Charles Lamb (1775 - 1834) was an accomplished writer and essayist, best remembered for 'Tales from Shakespeare', a rewriting of the plays which made them more accessible for children. He wrote them with his sister, Mary (1764 - 1834), he, the tragedies, she, the comedies.
Charles Lamb was born on 10th February 1775 in Inner Temple, London. Lamb was the youngest child of Elizabeth Field and John Lamb. He had six other siblings including an older sister, Mary. Lamb was also cared for by his paternal aunt Hetty, who seems to have had a particular fondness for him.
Little is known about Charles’s life before the age of seven. It is known that Mary taught him to read at a very early age and he read voraciously. E.V. Lucas suggests that sometime in 1781 he began to study at the Academy of William Bird. His time at William Bird did not last long, however, because by October 1782 Lamb was enrolled in Christ’s Hospital, a charity boarding school chartered by King Edward VI in 1552. Christ’s Hospital was a traditional English boarding school; bleak and full of violence. At Christ’s Hospital he became friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and they developed a friendship that lasted their entire lives.
When he was twenty years old Lamb suffered a brief period of insanity. His sister, Mary Ann Lamb, had far worse problems and in 1796 murdered her mother in a fit of madness. Mary was confined to an asylum but was eventually released into the care of her brother. Despite Lamb’s bouts of melancholia and alcoholism, both he and his sister enjoyed an active and rich social life. Their London quarters became a kind of weekly salon for many of the most outstanding theatrical and literary figures of the day.
In 1807, Tales from Shakespeare (Charles handled the tragedies; his sister Mary, the comedies) was published, and became a best seller for William Godwin’s “Children’s Library.” In 1819, at age 44, Lamb, who, because of family commitments, had never married, fell in love with an actress, Fanny Kelly, of Covent Garden, and proposed marriage. She refused him, and he died a bachelor in 1834.
Mary Ann Lamb was born on 3rd December 1764 sister and collaborator of Charles Lamb. In 1807, Mary collaborated with Charles on a children’s book, Tales from Shakespeare, and they produced other popular works for children in later years. On her own, Mary Lamb published an epistolary work, Mrs Leicester’s School, which the poet Samuel Coleridge believed would and should be “acknowledged as a rich jewel in the treasury of our permanent English literature.” It is with this book, concerning the tales of a variety of motherless and orphaned girls that Mary Lamb seemed to deal with the personal themes of grief and guilt. Though her solo turn, critically acclaimed at the time, has not outlived its era, Tales from Shakespeare continues to be in print. It was first published by William Godwin (Mary Wollstonecraft’s widower) and his second wife Mary Jane Godwin. Mary continued to suffer bouts of mental illness throughout her life. Notwithstanding these dramatic interruptions, Mary, along with her brother, was at the centre of an ongoing artist’s salon in London, entertaining many theatrical and literary luminaries of the day. Among other notables, Coleridge praised her for the sensibility and empathy that characterized extended periods in which she was free of the symptoms of the bipolar disorder that she battled, often valiantly. Although contemporaries had predicted that Mary would be the first to die, it was Charles who succumbed to complications of an infected wound in 1834. On her death, she was buried next to her brother in the Edmonton Churchyard in Middlesex.