Young Charles Lamb 1775-1802
A Portrait of Charles Lamb
Companion to Charles Lamb: A Guide to People and Places 1750-1847
In one of Stephen Potter’s manuals of Lifemanship there are some useful hints on the art of reviewing (“Newstatesmanship,” in those days), notable among them the Hope-Tipping gambit. Hope-Tipping’s formula for getting on top of the books he reviewed was simple but effective: he would find out the quality for which the author in question was most renowned, and then blame him for not having enough of it. He first created a stir in 1930 by complaining about the neglect of “the male and female element in life” in the work of D.H. Lawrence, but this was a relatively crude beginning, and subsequently he perfected his technique. One of his finest strokes was a reference in a review to “the almost open sadism of Charles Lamb.”
On the whole, whether he meant to or not, Hope-Tipping was doing Lamb a good turn. In the twentieth century a lack of cruelty is no very great recommendation in an author, and even in his lifetime Lamb ran the risk of being diminished by his reputation for kindliness and amiability. He took irritable exception when Coleridge, in the poem “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” addressed him as “my gentle-hearted Charles”—“the meaning of gentle is equivocal at best, and almost always means poor-spirited.” But the label stuck, and “Lamb, the frolic and the gentle” of Wordsworth’s memorial lines gradually evolved into the schoolmaster’s favorite, the patron saint of bookishness, Lamb the endlessly companionable and infinitely human. I quote at random from a textbook—it could be almost any textbook of the period—published shortly before the First World War: “His own writings, which are self-revealing in a quite unusual and always charming way, and the recollections of his friends, have made the personality of Lamb more familiar to us than any other in our literature except that of Johnson.”
What once seemed irresistible no longer casts the same spell, and it is a measure of how far the legend has faded that there has been no full-scale biography of Lamb since the two-volume life by E.V. Lucas, originally published in 1905. Now, in their different ways, two new books do something to make good the lack. Winifred Courtney has pieced together a thorough and detailed account of Lamb’s first twenty-seven years, drawing skillfully on recent research (including her own) and providing a particularly clear picture of Lamb’s links with the radical intelligentsia of his youth. David Cecil’s “portrait” is an attractive introduction for the general reader, traditional in its approach but fresh in its enthusiasm (no one could guess from it that the author is now in his eighties). Its judgments are fair-minded but firm, and in its portrayal of a life shadowed by madness it recalls the admirable study of Cowper, The Stricken Deer, with which David Cecil began his literary career as long ago as 1929.
The madness with which Lamb most obviously had to contend was that of his sister Mary. From the moment he wrested the carving knife from her hand—too late to stop her killing her mother—it was Charles who took charge; it was Charles, aged twenty-one, who insisted on her staying in a small private hospital when his brother John, twelve years his senior, wanted to have her committed to an asylum, and Charles who stood surety for her on her release and agreed to look after her for the rest of her life. Two or three years later such an arrangement would no longer have been possible: the “age of confinement” was closing in, and in 1799 new laws were introduced requiring the criminally insane to be kept in custody, as the curious English legal phrase goes, “during His Majesty’s pleasure.” But Lamb was determined to take advantage of the older, looser system, even though he had no illusions about the kind of commitment he was assuming. The mutual devotion of brother and sister, their “double singleness,” is one of the legends of literary history; but it was no idyll. Mary remained subject to recurrent bouts of madness, and who can gauge the amount of strain and sacrifice which the relationship must have imposed on Charles?
The story of Lamb’s own mental breakdown is less familiar, partly because so much less is known about it. In the spring of 1796, a few months before the stabbing and the family tragedy, he wrote to Coleridge, announcing rather jauntily—but how does one announce these things?—that during the winter he had been confined in a madhouse for six weeks, but that he was fully recovered. (“I am got somewhat rational now, & dont bite any one. But mad I was—….”) The letter also contains a poem written to Mary “in my prison-house in one of my lucid intervals,” expressing remorse for having spoken harshly to her, and suggesting how strongly the thought of her must have been running on his mind. Beyond this, there are some brief references to the episode in subsequent letters, and in the comments of friends—not much to go on, but they do offer a few clues.
The immediate causes of Lamb’s breakdown seem to have been overwork—he was already tethered to his clerk’s desk at East India House—and misery at being rejected by the girl he was in love with, Ann Simmons. Mrs. Courtney is excellent on the Ann Simmons affair, which is usually hurried past by writers on Lamb as though it were mere calf love; she makes out a very convincing case for both the attachment and the sense of loss being deep and long-lasting. As for why Lamb was rejected, she argues (as indeed did E.V. Lucas) that one probable reason was that there was reputed to be a history of “lunacy” in the Lamb family: it had skipped a generation, but by the time the break with Ann Simmons took place Mary may well have begun to show disquieting symptoms.
Lamb himself was a highly strung child, afflicted with a severe stammer and prey to the “night fears” which he was to write about in one of his most memorable essays: “I was dreadfully alive to nervous terrors. The night-time, solitude and the dark were my hell.” And he refused to believe that the fear inspired by monsters and apparitions was that of physical injury: “O, least of all! These terrors are of older standing. They date beyond body….” Harpies and Hydras and the rest might “reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition—but they were there before. They are transcripts, types—the archetypes are in us, and eternal.”
This sounds uncannily Jungian, but those who look to Freud for light will be even more forcibly struck by other aspects of the essay. From the age of four to his seventh or eighth year Lamb was haunted every night by the conviction—“an assurance which realized its own prophecy”—that he would find a fearsome hag sitting beside him on the bed. He had always been inquisitive about witches, and he had heard many stories about them from his aunt (his father’s eccentric sister, who doted on him) and from the maid, while his fantasies had taken on their distinctive shape when he came across a picture of the Witch of Endor in a book on the Bible. But aunt, maid, and illustrator were all absolved from any blame. At most, they had simply provided a channel for fears that were already there, fears which could manifest themselves just as readily in a child brought up on the most scrupulously enlightened principles (Lamp was thinking of Leigh Hunt’s son Thornton, “who was never allowed to hear of goblin or apparition, or scarcely to be told of bad men”).
Where there were grounds for reproach, however, it was, in a generalized way, against parents—parents who did not know what they were doing when they left small children to go to sleep by themselves in the dark, without the prospect of a friendly arm or a familiar face to comfort them when they woke screaming.
There is no mention of Lamb’s mother in “Witches, and Other Night-Fears,” but it is hard not to feel that she is there at the very heart of the essay, sitting on that bed. What is certain is that her eldest child was her unashamed favorite. John Lamb was blond and burly and good-looking (like his mother, who is said to have borne a striking resemblance to the actress Mrs. Siddons); he also knew how to get on in the world. Mary and Charles were small and dark and odd. The root of the tragedy, as Charles realized, was that although Elizabeth Lamb was conscientious and hard working, a good mother in the conventional sense, she never really understood her daughter or managed to respond to her with enough warmth: all too frequently she “met her caresses, her protestations of filial affection,…with coldness & repulse.” To some extent the same was plainly true of her attitude to her younger son as well.
Mary mothered him, taught him how to read, laid the emotional foundations of their future life together. He also turned for affection to his aunt. But his mother’s remoteness, or what looked like it, left indelible scars. (His father, who was clerk and general factotum to a lawyer in the Inner Temple, was in his fifties when Lamb was born, and although he is recalled affectionately in one of Lamb’s essays as “the liveliest little fellow breathing,” he does not seem to have played a very commanding part in his childhood. By the time of the tragedy he was infirm and slightly senile: he was present, but too weak to intervene and he received an injury from a fork that Mary hurled across the room.)
It is only against this family background, I believe, that one can make much sense of the otherwise merely picturesque fact, reported by Southey, that during his “phrensy” in the madhouse Lamb suffered from the delusion that he was Young Norval, the hero of John Home’s blank-verse tragedy Douglas. Home’s play was a standard fixture in the late-eighteenth-century repertoire; in particular, the part of Lady Randolph had been prized by leading actresses ever since it had been created by the famous Peg Woffington. It was as Lady Randolph that Mrs. Siddons triumphed over her predecessor and rival, Mrs. Barry, and it was Mrs. Siddons whom Lamb saw playing the role ten years later. As usual when he was young, her acting made a tremendous impression on him. His very first appearance in print was a sonnet addressed to her, published when he was nineteen. Coleridge also had a hand in it, but there is no mistaking Lamb’s presence in the lines comparing the audience’s feelings to those of a child as it clutches its grandmother’s skirts and listens to stories of witches and midnight hags:
Even such the shivering joys thy
Even so thou, SIDDONS! meltest
my sad heart!