Charles Lamb worked as a clerk for a mercantile firm from the age of 17 until he retired at 50. A writer by avocation, he published poetry, a novel, two plays, critical essays, stories for children (with his sister Mary), and familiar essays. His critical essays earned respect, and Tales from Shakespeare (1807), a collection of plot sketches for children, remains popular. The familiar essays, however, are the works on which his literary reputation rests. These essays began to appear in 1820, most of them in the London Magazine. Lamb later collected them in three volumes: two series of Elia (1823, 1828) and The Last Essays of Elia (1833). Selections were regularly anthologized for more than a century after Lamb’s death, and the collection continues to receive critical attention.
Lamb helped shape the English essay. Before the Romantic period, the essay was defined by the work of Addison and Steele—familiar in tone, social and didactic in purpose. In the hands of Lamb and his contemporaries, the essay became familiar not only in tone but also in purpose. Rather than posing as models of a social class, Lamb and writers like William Hazlitt and Thomas De Quincey appeared personally in their own texts and declared their personal opinions. The personality of the writer merged with the substance of the essay. Lamb stands apart even from his contemporaries, however, in foregrounding the writer’s personality, for two reasons. First, in Lamb’s essays, the personality of the writer nudges the thesis off stage. Writing in the persona of Elia, a charming, curious, and talkative London bachelor, Lamb reminisces, describes a scene or a character, proposes one opinion only to replace it with another—often all of these in a single essay—never seriously advancing a thesis. One effect is that the reader, after “conversing” with Elia, is so well entertained as not to notice, or mind, the absence of a point. Elia’s personal charm is the whole essay. Another effect of the essays’ taking no strong stands, however, is that Elia’s personality is elusive. A feeling of intimacy combines with a sense of never knowing where the essays rest intellectually. For these reasons, in Lamb’s hands the English essay becomes not a vehicle for ideas, but a plaything, a divertissement.
The familiar tone of his essays comes partly from a conversational flow of words— Lamb took great pains revising his texts in order to achieve the effect of conversational ease—and partly from a choice of the most commonplace subjects. The subjects of the essays suit the tone. Lamb—or Elia—does not try to figure out life, any more than he tries to explain himself personally. Delighting in the diversion of the moment, he chats ardently on ordinary topics. He recalls the adventure of a walk in town, portrays an odd character, or describes a familiar place. The most typical essays, and the most beloved, take up an array of homely, familiar themes, evident in a sampling of titles: “Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist” (1821), “The South-Sea House” (1820), “A Chapter on Ears” (1821), “Grace Before Meat” (1821), “Witches, and Other Night Fears” (1821), “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers” (1822), “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig” (1822), “The Tombs in the Abbey” (1823), and so on.
Lamb’s familiar tone was directed to a familiar audience—educated Londoners whom he knew personally. Although a stammer kept Lamb from pursuing a university education (which prepared one for the pulpit), he was gifted and well read enough to mingle with the intellectual elite. His stammer did not prevent him from attaining a reputation as a stimulating conversationalist. A sociable, kindly person, fond of jokes and puns, Lamb liked company. His eclectic social gatherings included well-known Romantics, and literature and art were frequent topics of conversation. Close to Coleridge, Hazlitt, Southey, and Wordsworth, Lamb also socialized with De Quincey, Hunt, and Keats, among others. In 1820 the founding of the London Magazine provided a public showcase for the wit of such social gatherings, and coincidentally guided Lamb to the medium best suited for his literary talents. Old friends and new literary comrades met in the London’s pages—and at monthly dinners—creating a milieu of fellow writers and readers who labored to impress and surpass each other, who stimulated and informed each other, and whose habitual acquaintance gave support and encouragement. It is this circle—and, by extension, the educated people of London in the 1820s—for whom Lamb primarily wrote.
Besides Elia’s playfulness and familiar tone, several other features distinguish Lamb’s style. His puckish humor moved him often to mix fact with fiction, historical accuracy with imagination. His love for the literature of previous centuries seasoned his essays with old-fashioned expressions and allusions to Shakespeare, Milton, and the prose writers Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, and Thomas Fuller; even at the moment they were published, Lamb’s essays had an archaic flavor because of his taste for literature over a century old. He also possessed what he called an “antithetical manner,” which led him to entertain contrary viewpoints with equanimity. Finally, he was sentimental, sometimes to the point of sentimentality. Each of these idiosyncrasies contributes in its own way to the elusiveness of the essays, and together they have caused some critics to call them “quaint”; yet Lamb’s ability to make his own idiosyncrasies the subject of artful reflection helped create the familiar or personal essay.
No single passage can illustrate all of Lamb’s qualities, but perhaps a few citations can give a sense of his style. In Lamb’s most anthologized essay, “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig,” Elia professes to have found an ancient Chinese manuscript that describes the discovery of this delicacy. The alleged document tells how a father and son are tried for arson after they repeatedly burn down their house—the only way they know of roasting pigs, which are trapped inside. The two are acquitted, however, when the jury discover how delicious the evidence is: The judge, who was a shrewd fellow, winked at the manifest iniquity of the decision; and when the court was dismissed, went privily and bought up all the pigs that could be had for love or money. In a few days his lordship’s townhouse was observed to be on fire. The thing took wing, and now there was nothing to be seen but fires in every direction. Fuel and pigs grew enormously dear all over the district. The insurance-offices one and all shut up shop. People built slighter and slighter every day, until it was feared that the very science of architecture would in no long time be lost to the world. Thus this custom of firing houses continued, till in process of time, says my manuscript, a sage arose, like our Locke, who made a discovery that the flesh of swine, or indeed of any other animal, might be cooked…without the necessity of consuming a whole house to dress it.
Here broad burlesque extends beyond its initial success and transforms itself gradually into finer humor. The series of quips, each topping the one before, recalls the playfulness of the talk that Lamb so enjoyed at social gatherings. This passage also presents fanciful material as if it were true, mocking Lamb’s own antiquarian bent by treating the “manuscript” with scholarly respect.
Lamb’s more sentimental, less detached nature appears and reappears alongside his humor. While these two qualities often complement and mitigate each other, occasionally sentiment waxes into reverie. In “Old China” (1823), for example, Elia’s cousin and living companion Bridget (modeled on Lamb’s sister Mary) reminisces longingly on earlier days. Life was better when they were poor, she says, because they appreciated so much more the purchases for which they had to scrimp and save:
Do you remember the brown suit, which you made to hang upon you, till all your friends cried shame upon you, it grew so threadbare—and all because of that folio Beaumont and Fletcher, which you dragged home late at night from Barker’s in Covent Garden? Do you remember how we eyed it for weeks before we could make up our minds to the purchase, and had not come to a determination till it was near ten o’clock of the Saturday night, when you set off from Islington, fearing you should be too late—and when the old bookseller with some grumbling opened his shop, and by the twinkling taper (for he was setting bedwards) lighted out the relic from his dusty treasures—and when you lugged it home, wishing it were twice as cumbersome—and when you presented it to me—and when we were exploring the perfectness of it…and while I was repairing some of the loose leaves with paste, which your impatience would not suffer to be left till day-break—was there no pleasure in being a poor man?
Even in this sentimental passage, however, Lamb the craftsman does not let the essay rest on nostalgia alone. After Elia hears Bridget out, he returns a gentle rebuttal, “It is true we were happier when we were poorer, but we were also younger, my cousin…” Neither Elia nor Bridget can be said to “win” their hearthside debate—Elia gets the last word, but Bridget holds the floor longer. The essay concludes in a sort of suspension or synthesis, embracing the best of both arguments. Several of Lamb’s essays exhibit this “antithetical manner.” “Dissertation upon Roast Pig,” for example, mentioned above, emphasizes the tenderness of the suckling to the point of making it an object of pity and even a symbol of Christ-like suffering. Yet the lightness of Lamb’s touch avoids a collision between sympathy and appetite.
The elusiveness created by this and other devices of Lamb’s style is a focus of much criticism of the essays, both negative and positive. Critics question whether Elia is Lamb, and what the essays reveal of the author’s real thoughts. Many similarities between Elia and Lamb invite further comparison; and remarkable circumstances of Lamb’s life make scrutiny of his essays more intense. As a young man Lamb lived with his sister Mary (ten years older than Lamb), their father and invalid mother and an aunt. When he was 21, Lamb returned home from work to find that Mary, in a fit of madness, had killed their mother with a knife. Lamb mastered the situation at that moment, kept his poise throughout the aftermath, and from then on devoted his life to his sister, caring for her personally rather than allowing her to be confined to an asylum. Lamb himself had spent six weeks in an asylum at the age of 20. He was known in adulthood as a bit of an eccentric, incurably informal in social situations, and possessed of high tolerance for unpopular opinions.
These circumstances of Lamb’s life affect critics differently. One extreme of opinion regards him as a saint, not only for the essays’ constant good spirits, but also for the image of Lamb smiling in the face of disaster, sacrificing himself for Mary. The other extreme regrets that the essays lack any direct reference to his mother, his sister, or his love life, and sees Lamb as a coward for refusing to grapple intellectually with life’s difficulties.
Most contemporary criticism praised the prose as the work of a person whose benignity shines through it. The essays were loved for the sake of the author, and their literary merits were described in general terms. This brand of criticism continued for about a hundred years. New Criticism tended to see Lamb’s essays in a negative light. In the 1960s, however, close readings of Elia began to appear which recognized artistic achievement in the essays and attempted to account for it.
This recent criticism has interpreted Lamb’s elusiveness as subtlety. Perhaps the most comprehensive view sees the essays as foils for the overly serious mind. Robert Frank (1976) suggests that Lamb felt one could not write seriously to his contemporaries because they were already too serious—stuck in moral positions and incapable of suspending judgment. Lamb took as his task, then, to teach the reader to give up judging; to open the reader’s mind by calling all ideas into question. Given a reader who is opinionated, a writer seeks to deflect, to dissolve, to disqualify serious debate in an attempt to achieve level ground. This may be the sober strategy behind Elia’s elusiveness.
Or Lamb may simply be expressing his own inclination to dwell (Zen-like?) in the moment.
Born 10 February 1775 in London. Studied at Christ’s Hospital, London, 1782–89, where he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Clerk for the merchant Joseph Paice, 1790–91, in the examiner’s office of the South Sea Company, 1791–91, and in the accountant’s office of the East India Company, 1792–1825: retired with pension. Had a nervous breakdown and spent six weeks in an asylum, 1795–96; suffered from melancholia throughout the rest of his life; guardian from 1796 of his sister Mary, who suffered from mental illness and periodically had to be confined. Associated with Coleridge, Robert Southey, and William Hazlitt, and William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Wrote Elia essays for the London Magazine, 1820–25; also contributed to other journals. Lived in Enfield, Middlesex, 1827–32, and Edmonton, Middlesex, 1833–34. Died (of erysipelas) in Edmonton, 27 December 1834.
Essays and Related Prose
Elia: Essays Which Have Appeared Under That Signature in the London Magazine, 1823; Second Series, 1828; both series, 2 vols., 1835; edited by W.Macdonald, 2 vols., 1929, Malcolm Elwin, with The Last Essays of Elia, 1952, and Jonathan Bate, with The Last Essays of Elia, 1987
The Last Essays of Elia, 1833; edited by Malcolm Elwin, with Elia, 1952, and Jonathan Bate, with Elia, 1987
Charles Lamb and Elia, edited by J.E.Morpurgo, 1948
The Portable Lamb, edited by John Masson Brown, 1949
A Lamb Selection: Letters and Essays, edited by F.B.Pinion, 1965
Lamb as Critic, edited by Roy Park, 1980
Selected Prose, edited by Adam Philips, 1985
Other writings: the Tales from Shakespeare with his sister Mary (2 vols., 1807), the novel Rosamund Gray (1798), two plays, poetry, tales and poetry for children, and several volumes of correspondence.
Collected works editions: The Works of Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb, edited by E.V.Lucas, 7 vols., 1903–05; Works (Oxford Edition), edited by Thomas Hutchinson, 2 vols., 1908.
Barnett, George L., and Stuart M.Tave, “Charles Lamb,” in The English Romantic Poets and Essayists: A Review of Research and Criticism, edited by Carolyn Washburn Houtchens and Lawrence Huston Houtchens, New York: New York University Press, and London: University of London Press, revised edition, 1966:37–74
Livingston, Luther S., A Bibliography of the First Editions in Book Form of the Writings of Charles and Mary Lamb, New York: De Vinne Press, 1903
Thomson, J.C, Bibliography of the Writings of Charles and Mary Lamb, Hull: Tutin, 1908
Barnett, George L., Charles Lamb: The Evolution of Elia, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964
Barnett, George L., Charles Lamb, Boston: Twayne, 1976
Brier, Peter A., “Dramatic Characterization in the Essays of Charles Lamb,” Coronto 8 (1973):3–24
Cecil, David, A Portrait of Charles Lamb, London: Constable, and New York: Scribner, 1983
Flesch, William, “‘Friendly and Judicious’ Reading: Affect and Irony in the Works of Charles Lamb,” Studies in Romanticism 23 (Summer 1984):163–81
Frank, Robert, Don’t Call Me Gentle Charles! An Essay on Lamb’s Essays of Elia, Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1976
Greene, Graham, “Lamb’s Testimonials,” Spectator no. 5518 (30 March 1935):512–13
Haven, Richard, “The Romantic Art of Charles Lamb,” English Literary History 30 (June 1963):137–46
Jessup, Bernard, “The Mind of Elia,” Journal of the History of Ideas 25 (1954):246–59
Monsman, Gerald, “Charles Lamb’s Art of Autobiography,” English Literary History 50 (Fall 1983):541–57
More, Paul Elmer, Shelburne Essays, 2nd series, New York: Putnam, 1905
Morley, F.V., Lamb Before Elia, Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft, 1973 (original edition, 1932)
Mulcahey, Daniel J., “Charles Lamb: The Antithetical Manner and the Two Planes,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 3 (Autumn 1963):517–74
Nabholtz, John R., “Elia and the Transformed Reader,” in “My Reader My Fellow- Labourer”: A Study of English Romantic Prose, edited by Nabholtz, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986
Parker, Mark, “Ideology and Editing: The Political Context of the Elia Essays,” Studies in Romanticism 30 (Fall 1991):473–94
Pater, Walter, Appreciations, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1987 (original edition, 1889)
Randel, Fred V., The World of Elia: Charles Lamb’s Essayistic Romanticism, Port Washington, New York: Kennikat, 1975
Reiman, Donald H., “The Thematic Unity in Charles Lamb’s Familiar Essays,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 64 (July 1965):470–78
Schoenfield, Mark, “Voices Together: Lamb, Hazlitt, and the London,” Studies in Romanticism 29 (Summer 1990):257–72
Thompson, Denys, “Our Debt to Lamb,” in Determinations, edited by F.R.Leavis, New York: Haskell House, 1970 (original edition, 1934)
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