The Wise and Gentle Lamb

Young Charles Lamb 1775-1802

by Winifred F. Courtney
New York University Press, 411 pp., $30.00

A Portrait of Charles Lamb

by David Cecil
Constable (London), 192 pp., £9.95

Companion to Charles Lamb: A Guide to People and Places 1750-1847

by Claude A. Prance
Mansell (distributed by H.W. Wilson Co.), 392 pp., $30.00

Charles Lamb
Charles Lamb; drawing by David Levine

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…

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