LAMB, CHARLES (1775–1834), essayist and humourist, was born on 10 Feb. 1775 in Crown Office Row in the Temple, London. His father, John Lamb, who is described under the name of Lovel in Charles Lamb's essay ‘The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple,’ was the son of poor parents in Lincolnshire, and had come up as a boy to London and entered domestic service. He ultimately became clerk and servant to Samuel Salt, a bencher of the Inner Temple, and continued to fill that position until Salt's death in 1792. He married Elizabeth Field, whose mother was for more than fifty years housekeeper at Blakesware in Hertfordshire, a few miles from Ware, a dower-house of the Plumers, a well-known county family. This Mary Field, Charles Lamb's grandmother, played an important part in the early development of his affections, and is a familiar presence in some of the most characteristic and pathetic of his writings.
To John and Elizabeth Lamb, in Crown Office Row, were born a family of seven children, of whom only three survived their infancy. The eldest of these three was John Lamb, born in 1763; the second Mary Ann, better known as Mary, born in 1764; and the third Charles, baptised 10 March 1775 ‘by the Rev. Mr. Jeffs.’ The baptisms of the entire family duly appear in the registers of the Temple Church, and were first printed by Mr. Charles Kent in his ‘Centenary Edition of Lamb's Works’ in 1875.
The block of buildings in which Samuel Salt occupied one or more sets of chambers, and in which the Lamb family were born and reared, is at the eastern end of Crown Office Row, and though considerably modified since in its interior arrangements, still bears upon its outer wall the date 1737.
Charles Lamb received his earliest education at a humble day-school kept by a Mr. William Bird in a court leading out of Fetter Lane (see Lamb's paper, ‘Captain Starkey,’ in Hone'sEvery-day Book, 21 July 1826). It was a school for both boys and girls, and Mary Lamb also attended it. At the age of seven Charles obtained a nomination to Christ's Hospital (the ‘Blue Coat School’), through the influence of his father's employer, and within its venerable walls he passed the next seven years of his life, his holidays being spent with his parents in the Temple or with his grandmother, Mrs. Field, in Hertfordshire.
What Charles Lamb learned at Christ's Hospital, what friendships he formed, and what merits and demerits he detected in the arrangements, manners, and customs of the school, are all familiar to us from the two remarkable essays he has left us, ‘On Christ's Hospital, and the Character of the Christ's Hospital Boys,’ published in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ in 1813, and the later essay ‘Christ's Hospital Five-and-thirty Years Ago,’ one of the Elia series, in the ‘London Magazine’ of November 1820. On the whole he seems to have been happy in the school, and to have acquired considerable skill in its special studies, notably in Latin, which he was fond of reading, and in a rough-and-ready way writing, to the end of his life. At the time of quitting the school he had not attained the highest position, that of ‘Grecian,’ but the nearest in rank to it, that of deputy Grecian. Perhaps the school authorities were not careful to promote him to the superior rank, seeing that he was not to proceed to the university. As a Grecian Lamb would have been entitled to an exhibition, but it was understood that the privilege was intended for those who were to enter holy orders, and a fatal impediment of speech—an insurmountable and painful stutter—made that profession impossible for him even if his gifts and inclinations had pointed that way. He left Christ's Hospital in November 1789, carrying with him, among other precious possessions, the friendship of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a friendship destined to endure, and to be the main living influence upon his mind and character till the latest year of his life. Coleridge was two years Lamb's senior, and remained at the school till 1792, when he went to Cambridge.
At the date of Lamb's leaving school his elder brother John was a clerk in the South Sea House, and a humbler post in the same office was soon found for Charles through the good offices of Samuel Salt, who was a deputy-governor of the company. But early in 1792 he was appointed to a clerkship in the accountant's office of the India House, and remained a member of the staff for the next thirty years. The court minutes of the old India House record that on 5 April 1792 ‘William Savory, Charles Lamb, and Hutcher Trower’ were appointed clerks in the accountant's office on the usual terms. Another entry of three weeks later tells that the sureties required by the office were in Lamb's case Peter Peirson, esq., of the Inner Temple, and John Lamb ‘of the Inner Temple, gentleman.’ The name of Peter Peirson recalls one of the most touching passages in the essay on the ‘Old Benchers.’
Samuel Salt died in this same year, leaving various legacies and other benefactions to his faithful clerk and housekeeper. The Lamb family had accordingly to leave the Temple, and there is no record of their place of residence until 1796, when we hear of them as lodging in Little Queen Street, Holborn. The family were poor, Charles's salary, and what his sister could earn by needlework, in addition to the interest on Salt's legacies, forming their sole means of subsistence, for John Lamb the younger, a fairly prosperous gentleman, was living an independent life elsewhere. John Lamb the elder was old and sinking into dotage. The mother was an invalid, with apparently a strain of insanity. Mary Lamb was overworked, and the continued strain and anxiety began to tell upon her mind. On 22 Sept. 1796 a terrible blow fell upon the family. Mary Lamb, irritated with a little apprentice-girl who was working in the family sitting-room, snatched a knife from the table, pursued the child round the room, and finally stabbed her mother, who had interposed in the girl's behalf. The wound was instantly fatal, Charles being at hand only in time to wrest the knife from his sister and prevent further mischief. An inquest was held and a verdict found of temporary insanity. Mary Lamb would have been in the ordinary course transferred to a public lunatic asylum, but interest was made with the authorities, and she was given into the custody of her brother, then only just of age, who undertook to be her guardian, an office which he discharged under the gravest difficulties and discouragements for the remainder of his life. Mrs. Lamb was buried in the graveyard of St. Andrew's, Holborn, on 26 Sept. 1796, and Charles Lamb, with his imbecile father and an old Aunt Hetty, who formed one of the household, left Little Queen Street. (The house no longer stands, having been removed with others to make room for a church, which now stands on its site.) The family removed to 45 Chapel Street, Pentonville, with the exception of Mary, who was placed under suitable care at Hackney, where Charles could frequently visit her. In February 1797 old Aunt Hetty died, and Charles was left as the solitary guardian of his father until the latter's death in 1799.
The letters of Charles Lamb, through which his life may be henceforth studied, open with a correspondence with Coleridge, beginning in May 1796. The earliest of these letters records how Charles Lamb himself had been for six weeks in the winter of 1795–6 in an asylum for some form of mental derangement, which, however, seems never to have recurred. It is likely that this tendency was inherited from the mother, and that moreover the immediate cause, in this case, may have been a love disappointment. This at least is certain, that already Charles Lamb had lost his heart to a girl living not far from Blakesware, his grandmother's home in Hertfordshire. The earliest intimation of the fact is afforded by the existence of two sonnets which Lamb submits to Coleridge in 1796 as having been written by him in the summer of 1795 (see Lamb's Letters, i. 4). Both poems refer to Hertfordshire, and the second distinctly reveals an attachment to a ‘gentle maid’ named Anna, who had lived in a ‘cottage,’ and with whom ‘in happier days’ he had held free converse, days which, however, ‘ne'er must come again.’ At that early date, therefore, it is clear that the course of love had not run smooth, and it is reasonable to connect Lamb's mental breakdown in the following winter with this cause. A year later, in writing to Coleridge after his mother's death, he speaks of his attachment as a folly that has left him for ever. All that is certain of this episode in Lamb's life is that the girl's name was Ann Simmons, that she lived with her mother in a cottage called Blenheims, within a mile of Blakesware House, and that she ultimately married a Mr. Bartram, a silversmith, of Princes Street, Leicester Square (she is mentioned under that name in the essay ‘Dream Children’). Thus far all is certain. The whole pedigree of the Simmons family is in the present writer's possession, but an old inhabitant of Widford (the village adjoining Blakesware), and intimate friend of the Lambs, from whom he obtained it, had never heard of the circumstances attending Lamb's unsuccessful wooing.
In the spring of 1796 Coleridge made his earliest appearance as a poet in a small volume published by Cottle of Bristol, ‘Poems on Various Subjects, by S. T. Coleridge, late of Jesus College, Cambridge,’ and among these were four sonnets by Lamb. ‘The effusions signed C. L. were written by Mr. Charles Lamb of the India House. Independently of the signature, their superior merit would have sufficiently distinguished them.’ Two of these sonnets refer also to Anna with the fair hair and the blue eyes. This was Lamb's first appearance in print. The sonnets are chiefly remarkable as reflecting the diction and the graceful melancholy of William Lisle Bowles [q. v.], whose sonnets had in a singular degree influenced and inspired both Lamb and Coleridge while they were still at Christ's Hospital. A year later, in 1797, Coleridge produced a second edition of his poems, ‘To which are now added Poems by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd’ (1775–1839) [q.v.] . Among these were included the ‘Anna’ sonnets, and the lines entitled ‘The Grandame,’ written on his grandmother, Mrs. Field, who had died at Blakesware in 1792. (These latter had already appeared in print, in a handsome quarto, with certain others of Charles Lloyd's.)
In the summer of 1797 Lamb devoted his short holiday (only one week) to a visit to Coleridge at Nether Stowey, where he made the acquaintance of Thomas Poole [q. v.], and met Wordsworth and others (see Mrs. Sandford, Thomas Poole and his Friends; and Lamb's Letters, i. 79). The following year, 1798, saw the publication of a thin volume, ‘Blank Verse, by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd,’ containing the touching verses on the ‘Old Familiar Faces.’ Later appeared Lamb's prose romance, ‘A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret,’ a story of sentiment written under the influence of Mackenzie, and having the scene laid in Lamb's favourite village of Widford in Hertfordshire. During this year Cottle of Bristol had a portrait taken of Lamb by Hancock, an engraving of which appeared many years later in Cottle's ‘Recollections of Coleridge.’ This is the earliest portrait of Lamb we possess. In November 1798 Coleridge, with Wordsworth and his sister, left England for Germany, and for the next eighteen months Lamb was thrown for literary sympathy upon other friends, notably on Southey, with whom he began a frequent correspondence. In these letters Lamb's individuality of style and humour became first markedly apparent.
In the spring of 1799 Lamb's father died, and Mary Lamb returned to live with her brother, from whom she was never again parted, except during occasional returns of her malady. But rumours of this malady followed them wherever they went. They had notice to quit their rooms in Pentonville in the spring of 1799, and they were accepted as tenants for a while by Lamb's old schoolfellow, John Mathew Gutch [q. v.], then a law-stationer in Southampton Buildings, Holborn. Here they remained for nine months, but the old difficulties arose, and the brother and sister were again homeless. Lamb then turned to the familiar precincts of the Temple, and took rooms at the top of King's Bench Walk (Mitre Court Buildings), where he remained with his sister for nearly nine years. They then removed to Inner Temple Lane for a period of another nine years.
Lamb's letters to Thomas Manning [q. v.], the mathematician and orientalist, and to Coleridge on his return from Germany, begin at the date of his settling in the Temple, and continue the story of his life. Manning's acquaintance he had made at Cambridge while visiting Charles Lloyd. Lamb now began to add to his scanty income by writing for the newspapers (see his Elia essay, Newspapers Thirty-five Years Ago). He contributed for some three years facetious paragraphs and epigrams to the ‘Morning Post,’ ‘Morning Chronicle,’ and the ‘Albion.’ In 1802 he published his ‘John Woodvil,’ a blank-verse play of the Restoration period, but showing markedly the influence of Massinger and Beaumont and Fletcher, full of felicitous lines, but crude and undramatic. It was reviewed in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ April 1803, not unfairly, but ignorantly. The Elizabethan dramatists were still sealed books save to the antiquary and the specialist. Meantime Charles and Mary Lamb were struggling with poverty, and with worse enemies. Lamb's journalistic and literary associates made demands on his hospitality, and good company brought its temptations. In 1804 Mary Lamb writes that they are ‘very poor,’ and that Charles is trying in various ways to earn money. He was still dreaming of possible dramatic successes, but these were not to be. In 1803 he sends Manning his well-known verses on Hester Savory, a young quakeress with whom he had fallen in love, though without her knowledge, when he lived (1797–1800) at Pentonville, and who had recently died a few months after her marriage. In September 1805 he is still thinking of dramatic work, and has a farce in prospect. The project took shape in the two-act farce, ‘Mr. H.,’ accepted by the proprietors of Drury Lane, and produced on 10 Dec. The secret of Mr. H.'s real name (Hogsflesh) seemed trivial and vulgar to the audience, and in spite of Elliston's best efforts, the farce was hopelessly damned. Lamb was himself present, and next day recorded the failure by letter to several of his friends. He now turned to a wider field of work in connection with the drama. He made Hazlitt's acquaintance in 1805, and Hazlitt introduced him to William Godwin, who had turned children's publisher. For Godwin Lamb and his sister agreed to write the ‘Tales from Shakespeare,’ published in January 1807, a second edition following in the next year. Lamb did the tragedies and Mary the comedies. This was Lamb's first success, and first brought him into serious notice. It was followed by a child's version of the adventures of Ulysses, made from Chapman's translation of the ‘Odyssey,’ for Lamb's knowledge of Greek was moderate. This appeared in 1808. A much more important work was at hand. The publishing house of Longmans commissioned him to edit selections from the Elizabethan dramatists. This also appeared in 1808, under the title of ‘Specimens of English Dramatic Poets contemporary with Shakespeare.’ Lamb was at once recognised as a critic of the highest order, and of a kind as yet unknown to English literature, and from this time forward his position as a prose writer of marked originality was secure among the more thoughtful of his contemporaries, though it was not till some ten years later that he reached the general public. Between 1808 and 1818 his chief critical productions were the two noble essays on Hogarth and on the tragedies of Shakespeare, published in Leigh Hunt's ‘Reflector’ in 1811, while the ‘Recollections of Christ's Hospital,’ in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ of 1813, and the ‘Confessions of a Drunkard,’ contributed to his friend Basil Montagu's ‘Some Enquiries into the Effects of Fermented Liquors’ in 1814, were the first specimens of the miscellaneous essay in the vein he was to work later, with such success, in the ‘Essays of Elia.’ Meantime he was strengthening his position and widening his interests by new and stimulating friendships, Talfourd, Proctor, Crabb Robinson, Haydon, and others appearing among his correspondents, while the old relations with the Wordsworths and Coleridge remained among the best influences of his life.
In the autumn of 1817 Lamb and his sister left the Temple for lodgings in Great Russell Street, Covent Garden. Soon after a young bookseller, Charles Ollier, induced him to publish a collection of his miscellaneous writings in verse and prose, including some, like ‘John Woodvil’ and ‘Rosamund Gray,’ long out of print. These appeared in two volumes, dedicated to Coleridge, in 1818, and at once obtained for Lamb a wider recognition. A more important result was to follow. The ‘London Magazine’ made its first appearance in January 1820. Hazlitt, who was on the staff, introduced Lamb to the editor, John Scott, and he was invited to contribute occasional essays. The first of these, ‘Recollections of the South Sea House,’ appeared in August 1820. In writing the essay, Lamb remembered an obscure clerk in that office during his own short connection with it as a boy, of the name of Elia, and as a joke appended that name to the essay. In subsequent essays he continued the same signature, which became inseparably connected with the series (see letter of Lamb to his publisher, John Taylor, in July 1821). ‘Call him Ellia,’ writes Lamb, and it seems probable that the name was really thus spelled. Between August 1820 and December 1822 Lamb contributed five-and-twenty essays, thus signed, at the rate of about one a month. These were reprinted in a single volume in 1823: ‘Elia—Essays that have appeared under that signature in the “London Magazine.”’
Meantime, Lamb's elder brother John had died (November 1821), and to the increasing loneliness of his existence we owe the beautiful essay, ‘Dream Children.’ In 1822 Charles and his sister for the first time went abroad, paying a short visit to their friend James Kenney [q. v.] the dramatist, who lived at Versailles, and whose son, born in 1823, was christened Charles Lamb Kenney [q. v.] During this absence from England Mary Lamb had one of her now more frequent attacks of mental derangement. The next year brought a new anxiety into Lamb's life, in the form of a criticism from the pen of an old friend on the ‘Elia’ volume of 1823. Southey, in reviewing a work by Grégoire upon deism in France, drew a moral from the hopeless tone of one of Lamb's essays—that on ‘Witches and other Night Fears’—adding that the essays as a whole lacked a ‘sound religious feeling.’ The charge pained Lamb keenly, both as coming from an old friend and as touching a vein of real sorrow and anxiety in his mental history. He replied to the charge in the well-known ‘Letter of Elia to Robert Southey, Esq.,’ in the ‘London Magazine’ for October 1823. Southey, in reply, wrote a loving and generous letter of explanation to Lamb, and the breach between the old friends was at once healed. The same year that brought Lamb this distress was to bring compensation in a new interest added to his life. He and his sister were in the habit of spending their autumn holiday at Cambridge, where they had a friend, Mrs. Paris, sister of Lamb's old friend, William Ayrton. Here the Lambs met a little orphan girl, Emma Isola, daughter of Charles Isola, one of the esquire bedells of the university. They invited her to spend subsequent holidays with them, and finally adopted her. During the remaining ten years of Lamb's life the companionship of the young girl supplied the truest solace and relief amid the deepening anxieties of the home life. Lamb and his sister devoted themselves to her education, and though in after years she left them at times to become herself a teacher of others, their house was her home until her marriage with Edward Moxon, the publisher, in 1833. Mrs. Moxon died in March 1891.
In August 1823 the Lambs left their rooms in Russell Street, Covent Garden, ‘over the Brazier's,’ and took a cottage in Colebrooke Row, Islington, the New River flowing at the foot of their garden. Lamb describes the house in a letter of 2 Sept. to Bernard Barton [q.v.] , the quaker poet of Woodbridge, who was one of Lamb's later friends, acquired through the ‘London Magazine.’ To him many of Lamb's happiest letters are addressed. Meantime Lamb was writing more ‘Elia’ essays, though with weakening health and increasing restlessness. Already he was considering the chances of retirement from the India House, and a severe illness in the winter of 1824–5 brought the matter to an issue. His doctors urgently supported his application to the directors, and the happy result was made known to him in March 1825, when it was announced that a retiring pension would be awarded him, consisting of three-fourths of his salary, with a slight deduction to insure an allowance for his sister in the event of her surviving. ‘After thirty-three years' slavery,’ he wrote to Wordsworth, ‘here am I a freed man, with 441l. a year for the remainder of my life.’ The first use that Lamb made of his freedom was to pay visits of varying length in the country, always in the direction of his favourite Hertfordshire. The brother and sister took lodgings occasionally at the Chace, Enfield, and after two years became sole tenants of the little house. Meantime the trials of having nothing to do became very real to them both. Lamb was an excellent walker, and in the summer months he found great pleasure in exploring the scenery of Hertfordshire, with the comforting remembrance that he was still in easy touch with London and friends. But old friends were dying, and Lamb's loyal nature found little compensation in the cultivation of new ones. That devoted friend of his childhood, Mr. Randal Norris, sub-treasurer of the Inner Temple, died in January 1827, and is the subject of a pathetic letter to Crabb Robinson—‘To the last he called me Charley. I have none to call me Charley now.’ Randal Norris left two daughters, who set up a school at Widford, to which village their mother had belonged. The younger, Mrs. Arthur Tween, who was well known to the present writer, died at an advanced age at Widford in July 1891. During the few remaining years of Lamb's life it was a favourite excursion for him and Miss Isola to walk over to Widford and beg a half-holiday for the girls and tell them stories.
In 1828 Lamb obtained some literary work of a kind thoroughly congenial. He wished to assist Hone, then producing his ‘Table Book,’ and undertook to make extracts (after the model of his ‘Dramatic Specimens’ of 1808) from the Garrick plays in the British Museum. He had written also for the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ in 1826, his essays called ‘Popular Fallacies.’ He wrote also occasional verse, and at times in his happiest and most characteristic vein, such as the lines ‘On an Infant dying as soon as born,’ written on the death of Thomas Hood's first child, in 1828. Acrostics also, and other such trifles, and album verses, became increasingly in request among his young lady friends. And in 1830, to help his friend Moxon, then newly starting as publisher, he made a collection of these, under the title of ‘Album Verses, with a few others.’ In the summer of 1829 the brother and sister had again to change their residence. Mary's health was steadily weakening, her attacks and periods of absence from home became longer, and the cares of housekeeping proved intolerable. They moved, accordingly, to the adjoining house in Enfield Chace, and boarded with a retired tradesman and his wife, a Mr. and Mrs. Westwood. The immediate effects were satisfactory, and for a while Mary Lamb seemed to improve in health and spirits. But Charles meantime became less at ease in country life. The next year brought him new distractions. Emma Isola, for whom the Lambs had found a situation as governess in Suffolk, had a serious illness, during which Lamb visited her, and finally brought her home, convalescent, to Enfield. In 1833 the Lambs moved once more, and for the last time. Mary's improvement in health had been merely temporary, and it became necessary for her to be under more skilful and constant nursing. During previous illnesses she had been placed under the care of a Mr. and Mrs. Walden, at Bay Cottage, Edmonton (the parish adjoining Enfield), and now the brother and sister moved together, to spend, as it proved, the last two years of their united lives under the Waldens' roof.
In the same year Emma Isola became engaged to Edward Moxon, and the marriage took place in July 1833, leaving Charles Lamb yet more lonely, and without social resource. The ‘Last Essays of Elia,’ mainly from the ‘London Magazine,’ were published this year by Moxon, and but for an occasional copy of verses for a friend's album, Lamb's literary career was closed. In July 1834 Coleridge died, and with this event Lamb's last surviving friend passed from him. He himself, more and more lonely and forlorn, bore his heavy burden five months longer. One day in December, while walking on the London Road, he stumbled and fell, slightly wounding his face. A few days later erysipelas supervened, and he had no strength left to battle with the disease. He passed away without pain, on 27 Dec. 1834, and was buried in Edmonton churchyard. His sister survived him nearly thirteen years, dying at Alpha Road, St. John's Wood, on 20 May 1847; she was buried beside her brother. Charles left her his savings, amounting to about 2,000l., and she was also entitled to the pension reserved to her by the terms of Lamb's retirement from the India House.
No figure in literature is better known to us than Lamb. His writings, prose and verse, are full of personal revelations. We possess a body of his correspondence, also of the most confidential kind, and his friends have left descriptions of him from almost every point of view. He numbered among his earliest friends Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, and among his later Proctor, Talfourd, Hood, Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, Crabb Robinson, while many of his most characteristic letters were written to men who have attained general fame mainly through Lamb's friendship. Notable among these are Thomas Manning and Bernard Barton. No man was ever more loved by a wide and varied class of friends. His lifelong devotion to his sister, for whose sake he abjured all thoughts of marriage; the unique attachment between the pair; Lamb's unfailing loyalty to his friends, who often levied heavy taxes on his purse and leisure; his very eccentricities and petulances, including his one serious frailty—a too careless indulgence in strong drinks—excited a profound pity in those who knew the unceasing domestic difficulties which he surmounted so bravely for eight-and-thirty years. It is likely that the necessity of protecting and succouring his sister acted as a strong power over his will, and helped to preserve his sanity during the hardship of the years that followed. But one result of the taint of insanity inherited from his mother was that a very small amount of alcohol was enough at any time to throw his mind off its balance. He was afflicted, moreover, all his life with a bad stutter, and the eagerness to forget the impediment, which put him at a disadvantage in all conversations, probably further encouraged the habit. The infirmity, which has been in turn denied and exaggerated by friends and enemies, never interfered with the regular performance of his official duties, or with his domestic responsibilities.
The extant portraits of Lamb are the following: 1. By Robert Hancock of Bristol, 1798, drawn for Joseph Cottle; in the National Portrait Gallery. 2. By Wm. Hazlitt, 1805, in a fancy dress; in the National Portrait Gallery. 3. By G. F. Joseph, A.R.A., 1819; water-colour drawing made to illustrate a copy of ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers;’ in the British Museum. 4. Etching on copper by Brook Pulham, a friend of Lamb's in the India House, 1825. 5. By Henry Meyer, 1826; in the India Office: of two small replicas one is in the National Portrait Gallery and the other belongs to Sir Charles Dilke, bart., M.P. 6. By T. Wageman, 1824 or 1825; engraved in Talfourd's ‘Letters of Charles Lamb,’ 1837; in America. 7. Charles Lamb and his sister together, by F. S. Cary, 1834; in the National Portrait Gallery. 8. By Maclise, sketch in ‘Fraser's Magazine,’ 1835.
Lamb's writings published in book form are: 1. ‘Poems on Various Subjects, by S. T. Coleridge, late of Jesus College, Cambridge,’ 1796, contains four sonnets by Lamb signed ‘C. L.,’ referred to by Coleridge in his preface as by ‘Mr. Charles Lamb of the India House.’ 2. ‘Poems by S. T. Coleridge, 2nd edit., to which are now added Poems by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd,’ 1797. 3. ‘Blank Verse by Charles Lloyd and Charles Lamb,’ 1798. 4. ‘A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret, by Charles Lamb,’ 1798. 5. ‘John Woodvil, a Tragedy, by Charles Lamb,’ &c., 1802. 6. ‘Mrs. Leicester's School,’ &c., 1807, by Charles and Mary Lamb, Charles contributing three of the stories, ‘The Witch Aunt,’ ‘First Going to Church,’ and the ‘Sea Voyage.’ 7. ‘Tales from Shakespeare, &c., by Charles Lamb,’ 1807. The bulk of the tales were written by Mary Lamb, Charles contributing the tragedies. 8. ‘The Adventures of Ulysses, by Charles Lamb,’ 1808. 9. ‘Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, with Notes by Charles Lamb,’ 1808. 10. ‘Poetry for Children, entirely original, by the author of “Mrs. Leicester's School,”’ anonymous, by Charles and Mary Lamb. The respective shares of the two writers were not indicated. A few of Lamb's verses were reprinted by him in his ‘Collected Works’ in 1818. 11. ‘Prince Dorus,’ a poetical version of an ancient tale, 1811. 12. ‘The Works of Charles Lamb,’ in 2 vols. London, 1818. 13. ‘Elia—Essays which have appeared under that signature in the “London Magazine,”’ 1823. 14. ‘Album Verses, with a few others,’ by Charles Lamb, 1830. 15. ‘Satan in Search of a Wife,’ 1831. 16. ‘The Last Essays of Elia,’ 1833. In this list are not included Lamb's occasional contributions to periodical literature, such as albums and keepsakes, prologues, and epilogues to plays, and the like, almost all of which are to be found collected in posthumous editions of his works. As to Lamb's authorship of a child's book, done for Godwin, on the fairy tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ there is no direct evidence, while all the indirect evidence points to an opposite conclusion.[Excepting short memoirs, which appeared after Lamb's death, by Forster, Moxon, B. Field, and others, the first biography was Talfourd's Letters of Charles Lamb, with a Sketch of his Life, 1837. After Mary Lamb's death, in 1847, Talfourd produced a supplementary volume, the Final Memorials of Charles Lamb, 1848. An independent memoir, based upon personal recollections, by Barry Cornwall—Charles Lamb, a Memoir—appeared in 1866. In 1868, and again in 1875, Talfourd's two books were reissued, digested into a continuous narrative, with many additions, prefixed to new editions of the Works, the second of these edited by Mr. Percy Fitzgerald. In 1886 Mr. W. C. Hazlitt edited afresh Talfourd's two works, again digested into one, with additions, both to the letters and Talfourd's own text. Meantime, in 1875, Mr. Charles Kent prefixed a short memoir of Lamb to Routledge's one-volume Centenary Edition of the Works, adding several new facts of interest, including a letter from Fanny Kelly regarding the essay ‘Barbara S.’ In 1882 the present writer furnished the memoir of Lamb in the Men of Letters Series, since revised and enlarged, 1888. An annotated edition of Lamb's complete Works and Correspondence, by the same writer, was published in six volumes (1883–8). Other works referring in various ways to Lamb are Cottle's Early Recollections of Coleridge, 1837; Patmore's My Friends and Acquaintances, 1854; Hood's Literary Reminiscences (Hood's Own, 1st ser.); Crabb Robinson's Diary; Leigh Hunt's Autobiography; Memoirs of W. Hazlitt; Mr. and Mrs. Cowden Clarke's Recollections of Writers; Mary Lamb, by Mrs. Gilchrist, in the Eminent Women Series. The last attempt at a complete bibliography of Lamb's writings is that by Mr. E. D. North, appended to Martin's In the Footprints of Charles Lamb, New York, 1890.]
A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb
by Sarah Burton
446pp, Viking, £16.99
Readers of Charles Lamb fall into two main camps. There are the devotees of "Elia" (his anecdotal, eccentric and humorous essay-writing alias), members of the Charles Lamb Society, who cherish his every witticism, hold regular dinners in his honour and make pilgrimages to his home at Enfield. And there are those who dismiss him as the most minor of the Romantics, frivolous and whimsical, a lesser essayist than Hazlitt and an infinitely inferior poet to his friends Coleridge and Wordsworth. And if Charles Lamb is underpraised in some quarters, his sister Mary is even more so. She is known only for two irreconcilable things: as the co-author with her brother of Tales from Shakespeare , attractive résumés of the plays for children, and as the woman who killed her mother.
Sarah Burton's affectionate, workmanlike double biography of these two peculiar and sympathetic early 19th-century figures sets out to remedy any neglect and to hold the balance between them. Charles comes over more brightly, because he has most of the best lines and stories and more published work, and because Mary is buried in the dark silence of insanity for much of her life. But their steadfast, troubled companionship from childhood into old age, their generous friendships and their odd habits are carefully drawn here. And a very curious picture it is.
The Lambs had a poor London childhood with aspirations to gentility. Their mother neglected them both in favour of their older brother John. Both were sensitive children who could read themselves into nightmares and "nervous terrors". Mary was apprenticed at 14 as a mantua-maker. Charles (who had a stammer and a limp) was a Bluecoat boy at Christ's Hospital, that highly respected free school for the sons of tradesmen and impoverished gentry. He started work in his teens as a clerk in the East India House accounts office, and worked there until he was 50. He and Mary had to keep a senile father, a mother paralysed by a stroke, and her hostile, difficult old sister. Charles and Mary both suffered from what sounds like manic depression and Charles spent some months in an asylum when he was 20. In 1796, Mary, aged 32, suffering from a severe breakdown, stabbed her mother with a carving-knife; Charles discovered the scene. Mary would be committed to institutions, on and off, for the rest of her life, mainly in the Hoxton "mad-houses" of Islington (where conditions, graphically described here, were often appalling). But Charles dedicated himself to caring for her at home whenever possible, in various lodgings in London (landlords didn't like mad tenants) and later, less successfully, in Enfield - whose "quiet dullness" was anathema to these passionate city-lovers. Neither married. Charles learnt to anticipate the onset of Mary's manic phases and they always had a straitjacket to hand.
These were, to an extent, straitjacketed lives. Mary wrote (poetry and stories for children, vivid letters) but couldn't put her name to the Tales , as her history would have stopped them selling. In her manic phases, streams of narrative - thwarted writings? -poured out of her, often sparkling, as one friend noted, "with brilliant descriptions and shattered beauty", or minutely recalling every detail of her childhood. Charles bitterly complained all his life at being "a prisoner to the desk" of the office ("I wish God would fire it to the ground . . . it cuts sad great slices out of the time") but, after he took early retirement, complained as much about the horrors of having time to kill. His fame as "Elia" in the London Magazine came late, and before the success of his essays he tried playwriting, radical journalism, reviewing and poetry. He was dogged by terrible writer's block, inability to concentrate, organise his materials, or meet deadlines. Mary described them writing together: "I taking snuff & he groaning all the while & saying he can make nothing of it, which he always says till he has finished and then he finds out he has made something of it."
He was a notorious alcoholic, and wrote brilliantly about the condition: "He is going to turn sober, but his Clock has not struck yet, meantime he pours down goblet after goblet, the 2d to see where the 1st is gone, the 3d to see no harm happens to the second, a fourth to say there's another coming, and a 5th to say he's not sure he's the last." There was, always, what one friend called "a constitutional sadness about Lamb's mind", and the interdependence between the brother and sister could be wretched as well as sustaining. Mary wrote in 1805: "You would laugh, or you would cry, perhaps both, to see us sit together looking at each other with long and rueful faces, & saying how do you do? & how do you do? & then we fall a crying & say we will be better on the morrow."
Laughing and crying both together are what Elia's essays and the Lambs' life invoke, and it's a merit of Burton's book that what could be a deeply depressing story keeps turning into comedy. The Lambs were immensely gregarious, and their lodgings were always overrun with guests, poets mixed up with a "ragged regiment" of sea-captains, actors, silversmiths, musicians, journalists, artists and scholars. Charles spent half his time longing for visitors (especially at "the WISHING time of night, when you wish for somebody to come in, without a distinct idea of a probably anybody") and half his time dreading them: "I am never C.L. but always C.L. & Co."
Some people found them ridiculous - Carlyle called them "a very sorry pair of phenomena" - but mostly they were loved, Charles for his jokes and clowning, Mary for her sweetness and good sense (qualities which struck everyone, when she was calm). In a society of quarrelling geniuses they were exceptionally loyal and tender friends. Lamb was at school with Coleridge and was devoted to him, though warily: "If I lived with him, I should in a very little time lose my own identity." Though they fell out, Lamb always defended him in his decline, gave him good literary advice ("cultivate simplicity"), tried to keep the peace between him and the Wordsworths and lamented his death finely: "His great and dear Spirit haunts me . . . He was the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations." The Lambs also stood by the impossibly quarrelsome Hazlitt and gave practical support as well as sympathy when Wordsworth's brother John, a naval captain, was drowned in a shipwreck.
Lamb was often rude to his friends. He would pretend they couldn't play music or their food was no good or they had called at the wrong time, would introduce Mary to visitors as a drunk, would giggle helplessly during a wedding ceremony or suddenly leap-frog over a guest who was bending over. At "the immortal dinner" given by the painter Ben jamin Haydon in 1817, attended by Keats, Wordsworth, and Landseer, among others, Lamb got drunk, tackled Wordsworth on his view of Voltaire, fell asleep, mocked a visiting civil servant who was trying to impress Wordsworth, and had to be forcibly removed by Keats and Haydon. Most understood this buffoonery as part of the childishness that was the Lambs' defining characteristic. Childless, their strongest sympathies were for children, and their life together had a sweet, unworldly, infantile quality.
Burton tells us all about their "bouts of trauma" as children: her prose, unfortunately, is often a blunt instrument. Depths have to be plummeted, reminders are always stark, issues rear their problematic heads. Formulaic biographese ("Although Charles was not yet aware of the fact, it was the dawning of a new era of his life") alternates with some dogged psychoanalytical guesswork about the effects of bad "brothering" or the symptoms of repressed desires: "She [Mary] may subconsciously have been wishing Emma away so that she would regain her position as Charles's principal significant 'other'."
Burton never really pins down the seductive and subtle mixture in "Elia" of confession, disguise, fantasy, digression and dreaming. Still, she tells a well-organised, lively and interesting story, and there is plenty of wonderful writing to be found in it: Mary on shopping in London ("bustling down Fleet-Market-in-all-its-glory of a saturday night, admiring the stale peas and co'lly flowers and chep'ning small bits of mutton and veal for our Sunday's dinner's, returning home in all haste"), Charles on the loss of a particular friend: "One sees a picture, reads an anecdote, starts a casual fancy, and thinks to tell of it to this person in preference to every other - the person is gone whom it would have peculiarly suited. It won't do for another. Every departure destroys a class of sympathies . . . Common natures do not suffice me. Good people, as they are called, won't serve. I want individuals. I am made up of queer points and I want so many answering needles."