I'm sure for most of us it starts innocently enough. First, there are those nursery rhymes about the Tower of London and tales of Winnie the Pooh, perhaps read aloud by parents. That's followed later by Mary Poppins, and the next thing you know it's on to "A Tale of Two Cities," "Return of the Native," and "Pride and Prejudice." Then finally someday there's Shakespeare.
It doesn't matter where we grow up or when – the tendency to over-immerse in British literature can overtake any of us. And the dangers of overindulgence can be seen in Peter Ackroyd's wonderful The Lambs of London, which suggests that when you find that Shakespeare is on your mind and tongue just a bit too often, madness and danger may lie therein.
The real lives of 19th-century British essayist Charles Lamb and his sister Mary, also a writer ("Tales from Shakespeare") are the inspiration for Ackroyd's story of the high-strung siblings for whom literature looms just a bit too large as they desperately struggle to slip the smothering circumstances of their daily lives.
Charles is an amiable brother and son who longs to devote his life to literature but must instead slog away at a tedious clerkship – a disappointment he nightly drowns in ale. Mary, fragile and scarred with a pock-marked face, toils as well, helping to care for her senile father and humorless mother.
But Charles at least has the benefit of escaping the house each day. Mary is confined within, her only pleasures being the reading in which she and her brother delight and the conversations they have about their books. When Charles leaves for work or for the pub, the color drains from Mary's face and world. " 'Being left by Charles' was, as she put it to herself, a 'compound verb' signifying a coherent and complete sensation of loss, disappointment, and anticipation."
This leaves her only too vulnerable when a kindred soul seems to come her way. William Ireland, another sensitive devotee of the Bard, works in a bookstore with his father. But he has of late uncovered a trove of Shakespeare's old papers – including a previously unknown play.
Not everyone is convinced. "A miniscule doubt. A few discrepancies in cadence. A few minor errors in rhyme. A tiny, tiny doubt," suggests a dramatist of the era. Charles shares his suspicions.
But Mary has a greater need to believe. " 'Oh yes. It could be no one else,' " she insists. "She wanted to reinforce his excitement, to be caught up in [William's] elation so that she might leave her own life behind."
A desperate yearning to transcend daily life is what drives the attachment to the world of invention experienced by the characters in this novel. "This was the meaning of the theatre," William begins to grasp. "It allowed the audience to rise out of their own selves." But in the overheated air of stuffy drawing rooms like those of the Lambs, detachment from actual experience can become dangerous. "I am discharged from life," thinks Mary shortly before committing a horrible act.
Yet the intense literacy of the characters is one of the pleasures of reading this book. Wouldn't it be fun, after all, to experience a world where Shakespeare lives as if among intimate friends?
There is also the joy of navigating the London of the Lambs and their era. Ackroyd very effectively delivers to us the city in all its cramped and noisy splendor. (And even its odor – Mary comments more than once on the stench of horses.)
And of course, who better than Ackroyd to give us such a tour? The author of both "Shakespeare: The Biography" and "London: The Biography" (not to mention a roster of historical fiction, literary biographies, poetry, and criticism), this is a man who knows whereof he writes when it comes to the Bard, the city, and the Lambs themselves.
But what makes this book particularly gratifying is that Ackroyd also knows something about life. All the world's a stage, he reminds us over and again, as the real lives of his characters are regularly proved to be cloaked in illusion.
The sensitive Mary is all too easily scammed out of her purse by a beggar wearing a fake goiter. She passes by totally unaware that what she has just witnessed was a neat piece of stagecraft. When it comes to her own life, however, she knows only too well that hers is a performance that cannot be sustained.
"When you see me in this house I am sleepwalking," she tells her brother in a moment of hysteria. "I have no real – no genuine – life here at all."
Here, Ackroyd had no need to invent. Mary's dementia and the crime it provokes are historically accurate. It's a plot twist requiring no literary device – just some knowledge of the real lives of the literary folk themselves.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.