Beginning a literary education with a murderess

A few years ago, I recorded a book about forming literary taste by Arnold Bennett. He suggested you could start anywhere when wading into the sea of English literature, but, if you had no other favourite, a poem by Charles Lamb called “Dream Children” was a good launching point. His idea was that once you knew Lamb well, you would be drawn to the other authors in Lamb’s circle. From there, you would roam up and down the history of writing in English.

A thing that’s curious is that Bennett did not think female authors had produced much of worth, but, this is in part because they were hidden. In the case of Lamb, for example, Bennett was apparently unaware that half of the book which has outlasted all the others, Tales From Shakespeare, was written by Mary Lamb. Bennett mentions her briefly as Lamb’s loving, murderous, sister.

After that particular intriguing throwaway line, Bennett says nothing more of Mary Lamb, not even her name. This oversight can be corrected, however, by reading the book I’m going through at the moment The devil kissed her by Kathy Watson. Watson discusses what drove Lamb to lunacy and matricide, and how, after a period of convalescence she became, along with her brother, the lynchpins of a literary circle in London filled with authors of particular merit.

Mary’s life is a strange personal journey. Can stabbing your mother to death be a feminist act? It’s significant because although she did not, so far as I can tell, consider herself politically in that way, her writing was concentrated on the needs of girls who were kept away from their fathers’ books in a way that their sons were not. How can you be the writer of some of the best-loved children’s comedies, and be the same person who drove a kitchen knife into the chest of a helpless invalid? Is a person defined in their sickest and weakest moment? Is a writer really a person at all, to the reader, or are they too a character, in a sort of meta-narrative? In a biography, are you again concentrating a person down to a series of momentous actions, like a character in an opera, or a kabuki?

This is a difficult and rewarding book. I enjoyed more that the story of Mary’s life: I thought it was brilliant that it muddles the relationship of Mary the person with Mary the character in the history of English literature. Some of that I may be reading in, myself, but all readers bring something to their books, and so I don’t feel hesitant in recommending it for those who love biographies, or who are interested in English literature and the characters who created it.