complains of having to set forth so many female characters in boys' clothes. She begins to think Shakespeare must have wanted imagination! I, to encourage her (for she often faints in the prosecution of her great work), flatter her with telling how well such and such a play is done. But she is stuck fast, and I have been obliged to promise to assist her."

At last Mary, in a postscript to her letter to Sarah, adds: "I am in good spirits just at this present time, for Charles has been reading over the Tale I told you plagued me so much, and he thinks it one of the very best. You must not mind the many wretchedly dull letters I have sent you; for, indeed, I cannot help it; my mind is always so wretchedly dry after poring over my work all day. But it will soon be over. I am cooking a shoulder of lamb (Hazlitt dines with us), it will be ready at 2 o'clock if you can pop in and eat a bit with us."

Mary took a very modest estimate of her own achievement; but time has tested it, and passed it on to generation after generation of children, and the last makes it as welcome as the first. Hardly a year passes but a new edition is absorbed; and not by children only, but by the young generally, for no better introduction to the study of Shakspeare can be desired. Of the twenty plays included in the two small volumes which were issued in January 1807, fourteen, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, A Winter's Tale, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline, All's Well that Ends Well, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre, were by Mary; and the remaining six, the great tragedies, by Charles. Her share was the more difficult and the less grateful, not only on account of the more "perplext and unmanageable plots of the comedies, but also of the sacrifices entailed in converting witty dialogue into brief narrative. But she "constantly evinces a rare shrewdness and tact in her incidental criticisms, which show her to have been, in her way, as keen an observer of human nature as her brother," says Mr. Ainger in his preface to the Golden Treasury edition of the Tales. "She" had "not lived so much among the wits and humorists of her day without learning some truths which helped her to interpret the two chief characters of Much Ado about Nothing; for instance: 'The hint Beatrice gave Benedict that he was a coward, by saying she would eat all he had killed, he did not regard, knowing himself to be a brave man; but there is nothing that great wits so much dread as the imputation of buffoonery, because the charge comes sometimes a little too near the truth; therefore Benedict perfectly hated Beatrice when she called him the prince's jester.' Very profound, too, is the casual remark upon the conduct of Claudio and his friends when the character of Hero is suddenly blasted conduct which has often perplexed older readers for its heartlessness and insane credulity: The Prince and Claudio left the church without staying to see if Hero would recover, or at all regarding the distress into which they had thrown Leonato, so hard-hearted had their anger made them."

If one must hunt for a flaw to show critical discernment, it is a pity that in Pericles, otherwise so successfully handled, with judicious ignoring of what is manifestly not Shakespeare's, a beautiful passage is marred by the omission of a word that is the very heart of the simile:—

See how she 'gins to blow into life's flower again,

says Cerimon, as the seemingly dead Thaisa revives. "See, she begins to blow into life again," Mary has it.

The Tales appeared first in eight sixpenny numbers; but were soon collected in two small volumes "embellished," or, as it turned out, disfigured by twenty copper-plate illustrations, of which as of other attendant vexations Lamb complains in a letter to Wordsworth, dated Jan. 29, 1807:—

"We have booked off from the 'Swan and Two Necks,' Lad Lane, this day (per coach), the Tales from Shakespeare. You will forgive the plates, when I tell you they were left to the direction of Godwin, who left the choice of subjects to the bad baby [Mrs. Godwin], who from mischief (I suppose) has chosen one from d——d beastly vulgarity (vide Merch. Venice), when no atom of authority was in the tale to justify it; to another has given a name which exists not in the tale, Nic Bottom, and which she thought would be funny, though in this I suspect his hand, for I guess her reading does not reach far enough to know Bottom's Christian name; and one of Hamlet and grave-digging, a scene which is not hinted at in the story, and you might as well have put King Canute the Great reproving his courtiers. The rest are giants and giantesses. Suffice it to save our taste and damn our folly, that we left all to a friend, W. G. who, in the first place, cheated me by putting a name to them which I did not mean, but do not repent, and then wrote a puff about their simplicity, &c. to go with the advertisement as in my name! Enough of this egregious dupery. I will try to abstract the load of teazing circumstances from the stories, and tell you that I am answerable for Lear, Macbeth, Timon, Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, for occasionally a tail-piece or correction of grammar, for none of the cuts and all of the spelling. The rest is my sister's. We think Pericles of hers the best, and Othello of mine; but I hope all have some good. As You Like It, we like least. So much, only begging you to tear out the cuts and give them to Johnny as 'Mrs. Godwin's fancy'!!"

"I had almost forgot, my part of the Preface begins in the middle of a sentence, in last but one page, after a colon, thus—

:—which if they be happily so done, &c.

The former part hath a more feminine turn, and does hold me up something as an instructor to young ladies; but upon my modesty's honour I wrote it not.

"Godwin told my sister that the 'Baby' chose the subjects: a fact in taste."

Mary's preface sets forth her aim and her difficulties with characteristic good sense and simplicity. I have marked with a bracket the point at which, quite tired and out of breath, as it were, at the end of her labours, she put the pen into her brother's hand that he might finish with a few decisive touches what remained to be said of their joint undertaking:—


The following Tales are meant to be submitted to the young reader as an introduction to the study of Shakspeare, for which purpose his words are used whenever it seemed possible to bring them in; and in whatever has been added to give them the regular form of a connected story, diligent care has been taken to select such words as might least interrupt the effect of the beautiful English tongue in which he wrote; therefore, words introduced into our language since his time have been as far as possible avoided.

In those Tales which have been taken from the Tragedies, as my young readers will perceive when they come to see the source from which these stories are derived, Shakespeare's own words, with little alteration, recur very frequently in the narrative as well as in the dialogue; but in those made from the Comedies I found myself scarcely ever able to turn his words into the narrative form; therefore I fear in them I have made use of dialogue too frequently for young people not used to the dramatic form of writing. But this fault—if it be, as I fear, a fault—has been caused by my earnest wish to give as much of Shakespeare's own words as possible; and if the "He said" and "She said," the question and the reply, should sometimes seem tedious to their young ears, they must pardon it, because it was the only way I knew of in which I could give them a few hints and little foretastes of the great pleasure which awaits them in their elder years, when they come to the rich treasures from which these small and valueless coins are extracted, pretending to no other merit than as faint and imperfect stamps of Shakespeare's matchless image. Faint and imperfect images they must be called, because the beauty of his language is too frequently destroyed by the necessity of changing many of his excellent words into words far less expressive of his true sense, to make it read something like prose; and even in some few places where his blank-verse is given unaltered, as hoping from its simple plainness to cheat the young readers into the belief that they are reading prose, yet still, his language being transplanted from its own natural soil and wild poetic garden, it must want much of its native beauty.

I have wished to make these tales easy reading for very young children. To the utmost of my ability I have constantly kept this in my mind; but the subjects of most of them made this a very difficult task. It was no easy matter to give the histories of men and women in terms familiar to the apprehension of a very young mind. For young ladies, too, it has been my intention chiefly to write, because boys are generally permitted the use of their fathers' libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently having the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book; and therefore, instead of recommending these Tales to the perusal of young gentlemen who can read them so much better in the originals, I must rather beg their kind assistance in explaining to their sisters such parts as are hardest for them to understand; and when they have helped them to get over the difficulties, then perhaps they will read to them—carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister's ear—some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories, in the very words of the scene from which it is taken. And I trust they will find that the beautiful extracts, the select passages, they may choose to give their sisters in this way will be much better relished and understood from their having some notion of the general story from one of these imperfect abridgments, [which, if they be fortunately so done as to prove delightful to any of you, my young readers, I hope will have no worse effect upon you than to make you wish yourselves a little older, that you may be allowed to read the Plays at full length: such a wish will be neither peevish nor irrational. When time and leave of judicious friends shall put them into your hands, you will discover in such of them as are here abridged—not to mention almost as many more which are left untouched—many surprising events and turns of fortune, which for their infinite variety could not be contained in this little book, besides a world of sprightly and cheerful characters, both men and women, the humour of which I was fearful of losing if I attempted to reduce the length of them.

What these Tales have been to you in childhood, that and much more it is my wish that the true Plays of Shakespeare may prove to you in older years—enrichers of the fancy, strengthened of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable thoughts and actions, to teach you courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity; for of examples teaching these virtues, his pages are full.

If the "bad baby" chose the subjects, a stripling who was afterwards to make his mark in art executed them; a young Irishman, son of a leather-breeches maker, Mulready by name, whom Godwin and also Harris, Newberry's successor, were at this time endeavouring to help in his twofold struggle to earn a livelihood and obtain some training in art (which he did chiefly in the studio of Banks the sculptor). Some of his early illustrations to the rhymed satirical fables just then in vogue, such as The Butterfly's Ball and the Peacock at Home, show humour as well as decisive artistic promise. But the young designer seems to have collapsed altogether under the weight of Shakespeare's creations; and whoever looks at the goggle-eyed ogre of the pantomime species called Othello, as well as at the plates Lamb specifies, will not wonder at his disgust. Curiously enough they have been attributed to Blake; those in the edition of 1822, that is, which are identical with those of 1807 and 1816; and as such figure in booksellers' catalogues, with a correspondingly high price attached to the volumes, notwithstanding the testimony to the contrary of Mr. Sheepshanks, given in Stephen's Masterpieces of Mulready. Engraved by Blake they may have been, and hence may have here and there traces of Blake-like feeling and character; for though he was fifty at the time these were executed, he still and always had to win his bread more often by rendering with his graver the immature or brainless conceptions of others, than by realising those of his own teeming and powerful imagination.

The success of the Tales was decisive and immediate. New editions were called for in 1810, 1816, and 1822; but in concession, no doubt, to Lamb's earnest remonstrances, only a certain portion of each contained the obnoxious plates; the rest were issued with "merely a beautiful head of our immortal dramatist from a much-admired painting by Zoust," as Godwin's advertisement put it. Subsequently an edition, with designs by Harvey, remained long in favour, and was reprinted many times. In 1837, Robert, brother of the more famous George Cruickshank, illustrated the book, and there was prefixed a memoir of Lamb by J. W. Dalby, a friend of Leigh Hunt and contributor to the London Journal. The Golden Treasury edition, already spoken of, has a dainty little frontispiece by Du Maurier, with which Lamb would certainly have found no fault.

No sooner were the Tales out of hand than Mary began a fresh task, as Charles tells Manning in a letter written at the end of the year (1806), wherein also is a glimpse of our friend Mr. Dawe not to be here omitted: "Mr. Dawe is turned author; he has been in such a way lately—Dawe the painter, I mean—he sits and stands about at Holcroft's and says nothing; then sighs and leans his head on his hand. I took him to be in love; but it seems he was only meditating a work, The Life of Morland. The young man is not used to composition."