Though Ackroyd dwells far less than I would have expected on the sad circumstances of the Lambs' shared life, he does give clear pictures of both Charles's alcoholism--
He had a strange relationship with his drunken self; he considered him to be an unhappy and unfortunate acquaintance to whom he had become accustomed. He would neither defend him nor apologise for him. He would merely recognise his existence.--and Mary's bouts of insanity. Without overdoing things, Ackroyd suggests that Mary's troubles, if not caused by the cramped life forced on her by Georgian propriety, were at the very least exacerbated by it: while Charles spends his evenings out with friends, Mary stays at home, awaiting the talks they'll have on his return. When she does leave the house, it takes courage; she "decides to venture" into their street. She has barely been out of their neighborhood; a trip across the Thames affords her "a rare moment of discovery." When Charles challenges her about having been out one evening, she whirls on him,
"When you see me in this house I am sleep-walking. I have no real--no genuine--life here at all. Why do you think I long for you to come home each evening? When you are not wretchedly drunk, of course. . . . Whom do I see? Whom do I talk to? Whose propriety is it that I should be pressed to death? Whose convention is it that I am already lying in the family grave?"By contrast, Charles's life as a young cleark for the East India Company is full of company, wit, charm, and sociability; his companions are sketched quickly but convincingly, my favorite being Alfred Jowett, who was
practical, hard-headed and a little mercenary. He divided his salary by the length of the working year, and had calculated that he earned five pence and three farthings every working hour. He had a written table inside his desk and, whenever he managed to idle away one of those hours, he added that sum to his running profit.When comparing the lives and ambits of the siblings, it is hard not to think of the James family, of Alice stuck at home while her brothers escaped; in the century that separated them from the Lambs, the situation had improved, but not nearly enough.
Unexpectedly, though Ackroyd centers the story on the tragedy of the Lambs--when Mary, in a fit, killed her mother--he drives his plot with a story of forgery, introducing a young bookseller named William Henry Ireland, who briefly wowed literary England with the slowly doled out discovery of a cache of Shakespeare's papers, including, ultimately, a whole lost play, Vortigern. When his deception is finally undone, he apologetically explains,
I acted out of innocent delight and sheer intoxication with my gifts.--while his success, however temporary, was rooted in a similar delight: people wanted to believe in the forgeries, wanted to believe that they had not seen the last of Shakespeare.
All of which reminded me of a passage from an interview of D. Graham Burnett conducted with historian Anthony Grafton in the Spring 2009 issue of Cabinet. Speaking of forgery, Grafton says,
[I]n many cases it was the forgers who took on the most ambitious projects of historical recovery. They were the ones who were trying to make the past live again, to animate, to resurrect the lost worlds. They had to steep themselves in these worlds enough that they could actually inhabit them creatively. . . . [I]n many cases there is a sense that these sorts of forgeries are not an effort to falsify the past, but in fact to rescue it. The truly passionate historical forger of the Renaissance was often saying something like, "I really know what was going on back then. I know how this tradition in antiquity worked. I know what the record ought to show, and if it's not there in our crappy manuscripts, well then, dammit, I'm going to put it there!"And what else is a historical novelist doing but that? History may not have retained any extended account of Charles Lamb's table talk, or of his quiet tenderness towards his sister, or her private worries, but we have Peter Ackroyd, master forger, to fill in the gaps.