Excerpt from The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Lambs of London

by Peter Ackroyd

The Lambs of London
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2007, 224 pages

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‘Reading.’

‘That is a surprise. Drink it carefully, Mr Lamb. Mary, help your father.’

Mary did not like her mother very much. She was a prying and inquisitive woman, or so Mary thought; her mother’s watchfulness seemed to her to be a form of hostility. It never occurred to Mary that it was a form of fear.

‘Don’t slurp, Mr Lamb. Your linen will be soiled.’

Mary gently took the bowl from him, and began to feed him with the porcelain spoon. She spent her life performing such tasks. Tizzy was too frail to deal with all the household cleaning and cooking, so Mary took on the most onerous duties. They could have afforded a young servant, at no more than ten shillings per week, but Mrs Lamb objected in principle to the introduction of another person who might shatter the carefully preserved composition, and the calm, of the Lamb family.

Mary accepted her role willingly enough. Charles went to the office, and she ‘saw to’ the house. That was how it would always be. After her sickness, in any case, she had become more subdued. The scars upon her face had made her an object of pity or distaste – or so she thought – and she had no wish to show herself.

She could hear Charles pacing the floor, in the room above. She had become accustomed to his footsteps and knew that he was preparing to write; he was placing his thoughts in order before he began. He was treading upon a narrow strip of carpet at the foot of his bed, and after three or four more ‘turns’ he would sit at his desk and begin. He had been introduced to the editor of Westminster Words, Matthew Law, who had been charmed by the young man’s discourse on the acting style at the Old Drury Lane; he had commissioned from him an essay on the subject, and Charles had completed it only three days later. He had ended with a flourish, on the acting of Munden, when he had said that ‘A tub of butter, contemplated by him, amounts to a Platonic idea. He understands a leg of mutton in its quiddity. He stands wondering, amid the common-place materials of life, like primeval man with the sun and stars about him.’ This was considered to be a ‘mighty flare’, according to Matthew Law, and since then Charles had become a regular contributor to the weekly paper. At this moment he was writing an article in praise of chimney sweeps. He had been reading Sterne to discover whether his favourite novelist had ever entertained the topic.

Charles continued to earn his living as a clerk at the East India House, as his mother had insisted, but he wished to consider himself to be a writer. Ever since his school-days as a poor scholar at Christ’s Hospital, all his hopes and ambitions had been directed towards literature. He would read his poems to Mary; and she would listen very carefully, almost solemnly. It was as if she had written them herself. He had written a drama in which he had played Darnley and she had played Mary Queen of Scots; she had been deeply excited by her role, and still remembered some of the lines she had spoken.

‘Call your brother to dinner, Mary.’

‘He is busy with his essay, Ma.’

‘His essay will not be affected by pork chops, I dare say.’

Mr Lamb made a remark about red hair, which neither woman noticed.

Mary had gone to the door, but Charles was already halfway down the stairs.

‘There is pork in the air, dear. The strong man may batten on him, and the weakling refuseth not his mild juices.’

‘Francis Bacon?’

‘No. Charles Lamb. A subtler dish. Buon giorno, Ma.’

Mrs Lamb was guiding her husband towards the small dining-room at the rear of the house; it overlooked a narrow strip of garden, at the bottom of which were a cast-iron pagoda and the remains of a bonfire of leaves. On the previous morning she and Mary had gathered up the leaves in armfuls, from the clipped grass and the slate path, before setting light to them; Mary had breathed in the scent as the sweet smoke rose towards the clouded London sky. It was as if she were performing a sacrifice – but to what strange god? Could it be the god of childhood?

Excerpted from The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd Copyright © 2005 by Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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