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Review: The Lambs of London, by Peter Ackroyd

The Lambs of London is the story of Charles and Mary Lamb, authors of Shakespeare for Children, and the great literary hoax that was played upon London in the first few years of the 19th century by William Henry Ireland, son of a book seller. Charles is a clerk at the East India House. He's bored with his job and spends his free time in taverns drinking with his friends. In fact, when we first meet him, he is slightly less than sober. His sister Mary, is a fragile young woman who is emotionally and physically unwell. She idolizes her brother and puts up with Charles's coming home drunk at odd hours. They live with their parents, their overbearing mother and their slightly senile father.

They soon become acquainted with Ireland, who at the age of 17 is already a writer. To suit his own fancy, he "discovers" a lost Shakespearean work called "Vortigern" as well as a testament allegedly written by Shakespeare's father. Its pretty obvious that both works are forgeries; the text of the play uses too many 19th-century phrases and it only has four acts. The documents were also found under suspecious cercumstances that Ireland refuses to discuss. But London, caught up in this extraordianry new "find" recognizes the work as real and the play is performed.

While the major facts of the book are true, there is a lot that is not and there are a few misleading things as well. The dates are slightly off: in the book, the forgery and Mary's death take place in or before 1804; in real life, the forgery took place in 1796. In real life, also, Mary survived her brother. Shakespeare for Children was written in 1807; and while this book does not cover that time period, it might have been nice for the author to have at least mentioned it in his afterword. Also, before I learned very much about the Lambs, I'd assumed that Charles and Mary were much closer in age than they actually were (in realy life they were born nine years apart, she being the elder). Also (and this is a spoiler), when Mary attacks her mother and kills her, Ackroyd makes no mention of the fact that Charles did everything his power to prevent her from being sent to an asylum, including declaring himself her guardian.

Aside from these historical details, which makes the book confusing in some places, this book is an excellent depiction of London in the pre-Victorian period. It's a quick read but well written and extremely fascinating. I also recommend reading Ackroyd's Shakespeare: a Biography.
Also reviewed by: Once Upon a Bookshelf


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