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Charles Lamb was a hard-drinking essayist devoted to his beloved unstable sister

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Shakespeare on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about English literature first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 469 published on 9 January 1971.

Charles and Mary Lamb, picture, image, illustration

Charles Lamb and his sister were driven from one lodging to another by local gossip about how Mary Lamb had suffered a brainstorm and stabbed her mother to death

Mary Lamb snapped angrily over her needlework at the young servant girl who was working at the table in the Lamb family’s sitting-room.

The girl had said something to annoy Mary, whose quick temper had always been aggravated by the amount of work she had to do in order to keep her poverty-stricken parents alive.

While Mary’s senile father dozed in a corner and her brother Charles was working, her mother gently chided her. Unfortunately, the servant girl unwisely snapped back at Mary, who picked up a knife from the table and pursued the servant round the room. Mrs. Lamb jumped up and tried to pull the knife from her daughter’s hand. Brimming with uncontrollable rage, Mary swung the knife at her mother and pierced her heart with it.

Then Mary picked up a handful of other knives and hurled them round the room. One of them wounding her father, others embedded themselves in walls. It was left to her brother Charles to overcome her.

Next day, at an inquest, Mary Lamb was adjudged to be insane, and ordered to live in a mental hospital. But her madness was only temporary. And at that time, in the latter half of the 18th century, dangerous people who could return to sanity, even if only temporarily, were allowed to live at home. So Mary Lamb was soon back with her family.

With her mother dead and her father a sick man, there was only Charles to look after her. He surrendered a prospect of marriage and devoted the rest of his life to caring for Mary, whose madness regularly returned.

Hers was hereditary and both Charles and their brother John had been previous victims of it. Mary’s attacks were generally attended by forewarnings, which enabled brother and sister to take the necessary measures. A friend of Lamb’s has related how he met Charles and Mary “walking hand in hand across the fields to the old mental asylum, both bathed in tears.”

Lamb bore his self-imposed task with incredible fortitude. Shunned and sometimes driven from lodging to lodging, the brother and sister never lost their faith and trust in each other.

Every morning Charles Lamb would set out for his office at the East India Company, where he was employed in the accounting department. There he would sit, dressed in clerk-like black, a light, thin frame surmounted by a head crowned with curly black hair; “a most noble and sweet face,” we are told. His salary when he started was £70 a year, with one week’s paid holiday annually; the monotony was only broken by an occasional visit to the theatre.

When life seemed too burdensome, Lamb resorted to alcohol. Many times he tried to break the habit, but he remained a hard drinker until he died. Yet out of all this, Charles Lamb fashioned an immortal name for himself in the literature of Britain.

He was born on 10th February, 1775, in London, and went to school at Christ’s Hospital, the famous “Blue Coat” school. He tells us himself that his childhood was sensitive and superstitious. “I was dreadfully alive to nervous terrors. The night-time solitude and the dark were my hell.”

Lamb read the classics and recited large parts of them with a shy stammer, but his work was needed to supply the needs of his family, and there was no question of a university career.

Nevertheless, from his clerk’s stool Lamb soon showed that he could write poetry and some of his poems were included in a book by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet who was one of Lamb’s school friends at Christ’s Hospital. From poetry he went on to make occasional contributions to the Morning Post; once his assignment was to provide six jokes a day at sixpence a joke.

Shakespeare and the Elizabethan poets had always held a special place in Lamb’s heart, so he accepted a publisher’s offer of 60 guineas to write a book turning Shakespeare’s plays into tales for children. Lamb worked on the book with his sister and during their task he wrote modestly to a friend, “I think it will be popular among the little people.” Their Tales from Shakespeare, published in 1807, was an instant success, and established Lamb as an essayist and critic of high rank.

Lamb’s next big chance came in 1820, when a new monthly journal, the London Magazine, was born. Within a few months readers were noticing the delightful essays which appeared regularly over the name Elia. The origin of this immortal nom-de-plume, says Lamb, was that it was the name of an Italian clerk with whom he had once worked; wishing to remain anonymous in the magazine he told the editor to sign his essays simply “Elia.”

The first 25 Essays of Elia were issued in a book in 1823, and with a second series published later Lamb was recognised as the greatest essayist of his day.

Lamb numbered among his friends the poets Wordsworth, Keats and Southey, as well as Coleridge, yet curiously the countryside in which these men revelled never had the slightest call for Charles Lamb. He was seldom seen, and rarely happy, outside the London he loved.

The success of Elia and his other occasional writings, plus promotion at his office, brought Lamb a steadily rising income. Although Mary’s attacks of madness increased, the Lambs felt secure enough to adopt an orphan girl who lived with them until she married.

Charles Lamb felt, too, that he was now well enough off to retire. The East India directors treated him well with a pension of £441 a year for life. He lived very little longer to enjoy it, though, for one December day in 1834 Lamb tripped and fell in the street. The slight wound that resulted worsened and within a week he died.

Mary Lamb lived on in the care of a nurse for nearly 13 years more, dying at the age of 82 in 1847.

* * *

Lamb’s books of essays, the Essays of Elia on which his fame is founded, are really a collection of a writer’s rambling thoughts. What singles them out from essays by lesser writers is their intense charm, their remarkable humanity and their deep intellect.

A large portion of Lamb’s history is related in the essays and he uses them to give his views and opinions on almost everything. In an essay called Old China, Lamb uses a dialogue to tell with what loving care a poor man used to buy tatty books and mend them. Was there no pleasure in being a poor man, he asks, for, “Now you can afford to buy any book that pleases you, but I do not see that you ever bring home any nice old purchases now.”

It must have been with real knowledge gained from his employment that Lamb was able to analyse an accountant in his essay South-Sea House. “You could not speak of anything romantic (to him) without rebuke. The striking of the annual balance in the company’s books occupied his days and nights for a month previous. . . . His life was formal. His actions seemed ruled with a ruler. He would swear at the little orphans, whose rights he would guard with a tenacity like the grasp of the dying hand that commended their interests to his protection.”

Two essays that everyone should read are the Dissertation on Roast Pig, Lamb’s version of how man first discovered the delights of roast pork, and Imperfect Sympathies, in which Lamb brilliantly analyses the character of the Scots. Other splendid essays, such as On Chimney Sweeps and The Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis, are citations of Lamb’s observing eye on London, with which he surveyed the city streets “looking no one in the face for more than a moment, but contriving to see everything as he went on.”

In their Tales from Shakespeare the Lambs provided what is perhaps the best ever introduction to the study of Shakespeare, and particularly in the subtleties of his language and rhythm. For the ear of both brother and sister had been trained to Elizabethan English, and they were able to weave the words of Shakespeare into the narrative without producing any effect of discrepancy between the old and the new.

Lamb’s first book was a collection of poems called A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret. He wrote two plays, John Woodvil and Mr. H., and children’s books which included The King and Queen of Hearts, and The Adventures of Ulysses.

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