Essays of Elia
by Charles Lamb, with a foreword by Phillip Lopate
University of Iowa Press, 453 pp., $19.95 (paper)
A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb
by Sarah Burton
London: Viking, 448 pp., £16.99
The Devil Kissed Her: The Story of Mary Lamb
by Kathy Watson
Tarcher/Putnam, 238 pp., $24.95
In 1820 the editor of The London Magazine, John Scott, approached a forty-five-year-old accountant named Charles Lamb with the idea of writing a series of essays about his daily life. Where Scott got the idea is unknown, but he is said to have offered Lamb two or three times what he paid his other contributors, who at the time included John Keats, William Hazlitt, John Clare, and Thomas De Quincey. Although Lamb was poor and had a chronically ill sister to support, his first reaction was to decline this flattering offer. He had already tried, years before, to write a series of personal essays, and had given up after a handful of installments.
Lamb had always had trouble writing for publication, especially about himself. His schoolfriend Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised his poetry when they were teenagers, and he included four of Lamb’s sonnets in his Poems of 1796. Lamb dismissed these as “derivatives.” In his youth he kept at it anyway, writing before work, after work, at work, on vacation. He wrote a tragedy in Elizabethan blank verse but couldn’t get it produced: even his friends said the plot didn’t make any sense. He wrote a farce, which was produced but got hissed on opening night (Lamb joined in the hissing) and was never performed again. His one effort at prose fiction, the sentimental novella Rosamund Gray, sold modestly and went out of print. Percy Byshe Shelley was one of its few admirers. “When I see how unnoticed remain things of such exquisite and complete perfection,” he wrote to Leigh Hunt, “what should I hope for myself, if I had not higher objects in view than fame!”
Lamb never set his sights so high. He didn’t consider himself a great writer—in his twenties he watched Coleridge and Wordsworth explode into greatness before his eyes: he knew what great writers were. Still, he needed something to look forward to while he checked other men’s calculations, and, as he later recalled, he and his sister depended on his freelance work for “every want beyond mere bread and cheese.” So he got up, hungover, at five in the morning to write jokes for the papers (he was paid by the column inch) or stayed up late to review new plays. For a while Lamb’s friends tried to get him to write opinion pieces for the radical weeklies, but his political consciousness was a jumble of personal sympathies. He could joke about a minister so full of spin that, if he ate nails, they came out screws—but he confessed that books of political economy bored him. Even in the late 1790s he just couldn’t bring himself to care about the Crown’s policy toward the French.
The truth was, Lamb had no curiosity about the world outside his corner of London. He couldn’t find foreign countries on a map, didn’t know the constellations, or which way was west, or the names of plants …