Mary Anne Lamb (December 3, 1764–May 20, 1847), was an English writer, the sister and collaborator of Charles Lamb.
In 1796, Mary, who had suffered a breakdown from the strain of caring for her family, killed her mother with a kitchen knife, and from then on had to be kept under constant supervision. When their senile father died, her younger brother became her official guardian.
In 1807, she collaborated with him on a children's book, Tales from Shakespeare, and they produced other popular works for children in later years. On her own, Mary Lamb published an epistolary work, Mrs Leicester's School, which the poet Samuel Coleridge believed would and should be "acknowledged as a rich jewel in the treasury of our permanent English literature." It is with this book, concerning the tales of a variety of motherless and orphaned girls, that Mary Lamb seemed to deal with the personal themes of grief and guilt. Though her solo turn, critically acclaimed at the time, has not outlived its era, Tales from Shakespeare, continues to be in print. The only other children's book from the 1800's continuously in print, still with an active readership today is The Swiss Family Robinson, also first published by William Godwin (Mary Wollstonecraft's widower) and his second wife Mary Godwin.
Mary continued to suffer bouts of mental illness throughout her life. Nothwithstanding these dramatic interruptions, Mary, along with her brother, was at the center of an ongoing artist's salon in London, entertaining many theatrical and literary luminaries of the day. Among other notables, Coleridge praised her for the sensibility and empathy that characterized extended periods in which she was free of the symptoms of the bipolar disorder that she battled, often valiantly. Although contemporaries had predicted that Mary would be the first to die, it was Charles who succumbed to complications of an infected wound in 1834. Biographers have noted the irony of her brother's relatively greater dependence on her and her seeming instinct for survival, but after his death, she grew increasingly frail, cared for at times by a family and at others in an asylum.
On her death, she was buried next to her brother.
Subsequently, Mary has been depicted as the central character in The Lambs of London, a novel by Peter Ackroyd. She is also the subject of a recent biographical study by British writer Kathy Watson, The Devil Kissed Her. Ms. Watson credits Mary Lamb with the "better half" of the writing in Tales in terms of its vibrancy and skill.