Well, not literally. As one of my last blast nights out before maternity leave, I attended the launch party on Thursday night for Camilla Morton's new book, A Year in High Heels: The Girl's Guide to Everything from Jane Austen to the A-List. The party was thrown by Diane von Furstenburg at her store in downtown Manhattan and was attended by literati as well as the fashionista crowd -- these are not two groups of people who often get together, as you might imagine. But, we all wear black, so we do have that common ground.
Camilla's book delivers, along with fashion tips, so much more -- advice on how to write a postcard, how to enjoy the opera, how to throw a party, and it also includes monthly book recommendations! So in the first of twelve such episodes, here is the first excerpt from the book, in which Camilla recommends Peter Ackroyd's Lambs of London. A Year in High Heels is also the first in my series of '08 Holiday Gifts Under $20. And at $16.95 and more than 500 pages of unique advice, there is value in these pages. Browse inside the book here. Read on for Camilla's insightful review of The Lambs of London as well as tips for hosting the discussion -- while I know we can't all go to the Charles Lamb pub in London, but surely there's some equivalent in your town?
PAGE TURNER FROM A YEAR IN HIGH HEELS
The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd
In this book Ackroyd focuses on the two siblings who in reality did bring Shakespeare to a wider audience, rewriting his plays so a younger audience could appreciate and understand his work. Ackroyd dwells not on this literary achievement but on dramatizing the sister’s descent into madness. He interweaves the true tale of the Lambs with the fiction of the mysterious bookseller’s son who has discovered the ultimate prize—some unpublished Shakespeare.
Peter Ackroyd (born October 5, 1949) grew up in the projects in Acton, West London, and went on to win scholarships to Cambridge and Yale. He’s written several prize- winning books, including the historical novels The Clerkenwell Tales, Hawksmoor, and the brilliant Booker short- listed Chatterton, yet hates award ceremonies and fuss. The day he finished his epic nonfiction bestseller London he suffered a heart attack and was in a coma for a week. Yet despite a passion for writing biographies and researching the lives of others he has little interest in talking about his own. In 2004 he told the London Guardian newspaper: “I don’t find myself interesting as a person and the details I find boring, quite frankly. You could sum it up in a few words or sentences really: came from nothing. Self- educated. Luck. Energy. Curiosity. Ambition. That’s it.”
Everyone knows Shakespeare’s work, and though he might not have been on your syllabus since school he should still be on your shelf. Those who studied him should have come across the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare, the work of siblings Charles and Mary Lamb, first published in 1807. They wrote short, colloquial summaries of twenty of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Charles handling the tragedies, Mary the comedies, which were then gathered together in a miniature, easy-to-use pocketbook.
Ackroyd’s novel follows the events that inspired the creation of their book, and blends fact and fiction to weave an intriguing story. Children of a lawyer’s clerk, life is comfortable for the Lamb family, but Mary Lamb is largely confined to the house, forbidden a career—as were all respectable ladies of the time—and has no husband (reasons for which are later revealed). She lives in London with her aging father, his new wife, and her youngest brother. Her only solace is reading and she escapes the claustrophobia of her life through books, especially her passion for Shakespeare. The only person who shows any real interest in her is her brother, Charles, an aspiring essayist and poet, who on occasion stages mini performances of the Bard’s work in the house with her. Charles Lamb, however, is a bit of a drinker and a gambler, and it’s because of this that early in the novel he is brought home worse for wear by a William Ireland.
Lamb, as a gentleman, looks down on Ireland, an antiquarian bookseller’s son. His sister, however, befriends Ireland and starts to visit his shop. An innocent courtship begins. It is not long before Ireland confides in Mary that a mysterious patron has entrusted him with some of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts, including an unpublished work. He reads her extracts from this newly discovered play and Mary gets totally caught up in the romance and excitement of his find. Ireland becomes the toast of London, everyone is clamoring to see this treasure, but the literary world is divided over the work’s authenticity . . .
Although Ireland is entirely of Ackroyd’s invention, the Lambs were real, and Ackroyd uses the true dramatic details of their life to shape his book. The actual Mary Lamb suffered a breakdown from the strain of looking after her family and, in 1796, in a sudden fit of insanity killed her mother with a carving knife. In 1799, when his father died, Charles gave up his fiancé in order to care for his troubled elder sister rather than see her committed, and she became his constant and only companion. Ackroyd might play down her mental state, but the distress and intrigue surrounding William Ireland contributed to her distress and provided a motivation for madness and for the siblings to transcribe their tales of Shakespeare. Read it and see whether you believe Ireland’s tale or the Lambs’ Tales.
The Lambs lived in Little Queen Street, Holborn, and the pub Charles Lamb frequented is still serving today at 16 Elia Street, London, N1. (The street was renamed Elia after the pseudonym he often wrote under.) Do you know any Elizabethan- looking ale houses, or a pub by an old theater or other typically Shakespearean settings? Or hold the meeting in your favorite local bookshop in homage to Ireland’s shop. Would scones and a light tea make suitable refreshments? Or will you decide to serve a strong ale in line with the times? Just be careful if you do pick ale, as your members may need a little nap afterward, so don’t stray too far from home.