15) "The Lambs of London" by Peter Ackroyd

My grandparents started taking me to see Shakespeare on stage when I was 6. It was a production of "Much Ado About Nothing" in the Regent's Park outdoor theatre in London, and the play was not lacking in some dark subject matter from a six-year-old's point of view. Fittingly I remember only two things about it (the light and the dark): that Beatrice came speeding onstage on a bicycle at the play's beginning (it had an Edwardian setting), and the long torchlight procession to Hero's "tomb" midway through the play. Pretty good recall for a wee tot, eh? It obviously made a big impression. Two years later, they took me to a production of "Comedy of Errors" and I was so enthralled I demanded to see it a second time. I remember it more vividly than almost any other play I have ever seen.

In the years that followed, my grandmother was firm in her insistence that I would get a great deal more out of the plays if I read them first, or (barring that) read the account of the plot in the edition of "Lambs' Tales" that always graced their shelves. "Tales from Shakespeare" was a summary of Shakespeare's stories written for children by Charles and Mary Lamb at the start of the 19th century. Apparently they divided their efforts along the lines of genre, Charles devoting himself to the tragedies, Mary to the comedies. Now that I have read Peter Ackroyd's fictionalized account of the siblings' private lives, I have to wonder whether the idea was that the turbid family dramas of the tragedies would be too much for Mary's strained psyche. But this surely underestimates the incredible violence that underlies the wit of plays like "The Winter's Tale" and "Measure for Measure." Not to mention the fact that Mary was apparently responsible (oddly) for covering "Romeo and Juliet."

Ackroyd's novel (which - hurrah! - is on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list) takes as its subject the Lamb siblings' relationship with William Ireland, a bookseller's son who comes forward with a series of astonishing unknown manuscripts of Shakespeare's. Ireland has ambitions to become a writer and scholar like Charles, who is himself wallowing in disappointment that his intellectual pursuits have failed to lift him out of the drudgery of a clerk's life. Mary, constantly under the eye of a highly critical mother and preferring the company of her increasingly senile father, allows herself to be drawn into the romance of Ireland's cult of the Bard. She is desperately frustrated by the lack of an outlet for her keen mental abilities and emotional energies. These situations come to a boil remarkably quickly, finally burbling over in a shocking moment of violence.

Let's say no more about that: Thar Be Spoilers. The book itself felt surprisingly slight, like it needed several more strands of plot or characterization to form a tapestry large enough to be a novel. The strands there were, without others to act as counterpoints, seemed conventional and unsurprising: the unfulfilled 19th century woman, the intellectually smothered clerk, the manuscript mystery. The loveliest and most interesting moments, I thought, dealt all too briefly with Mary and Charles's serenely nonsensical father. Their mother treats his utterances as almost oracular commentaries on whatever situation is in front of them. Mary, by contrast, enjoys a facet of his conversation that might later be characterized as Dada; talking to her father, she says at one point, is like having a conversation with language itself, in its purest form.

A quick and enjoyable read, but not as convention-shaking as I had hoped it would be.

The Lambs of London(2004)
Peter Ackroyd
March 12, 2008