When I first realised this book concerned fictionalised versions of Charles and Mary Lamb, writers of 'Shakespeare for Children' in the late eighteenth / early nineteenth century, I was intrigued. Other reviewers have attempted to unravel historical fact from the invented narrative, so I will focus mainly on the novel's effect on me as a work of fiction. I must admit I was disappointed.
This is a novel of fakes and false appearances. However, this theme appears to have pervaded every aspect of the writing. The characters felt very much like cardboard cutouts being moved around an artfully decorated stage.
Charles and Mary Lamb live with their parents - their father senile with alzheimer's, and their mildly annoying mother, whose chief sin seems to be that she nags her children and treats her husband as an infant. Mary is in delicate physical and mental health following her recovery from smallpox, yet since her mother refuses to hire another servant, the brunt of domestic life falls on her shoulders (though we never see her cooking, cleaning, shopping or anything else in this line). She is sensitive and intellectual and longs for the companionship and esteem of her brother. He, in turn, dreams of a shining future as a writer, drowning his disenchantment with his mundane job in alcohol while discussing literature with his workmates at various local drinking establishments. When he returns home 'sozzled', it is Mary who removes his boots and tucks him into bed. Mary is in fact the better scholar of the two, but Charles makes light of her achievements: "He laughed again, and ruffled her hair. She tried to smile but then lowered her head; she felt vain and foolish."
There is a strong feminist subtext in Mary's story, beginning with the association between her and the moon (symbolic of her slide into lunacy) which is drawn in the first paragraph:
"There was no one in the drawing-room with her, so she put her face upwards, towards the sun. Her skin was marked by the scars of smallpox, suffered by her six years before; so she held her face to the light, and imagined it to be the pitted moon."
However, this much more interesting story exists in potential only, for Ackroyd conjures it only superficially as part of the larger narrative. Mary herself is constantly pushed into the background whenever she tries to emerge - by the author as much as by the other characters.
Along comes William Ireland, who excites Mary with his discovery of lost Shakespearean texts and artifacts. She is flattered by his attention and confidences, and cherishes romantic feelings towards him, but is ultimately destroyed (we assume) by his lukewarm dalliance and betrayal of her trust. When Mary overhears him confessing to his father that he forged the Shakespearean texts she so ardently supported on his behalf, Mary's heart is broken. She goes home and stabs her mother to death. There is a court case, Mary is committed to a private asylum for the insane, and Charles cares for her until she dies suddenly (while watching him perform a snippet of A Midsummer Night's Dream for her amusement).
Ireland, apparently, created the forgeries 'because he could' and to impress his father, who is obsessed with all things Shakespearean. His 'art for art's sake' motivation comes into conflict with his father's profit motive. He appears to have bothered with Mary purely in order to enlist her brother's help in authenticating the fakes, having been an eager eavesdropper on Charles' drunken literary conversations.
Ackroyd's recreation of Shakespearean poetry is quite well done and believable, as is the Georgian setting. There are lots of little historical details which give a nice background to the story. Overall, however, I found it unsatisfying. The idolatry of Shakespeare feels overdone and unjustified - perhaps more 'readings' from the bard himself might have helped?
One reviewer has called the novel: "an irreverent romp, a somewhat bawdy journey through 1790s London, thrusting the reader into the stuffy world of antiquarian literature and the people who think so highly of it." (Michael Leonard, The Lambs of London, Curledup.com) As far as I am concerned, the 'bawdy' details were thrown in for purely gratuitous effect and stuck out like sore thumbs. There were only two such scenes - in the first, 17 year old William Ireland loses his virginity to a prostitute while riding on the roof of a public carriage, with his father seated inside. This was mildly amusing, but I looked in vain for the comedic aspects of this scene to appear elsewhere in the novel! The other involves an authorial aside giving details of the pederastic abuse of a young Carribean boy by two intellectual doctors. Neither of these two scenes (or characters) are ever referred to again and they seem to exist as vignettes, simply to give a 'flavour' to the age.
My favourite character in the novel was Mr Lamb, whose non-sequiter ramblings seemed more warmly human than almost anything else that was going on:
When her mother had left the room, Mary sat down beside him on the faded green divan. ‘Did you sing at the service, Pa?’
‘The minister was mistaken.’
‘On what matter?’
‘There are no rabbits in Worcestershire.’
‘Are there not?’
‘No, nor muffins neither.’
Mrs Lamb professed to believe that there was some wisdom in her husband’s ramblings, but Mary knew that there was none. Yet he interested her more now than he had ever done; she was intrigued by the strange and random phrases that issued from him. It was as if language was talking to itself.
‘Are you cold, Pa?’
‘Just an error in the accounts.’
‘Do you suppose?’
‘A red letter day.’
My overall impression was that the novel skipped around from scene to scene without really stopping to explore its themes in detail. I would agree wholeheartedly with the reviewer from The Age, who said:
"The character of Mrs Lamb is even more sketchily drawn. We only really glimpse the inexplicable contempt of her children towards her, their desire to keep her at arm's length. As a consequence Mary appears highly strung and Charles charmless.
Ackroyd opens with his standard disclaimer. "This is not a biography but a work of fiction. I have invented characters and changed the life of the Lamb family for the sake of the larger narrative." Given Mary Lamb's historical notoriety the larger narrative might have benefited from a little more attention to the life of the Lambs and a little less to the well-chewed mutton of the literary fake." (Micheal Williams, The Lambs of London, The Age)
I must say that I think a historically accurate biography of the Lambs would be more interesting. After all, Mary did actually murder her mother with the carving knife, and Charles did look after her, but she survived him by many many years - and neither of them ever knew William Ireland... (Murder by carving knife, Telegraph.co.uk)