Thursday, 2 February 2017

A Book for Young Children and Ladies - Yes, Even Women Could Understand Shakespeare!

Shakespeare for Little Children
and Ladies.
Image by Wikimedia

Essayist, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) had an engaging and gentle personality as well as a terrible stammer. He met the poet, Coleridge, while attending school in Fetter Lane, London, a friendship that lasted a lifetime. He was close to his sister Mary, although both siblings suffered debilitating bouts of mental instability. This did not damage their relationship even though Mary's condition was so serious that she murdered their mother in a fit of derangement.

Charles and Mary Lamb wrote a book Tales from Shakespeare, which was published by William Godwin, father-in-law of Shelley, in 1807, as part of a Juvenile Library. In the introduction, Lamb, who was 32 years old at the time, writes:

"It has been wished to make these Tales easy reading for very young children... For young ladies too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys being generally permitted the use of their father's libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book."

Even young women can understand Shakespeare
So, it appears, the envisaged readership of Lamb's book, with its intention of narrating the plot-lines of Shakespeare's "manly" prose, was for children and young women. 

Was Lamb being patronising about the abilities and intelligence of female readers? Even today, due to the brilliant but archaic language and complex sentence structure of Shakespearean prose, the bard can be notoriously difficult to follow for modern readers of either gender without expert guidance - and guidance was a benefit mostly denied to girls and women in the 19th century. Here, Lamb is merely reflecting society as it was in his time. If his perception seems quaint and outmoded to us, that is hardly Lamb's fault.

The fact is, girls and young women did not have access to learning in the ways that boys did, although some may have benefited from the goodwill of male relatives for any education they managed to acquire. Lamb is well aware of this dependency, and he continues: "...instead of recommending these Tales to the perusal of young gentlemen, who can read them so much better in the originals, their kind assistance is rather requested in explaining to their sisters such arts as are hardest for them to understand; and when they have helped them to get over the difficulties, then perhaps they will read to them (carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister's ear) some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories."

Brother and sister divided the work of telling Shakespeare's plot-lines between them, Lamb taking on the more serious (and manly) tragedies while Mary, ten years Charles’ senior, wrote the comedies. Sub-plots were not included, in order to provide an easy, understandable flow through the main plot of the narrative. Even though the book was written over 200 years ago, its prose is still easy-to-read, lively and entertaining.

The Lambs: poverty, tragedy and illuminating literature
Charles Lamb was denied the opportunity of an academic education and had to make do with elementary schooling. The Lambs lived in poverty and on the death in 1792 of barrister, Samuel Salt, John Lamb’s employer, the family lived on the money Charles made as an office clerk and Mary’s earnings from needlework. 

In 1795/96, Charles Lamb had a fit of temporary insanity and was confined for several weeks. In September 1796, Mary, exhausted from daily needlework and caring for her mother at night, stabbed her with a kitchen knife. She was certified insane and sent to an Islington asylum. Charles and his father moved into lodgings and Mary was returned to her brother’s care in 1799, after their father had died. Mary repaid her brother’s kindness with unswerving loyalty and love.

Mary continued to suffer from recurring fits while Charles resumed his varied literary career, writing poems, prose narratives, short articles, criticism, etc. After the success of Tales of Shakespeare, Charles and Mary wrote two children’s books. Lamb became most famous for his essays, written under a pseudonym, Essays of Elia which were published in a collected volume in 1823, with a second series ten years later.

In 1833, Mary and Charles moved to Edmonton, where Charles adopted an orphan girl, Emma Isola. Mary and Charles were devoted to the little girl. Sadly for the child, Charles Lamb died in 1834, outlasting Coleridge by six months, and Mary died in 1847. His legacy is his original and illuminating literature, and the fact that he is remembered as a much-loved man of charm and sensitivity. Tales from Shakespeare continued to sell for many years; the author’s edition is dated 1953.

Author’s edition of the original Tales from Shakespeare (1807) published by Collins, London and Glasgow, 1953.
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Ed. Ian Ousby, Multiple, Cambridge University Press 1993.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Ed. Margaret Drabble, Book Club Associates with Oxford University Press, 1987.

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