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Peter Ackroyd: The Lambs of London
Though the title shows that this book is about Charles Lamb and his sister, Mary, it is as much about William Henry Ireland as it is about the Lambs, with cameo appearances from Thomas de Quincey, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Charles Kemble and his sister, Sarah Siddons. Ackroyd, as he admits in the preface, plays fast and loose with history. While there is considerable evidence that de Quincey was friends with the Lambs, there is scant evidence that they were acquainted with Ireland. But, as Ackroyd rightly points out, this is a novel and not a work of history.
Mary and Charles live with their parents. Their father is going senile, while their mother rules the house, with Mary and the servant, Tizzy, helping with the work. Charles works for the East India Company but has ambitions to be a writer and has published a few essays. Ireland is a young man of seventeen. He works in the bookshop of his father, Samuel. As well as being about forgery, this book is about parent-children relationships. William is a young man who wants to prove himself to his father but his father clearly sees him as a child. Ackroyd cheats with us by having William getting to know a widow who asks William to look over papers her husband has left behind. When he finds a deed to a house that the widow was unaware of, she is happy to let him peruse all the papers and take what he wants. As we later learn and as we know historically, this woman is a complete invention. William finds among the papers various items associated with Shakespeare – a bill of sale, a testament, a seal, an unknown sonnet, a bowdlerized text of King Lear in Shakespeare’s hand and, finally, a play.
As this gradually happens, Samuel is able to get the finds authenticated by Edmond Malone (who, historically, did not authenticate them). Meanwhile he becomes friends with the Lambs. Charles Lamb helps him get an article about the sonnet he finds published and he becomes particularly friendly with Mary, though both are at pains to point out that there is no romantic interest. Ackroyd continues to cheat with us, giving us scant clues that the finds are forgeries, till Samuel Ireland and his wife (not William’s mother) start wondering why William spends so much time locked in his room, with the fire burning in summer. It is only after the new play, Vortigern, is performed that questions are asked. No-one – Sheridan, Kemble, Malone – had questioned its authenticity before the performance but, suddenly (and, for me, unconvincingly) all are unconvinced that it is the genuine article. William confesses all to his father and burns all the finds. The book ends with Mary Lamb killing her mother in a fit of madness (brought on, according to Ackroyd, by the discovery of Ireland’s confession) and being confined first to a lunatic asylum and then to her brother’s care. Ackroyd plays once more with history at the end, having her predecease her brother when, in fact, she survived him by thirteen years. As always, Ackroyd tells a good tale, even if not always unconvincing, but bear in mind that it is not historically accurate.
First published 2004 by Chatto & Windus