Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

LAMB, CHARLES (1775-1834)

LAMB, CHARLES (1775-1834), English essayist and critic, was born in Crown Office Row, Inner Temple, London, on the 10th of February 1775. His father, John Lamb, a Lincolnshire man, who filled the situation of clerk and servant-companion to Samuel Salt, a member of parliament and one of the benchers of the Inner Temple, was successful in obtaining for Charles, the youngest of three surviving children, a presentation to Christ’s Hospital, where the boy remained from his eighth to his fifteenth year (1782-1789). Here he had for a schoolfellow Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his senior by rather more than two years, and a close and tender friendship began which lasted for the rest of the lives of both. When the time came for leaving school, where he had learned some Greek and acquired considerable facility in Latin composition, Lamb, after a brief stay at home (probably spent, as his school holidays had often been, over old English authors in Salt’s library) was condemned to the labours of the desk—an inconquerable impediment in his speech disqualifying him for the clerical profession, which, as the school exhibitions were usually only given to those preparing for the church, thus deprived him of the only means by which he could have obtained a university education. For a short time he was in the office of Joseph Paice, a London merchant, and then for twenty-three weeks, until the 8th of February 1792, he held a small post in the Examiner’s Office of the South Sea House, where his brother John was established, a period which, although his age was but sixteen, was to provide him nearly thirty years later with materials for the first of the Essays of Elia. On the 5th of April 1792, he entered the Accountant’s Office in the East India House, where during the next three and thirty years the hundred official folios of what he used to call his true works were produced.

Of the years 1792-1795 we know little. At the end of 1794 he saw much of Coleridge and joined him in writing sonnets in the Morning Post, addressed to eminent persons: early in 1795 he met Southey and was much in the company of James White, whom he probably helped in the composition of the Original Letters of Sir John Falstaff; and at the end of the year for a short time he became so unhinged mentally as to necessitate confinement in an asylum. The cause, it is probable, was an unsuccessful love affair with Ann Simmons, the Hertfordshire maiden to whom his first sonnets are addressed, whom he would have seen when on his visits as a youth to Blakesware House, near Widford, the country home of the Plumer family, of which Lamb’s grandmother, Mary Field, was for many years, until her death in 1792, sole custodian.

It was in the late summer of 1796 that a dreadful calamity came upon the Lambs, which seemed to blight all Lamb’s prospects in the very morning of life. On the 22nd of September his sister Mary, worn down to a state of extreme nervous misery by attention to needlework by day and to her mother at night, was suddenly seized with acute mania, in which she stabbed her mother to the heart. The calm self-mastery and loving self-renunciation which Charles Lamb, by constitution excitable, nervous and self-mistrustful, displayed at this crisis in his own history and in that of those nearest him, will ever give him an imperishable claim to the reverence and affection of all who are capable of appreciating the heroisms of common life. With the help of friends he succeeded in obtaining his sister’s release from the lifelong restraint to which she would otherwise have been doomed, on the express condition that he himself should undertake the responsibility for her safe keeping. It proved no light charge: for though no one was capable of affording a more intelligent or affectionate companionship than Mary Lamb during her periods of health, there was ever present the apprehension of the recurrence of her malady; and when from time to time the premonitory symptoms had become unmistakable, there was no alternative but her removal, which took place in quietness and tears. How deeply the whole course of Lamb’s domestic life must have been affected by his singular loyalty as a brother needs not to be pointed out.

Lamb’s first appearance as an author was made in the year of the great tragedy of his life (1796), when there were published in the volume of Poems on Various Subjects by Coleridge four sonnets by Mr Charles Lamb of the India House. In the following year he contributed, with Charles Lloyd, a pupil of Coleridge, some pieces in blank verse to the second edition of Coleridge’s Poems. In 1797 his short summer holiday was spent with Coleridge at Nether Stowey, where he met the Wordsworths, William and Dorothy, and established a friendship with both which only his own death terminated. In 1798, under the influence of Henry Mackenzie’s novel Julie de Roubigné, he published a short and pathetic prose tale entitled Rosamund Gray, in which it is possible to trace beneath disguised conditions references to the misfortunes of the author’s own family, and many personal touches; and in the same year he joined Lloyd in a volume of Blank Verse, to which Lamb contributed poems occasioned by the death of his mother and his aunt Sarah Lamb, among them being his best-known lyric, The Old Familiar Faces. In this year, 1798, he achieved the unexpected publicity of an attack by the Anti-Jacobin upon him as an associate of Coleridge and Southey (to whose Annual Anthology he had contributed) in their Jacobin machinations. In 1799, on the death of her father, Mary Lamb came to live again with her brother, their home then being in Pentonville; but it was not until 1800 that they really settled together, their first independent joint home being at Mitre Court Buildings in the Temple, where they lived until 1809. At the end of 1801, or beginning of 1802, appeared Lamb’s first play John Woodvil, on which he set great store, a slight dramatic piece written in the style of the earlier Elizabethan period and containing some genuine poetry and happy delineation of the gentler emotions, but as a whole deficient in plot, vigour and character; it was held up to ridicule by the Edinburgh Review as a specimen of the rudest condition of the drama, a work by a man of the age of Thespis. The dramatic spirit, however, was not thus easily quenched in Lamb, and his next effort was a farce, Mr H——, the point of which lay in the hero’s anxiety to conceal his name Hogsflesh; but it did not survive the first night of its appearance at Drury Lane, in December 1806. Its author bore the failure with rare equanimity and good humour—even to joining in the hissing—and soon struck into new and more successful fields of literary exertion. Before, however, passing to these it should be mentioned that he made various efforts to earn money by journalism, partly by humorous articles, partly as dramatic critic, but chiefly as a contributor of sarcastic or funny paragraphs, sparing neither man nor woman, in the Morning Post, principally in 1803.

In 1807 appeared Tales founded on the Plays of Shakespeare, written by Charles and Mary Lamb, in which Charles was responsible for the tragedies and Mary for the comedies; and in 1808, Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare, with short but felicitous critical notes. It was this work which laid the foundation of Lamb’s reputation as a critic, for it was filled with imaginative understanding of the old playwrights, and a warm, discerning and novel appreciation of their great merits. In the same year, 1808, Mary Lamb, assisted by her brother, published Poetry for Children, and a collection of short school-girl tales under the title Mrs Leicester’s School; and to the same date belongs The Adventures of Ulysses, designed by Lamb as a companion to The Adventures of Telemachus. In 1810 began to appear Leigh Hunt’s quarterly periodical, The Reflector, in which Lamb published much (including the fine essays on the tragedies of Shakespeare and on Hogarth) that subsequently appeared in the first collective edition of his Works, which he put forth in 1818.

Between 1811, when The Reflector ceased, and 1820, he wrote almost nothing. In these years we may imagine him at his most social period, playing much whist and entertaining his friends on Wednesday or Thursday nights; meanwhile gathering 105 that reputation as a conversationalist or inspirer of conversation in others, which Hazlitt, who was at one time one of Lamb’s closest friends, has done so much to celebrate. When in 1818 appeared the Works in two volumes, it may be that Lamb considered his literary career over. Before coming to 1820, and an event which was in reality to be the beginning of that career as it is generally known—the establishment of the London Magazine—it should be recorded that in the summer of 1819 Lamb, with his sister’s full consent, proposed marriage to Fanny Kelly, the actress, who was then in her thirtieth year. Miss Kelly could not accept, giving as one reason her devotion to her mother. Lamb bore the rebuff with characteristic humour and fortitude.

The establishment of the London Magazine in 1820 stimulated Lamb to the production of a series of new essays (the Essays of Elia) which may be said to form the chief corner-stone in the small but classic temple of his fame. The first of these, as it fell out, was a description of the old South Sea House, with which Lamb happened to have associated the name of a gay light-hearted foreigner called Elia, who was a clerk in the days of his service there. The pseudonym adopted on this occasion was retained for the subsequent contributions, which appeared collectively in a volume of essays called Elia, in 1823. After a career of five years the London Magazine came to an end; and about the same period Lamb’s long connexion with the India House terminated, a pension of £450 (£441 net) having been assigned to him. The increased leisure, however, for which he had long sighed, did not prove favourable to literary production, which henceforth was limited to a few trifling contributions to the New Monthly and other serials, and the excavation of gems from the mass of dramatic literature bequeathed to the British Museum by David Garrick, which Lamb laboriously read through in 1827, an occupation which supplied him for a time with the regular hours of work he missed so much. The malady of his sister, which continued to increase with ever shortening intervals of relief, broke in painfully on his lettered ease and comfort; and it is unfortunately impossible to ignore the deteriorating effects of an over-free indulgence in the use of alcohol, and, in early life, tobacco, on a temperament such as his. His removal on account of his sister to the quiet of the country at Enfield, by tending to withdraw him from the stimulating society of the large circle of literary friends who had helped to make his weekly or monthly at homes so remarkable, doubtless also tended to intensify his listlessness and helplessness. One of the brightest elements in the closing years of his life was the friendship and companionship of Emma Isola, whom he and his sister had adopted, and whose marriage in 1833 to Edward Moxon, the publisher, though a source of unselfish joy to Lamb, left him more than ever alone. While living at Edmonton, whither he had moved in 1833 so that his sister might have the continual care of Mr and Mrs Walden, who were accustomed to patients of weak intellect, Lamb was overtaken by an attack of erysipelas brought on by an accidental fall as he was walking on the London road. After a few days’ illness he died on the 27th of December, 1834. The sudden death of one so widely known, admired and beloved, fell on the public as well as on his own attached circle with all the poignancy of a personal calamity and a private grief. His memory wanted no tribute that affection could bestow, and Wordsworth commemorated in simple and solemn verse the genius, virtues and fraternal devotion of his early friend.

Charles Lamb is entitled to a place as an essayist beside Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, Steele and Addison. He unites many of the characteristics of each of these writers—refined and exquisite humour, a genuine and cordial vein of pleasantry and heart-touching pathos. His fancy is distinguished by great delicacy and tenderness; and even his conceits are imbued with human feeling and passion. He had an extreme and almost exclusive partiality for earlier prose writers, particularly for Fuller, Browne and Burton, as well as for the dramatists of Shakespeare’s time; and the care with which he studied them is apparent in all he ever wrote. It shines out conspicuously in his style, which has an antique air and is redolent of the peculiarities of the 17th century. Its quaintness has subjected the author to the charge of affectation, but there is nothing really affected in his writings. His style is not so much an imitation as a reflexion of the older writers; for in spirit he made himself their contemporary. A confirmed habit of studying them in preference to modern literature had made something of their style natural to him; and long experience had rendered it not only easy and familiar but habitual. It was not a masquerade dress he wore, but the costume which showed the man to most advantage. With thought and meaning often profound, though clothed in simple language, every sentence of his essays is pregnant.

He played a considerable part in reviving the dramatic writers of the Shakesperian age; for he preceded Gifford and others in wiping the dust of ages from their works. In his brief comments on each specimen he displays exquisite powers of discrimination: his discernment of the true meaning of his author is almost infallible. His work was a departure in criticism. Former editors had supplied textual criticism and alternative readings: Lamb’s object was to show how our ancestors felt when they placed themselves by the power of imagination in trying situations, in the conflicts of duty or passion or the strife of contending duties; what sorts of loves and enmities theirs were.

As a poet Lamb is not entitled to so high a place as that which can be claimed for him as essayist and critic. His dependence on Elizabethan models is here also manifest, but in such a way as to bring into all the greater prominence his native deficiency in the accomplishment of verse. Yet it is impossible, once having read, ever to forget the tenderness and grace of such poems as Hester, The Old Familiar Faces, and the lines On an infant dying as soon as born or the quaint humour of A Farewell to Tobacco. As a letter writer Lamb ranks very high, and when in a nonsensical mood there is none to touch him.

Editions and memoirs of Lamb are numerous. The Letters, with a sketch of his life by Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd, appeared in 1837; the Final Memorials of Charles Lamb by the same hand, after Mary Lamb’s death, in 1848; Barry Cornwall’s Charles Lamb: A Memoir, in 1866. Mr P. Fitzgerald’s Charles Lamb: his Friends, his Haunts and his Books (1866); W. Carew Hazlitt’s Mary and Charles Lamb (1874). Mr Fitzgerald and Mr Hazlitt have also both edited the Letters, and Mr Fitzgerald brought Talfourd to date with an edition of Lamb’s works in 1870-1876. Later and fuller editions are those of Canon Ainger in 12 volumes, Mr Macdonald in 12 volumes and Mr E. V. Lucas in 7 volumes, to which in 1905 was added The Life of Charles Lamb, in 2 volumes.

(E. V. L.) [Edward Verrall Lucas]

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

LAMB, Charles (1775-1834) by Felicity R. James

Edward Verrall Lucas (1868-1938), the author of the 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica entry on Charles Lamb, continues to shape 21st-century scholarship on the Lambs to a remarkable degree. His collected edition of Works and Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb (1903–1905), reprinted in a slightly condensed version in 1912, has remained for over one hundred years the standard edition. It will shortly be superseded by the new Oxford Collected Works, currently in preparation under the general editorship of Gregory Dart, and due to emerge over the next decade. It is testament to Lucas’ accuracy and the quality of his textual scholarship that his edition remains a reliable and interesting source, but it also points to the sad decay of the fortunes of both Charles and Mary Lamb since then. It is worth noting that Mary (1764–1847) does not get her own entry in Britannica: even when the reputation of the Lambs was at its highest, Mary was considered in relation to Charles, and not as poet or author in her own right.

Charles Lamb
Hazlitt, William. Charles Lamb. 1804, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Some clues are visible in the Britannica entry as to why the Charles Lamb presented by Lucas—essayist, symbol of loving self-renunciation, the master of the quaint and the nonsensical—might have fallen out of literary fashion through the 20th century. In part, it may be thanks to the close identification between Lamb and E. V. Lucas himself, whose writings now evoke the extinct, cluttered world of the Edwardian man of letters. Early apprenticed to a bookseller, Lucas joined the staff of Punch in 1904, and became publishers’ reader, and later chairman, at Methuen, the publishing house which would issue his collected works of Lamb. In collections such as Wanderings and Diversions (1926), he made the digressive essay his own, and was extraordinarily productive on a range of subjects: the omnibus, the umbrella, the fireside, cricket, the byways of Sussex. But the figure of the English essayist—Lamb, and Lucas—was about to sidle out of sight. As the twentieth century wore on, the essay gradually began to lose popularity as a form, as well as an expression of Romanticism. In 1905, just as Lucas issued his first edition of the Lambs, Virginia Woolf was wryly bemoaning The Decay of the Essay, a garrulous, commodified form of personal expression, although she still paid homage to Lamb: no one has approached the essays of Elia (Elia being Lamb’s pen-name). But gradually the Elian style, too—eclectic, allusive, archaic—came to seem outmoded.

This may have been due to over-exposure. Through the latter part of the nineteenth century, generations of school-children were forced to toil through the Essays of Elia. Charles Lamb, heavily anthologised and imitated, had become a national treasure, his spikiness softened and stuffed into the status of cultural teddy-bear in the Victorian Establishment, in the memorable words of Roy Park. By the 1930s, readers were growing rebellious. The Leavisite critic (and influential educationalist) Denys Thompson, for example, exasperated by centenary celebrations in 1934, excoriated the over-ripe, over-familiar style of Lamb, and his attack set the tone for the decades to come. Despite the efforts of isolated critics, and the serious scholarly work of the Charles Lamb Bulletin, it is only recently that we have begun to rediscover the Romantic essay and its wider periodical context, and with it the strange, allusive qualities of Elia.

Lucas’ biographical treatment of Lamb tends towards the sentimental, as in his discussion of Charles’ imperishable claim to the reverence and affection of all who are capable of appreciating the heroisms of common life. This tone of saintly sacrifice aside, we are now beginning to re-examine and take seriously the shadow presence of mental illness, violence, and alcoholism in the Lambs’s work. The day of horrors and its aftermath is an important part of their creative story: it reverberates through Charles’ poetry and drama, such as The Old Familiar Faces and John Woodvil; it finds expression in the portrayal of loss and trauma in the children’s work, and in the uneasy nostalgia of the essays of Elia, with their interest in decayed and forgotten places, spots of stopped time in the bustling metropolis.

Related to this is the rediscovery of Mary Lamb as cultural figure and writer: it is noticeable that she is absent from Lucas’ entry until the third paragraph. Even then she is introduced in the context of her matricide, rather than as a writer. Part of the recent recuperation of Charles Lamb’s work has involved re-reading his sister’s writing, and replacing her as collaborator and co-creator in his works. Central to this has been the ground-breaking work of Jane Aaron, whose A Double Singleness (1989) uses feminist and psychoanalytic literary theory to reposition the Lambs in Romantic-era culture, showing how their particular status as children of servants, and their intense sibling bond, helped them to challenge the boundaries of gender and class. In recent years, the scholarship of Adriana Craciun and Jane Moore, among others, have underlined the importance of Mary Lamb as writer and participant in the creative conversations of Romanticism. Her polemic essay On Needle-Work, her poems, letters to Sarah Stoddart, and her writings for children have sparked interesting discussion.

The critical interest in Romantic children’s literature has also helped reinstate the importance of the Lambs: their Tales from Shakespear (1807), and Charlesʼ Adventures of Ulysses (1808), published by the Godwins in their Juvenile Library, are increasingly recognised as important interventions in the burgeoning children’s book market, and mile-stones in adaptation. Both works have long, global afterlives: the Tales shaped the teaching of English in colonial India and Pakistan; a translation of Tales was one of the first books printed in Swahili, and a version of the Lambs stories is also credited with having introduced Shakespeare to China. An early classroom encounter with an abridged version of Adventures of Ulysses set the schoolboy James Joyce dreaming, and he re-read his school copy of Lamb as he composed Ulysses. Maryʼs poetry for children, and the poignant stories of Mrs. Leicesterʼs School, now little known, are also notable for their sympathetic treatment of sibling relationship, grief, and loss.

The new collected works of the Lambs, with fully annotated editions of these children’s works, alongside other neglected areas of their oeuvre such as the plays, the anthologies of Elizabethan dramatists and the album verses, will help along this recuperation and re-contextualisation of their work. This is not to say, however, that it will completely rewrite Lucas.

Edwardian sentimentality aside, Lucas gives a clear-sighted account of Lamb’s literary development in this encyclopædia entry—just as he does in his own edition of the works. His Britannica entry calls attention to works which have been since lost to view: emphasising the importance of Lamb’s stumbling poetry of sensibility in the 1790s, for instance; sensitively tracing the Elizabethan influences and allusions of his work and recognising the immersive, imaginative scope of his reading. He also takes seriously the central importance of Lamb’s career in the Accountant’s Office in the East India House, work which Lamb overtly deprecated. Current scholarship, however, is returning to Lamb’s ambiguous relationship to his imperial employer. Critics, including David Higgins, Peter Kitson, and Karen Fang, have explored the ways in which the essays might be written around the edges of Lamb’s work at the East India house: literally, since they are inscribed on watermarked East India Office paper (the parings of the counting-house, as he writes in Oxford in the Vacation), and conceptually, reflecting on imperial commodities, and anxieties. The Lambs who emerge from contemporary scholarship—actively negotiating the relationship between the imperial and the metropolitan, and between urban and rural; navigating complex issues of gender, sexuality, class, and disability—owe a great deal to Lucas’ sympathetic vision of the 1900s. In many ways, we are only now beginning to catch up with the Lamb whom Lucas knew so well.

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