Wednesday Review

I find describing The Lambs of London rather difficult. After the HUGE AND GINORMOUS happenings in The Passage - really how can you describe the rather small world and rather small happenings of The Lambs of London. Charles and Mary Lamb, siblings, live at home with their aged parents. Charles dreams of being a published author while Mary doesn't seem to dream of anything: she takes care of their father; she discusses Greek, Latin, novels, Shakespeare with her brother; and does her best to tolerate their overly-pious, strict mother.

That changes when Charles and Mary purchase a copy of Pandosto, a copy said to have once belonged to their much-beloved bard Shakespeare himself! This introduces into their lives one William Henry Ireland, son of the bookshop keeper Samuel Ireland. William also dreams of bigger things, of being immortalized for his writing, of pleasing his father. In the effort of the latter, Ireland begins finding and giving to his father pieces of Shakespeare: a signed deed, a lock of hair, a poem, and lastly a previously undiscovered play. However, Samuel Ireland also dreams - of no longer being a simple merchant but rising into the world, and, so, he gives these gifts over for public scrutiny and are judged (by some) as the real mccoy. The play is produced and performed by the greatest actors and actresses of the day.

However, at the same time, William has been interacting with the Lambs. Charles helps William to get published, and Mary begins to fall in love with him. And though it is definitely a matter of "he's just not that into you," through Shakespeare and William's discoveries, Mary and William form a bond that seems to awaken in her dreams of a life outside her home and away from her parents.

Based on several true stories, Ackroyd has taken the true lives of Charles and Mary Lamb and William Henry Ireland and mixed them together in the very real London of the 1790s and 1800s. Charles Lamb, in real life, became a great writer and he with his sister wrote Tales From Shakespeare - a book for children. Mary Lamb possibly suffered from bipolar disorder and eventually killed their mother and spent much of her later life in and out of an asylum. William Henry Ireland did indeed find many things Shakespearean including an undiscovered play that for a brief time WAS thought legit, but later it was discovered that he forged them all. Three very real people; however, Charles and Mary Lamb never (or at least most likely never) met William Henry Ireland.

Ultimately this was a very good book to read after The Passage. Like I said previously the scope is smaller, and the story much more simple. Most of the action takes place within a several block radius of the Lambs' home except for a couple of passages in which Ireland and his father travel to Shakespeare's home - which at the time is lived in by a descendent. Ackroyd gives us London as it was in great, yet simple, detail, and the characters are lovingly realized - Ackroyd makes them actual flesh and blood rather than shadows from history. There were a few issues: for example, I don't think there was a single interaction between Charles and Mary in which it isn't said that Charles "feared" for his sister, but overall I recommend the book and look to reading other pieces of his fiction. Mary, by far, was my favorite character - I loved watching her become almost startled into life.

Also Ackroyd opened my mind to other parts of the web that connect in this story. After reading The Lambs, I read Pandosto, a prose poem by Robert Greene, which is the basis for Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. I also checked out books on Charles and Mary Lamb, including one specifically on Mary Lamb and their book Tales From Shakespeare, which was published in 1807 and is one of two books from that era still being published today (the other is Swiss Family Robinson). I also plan to finally make a go of reading all of Shakespeare at some point in the near future.

The two quotes I give you are brief of sketches of both Charles and Mary Lamb (and Ackroyd's description of Charles getting drunk fits me to a T):

He considered it foolish to suppose that alcohol was a source of inspiration. He knew that it constrained his imagination, confining it to the layers of drunken perception. When he was drunk, he was oblivious to detail or perspective. Yet he welcomed, and actively sought, this state. It relieved him from fear and responsibility. But what did he fear? He feared his own failure. He feared his future. One of his school companions, Tobias Smith, had left Christ's Hospital without a post or vocation. He had lived with his mother for a while in Smithfield and, in the tavern or playhouse, seemed to be as gay and vivacious as ever. Yet he had declined. His clothes had become threadbare. When his mother died, he was thrown out of the shared lodgings. He seemed to disappear. But then, three weeks ago, Charles had seen him begging on the corner of Coleman Street. He passed him without showing any sign of recognition. He had been afraid. So now he drank the curaçao.

He savoured the sensations of slipping into drunkenness. He could not recall his state of infancy, but he guessed that it must have been something like this - this blissful reception of circumstance, this happy acceptance of everything in the world. He went up to the counter and ordered another glass. He sensed his need to talk even as he asked the landlord a question about that evening's customers. He wanted to divulge news about himself; he wanted to laugh out loud at someone else's wit.

"This one will be the last, Mr. Lamb."

"Of course. Yes."

And then he found himself sprawled upon his bed, fully dressed. He could recall nothing from the night before. He had images of giant shadows in turmoil. of an outstretched arm, of a whispered word...." (23-4)

In fact Mary had helped her brother to mount the stairs, and had guided him towards his bedroom. She held his arm gently, and savoured the vinous scent of his breath mixed with the faintest odor of sweat on his neck and forehead. She enjoyed the sensation of his physical closeness, which in the past she had lost. He had been a boarder at Christ's Hospital, and his departure at the beginning of each term provoked in her the strangest mixture of anger and loneliness. He was going to a world of companionship and learning, while she was left in the company of her mother and of Tizzy. this was the period when, her household tasks complete, she began to study. Her bedroom had been set up in a little back room on the attic floor. Here she kept the school-books which Charles had lent her - among them a Latin grammer, a Greek lexicon, Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary and a copy of Don Quixote. She tried to keep pace with her brother but often found, on his return, that she had over-reached him. She had begun to read and to translate the fourth book of the Aeneid, concerning the love between Dido and Aeneas, before he had even mastered the speeches of Cicero. She had said to him, "At regina gravi iamdudum saucia cura"; but he had burst out laughing. "Whatever do you mean, dear?"

"It is Virgil, Charles. Dido is sorrowful." (11)


Steven Anthony said…
always love your reviews ;)

Steven Anthony
Man Dish~Metro Style
Writer said…
Thank you, Steven. That means a lot to me. :)

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