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. Wordsworth and Coleridge would say the trouble was he’d grown up in the city. Not according to Lamb. Even if he’d grown up in Devon, Lamb declared, “I should have brought the same inobservant spirit with me.” Naturally, this spirit limited Lamb’s scope as a writer. For most of his adult life, all he felt qualified (or inspired) to write about was books—the more bookish the better.
In a generation given to questioning the distinction between life and literature, Lamb craved and championed literariness for its own sake. He tried and failed to interest several editors in a series of imitations of Robert Burton (“the Anatomist of Melancholy,” he hopefully explained). With a friend he published a volume of letters in the style of Falstaff. Although these never caught on, the adaptations of Shakespeare for children that he wrote with his sister were a commercial success. To this day, as both Sarah Burton and Kathy Watson point out in their recent biographies of the Lambs, Tales from Shakespeare has never gone out of print. His anthology Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare (a project much dearer to Charles’s heart than the Tales) created a vogue for the Jacobeans after a century of neglect. We might never have heard of Marlowe or Beaumont and Fletcher if not for Lamb.
Lamb introduced Coleridge to Donne’s Poems and Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall. He copied out a speech from The Jew of Malta for Wordsworth. His letters, and Coleridge’s apologetic marginalia in the books he borrowed from Lamb, record the revolution Lamb helped make in English taste. But unlike Coleridge, who put the Metaphysical poets to use in his poetry and later drew them into a critical system of his own, Lamb curled up in his books like a borrowed cocoon. “I love to lose myself in other men’s minds,” he wrote. “If I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.”
Now John Scott was asking Lamb to think, and to think for public consumption. I suspect it was Lamb’s idea to do this thinking in a borrowed voice, a composite of his favorite prose writers. The details of his negotiations with Scott are unknown; at length the two men reached an agreement. Lamb’s first essay written under the pen name Elia appeared that August.
Scott never had time to enjoy the works he cajoled out of Lamb. He died in a duel six months later. What he missed was a series of essays that refocused the lens of personal writing for good. If, as Phillip Lopate claims in his new introduction to Essays of Elia, Lamb helped establish a “template for the giddy, runaway, self-referential verbal production” of David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, and other so-called hysterical realists, Lamb also achieved something more basic. He turned the reader’s attention to the persona, the unreliable mask of the “I,” not as an immutable fact of literature, but as a tool of the essayist in particular, who, if he or she wants to get personal, must first choose what to conceal.
Charles Lamb was born in 1775, the youngest child of middle-aged servants who worked for a barrister in the Inner Temple, an ancient compound of law courts, legal chambers, and living quarters in central London. He was eleven years younger than his sister, Mary Ann; twelve years younger than their brother, John. Their parents put Mary in charge of the baby. By all accounts, this suited Mary fine. Their mother had always favored John, who lorded it over his younger siblings; she treated Mary, according to Charles, with “coldness and repulse” and seems not to have taken much interest in Charles either. For Mary, Charles was a godsend. As an adult she advised an unhappy friend, in a letter quoted by Burton, “to devote herself to a younger brother she had, in the same way that she had attended to her own brother Charles in his infancy, as the wholsomest and surest means for all cure.”
Mary taught Charles to read at an early age, and the children never wanted for books. Their father, who had started out as a footman and risen to become a legal clerk, loved poetry and the theater, wrote poems of his own, and bought books when he could afford them. The barrister, who lived upstairs, let the Lamb children read anything they found in his study, and the collection of the Inner Temple was open to them thanks to the librarian, a family friend.
When he was seven Charles enrolled as a boarder at Christ’s Hospital, a free school which attracted talented boys of the lower-middle and middle classes. Small for his age, his legs stunted by a childhood illness, probably polio, Charles was shy and suffered from a bad stammer. In adulthood he bore his handicaps lightly, as if he had chosen them. His friends describe his flat-footed, swaying walk and his “blurting” as if they were expressions of his personality. But as a child he kept quiet and held himself apart. Even so, the other boys, most notably the nine-year-old Coleridge, were drawn to him. One schoolmate remembered that the boys and masters always referred to Charles by his full name, although there were no other Lambs in the school, for “his gentle manners excited that kindness.”
Lamb’s gentleness is a recurring theme in the writings of his oldest friends. For Coleridge he was “gentle-hearted Charles.” For Wordsworth he was “Lamb, the frolic and the gentle.” In his “Epitaph for Charles Lamb,” Wordsworth made the obvious pun on Lamb’s name:
From the most gentle creatures nursed in fields
Had been derived the name he bore—a name,
Wherever Christian altars have been raised,
Hallowed to meekness and to innocence….
A casual reader of Lamb’s letters, and reminiscences about him, soon wonders what Wordsworth and Coleridge were talking about. “Now, you old lake poet, you rascally poet,” Lamb once burst out at a dinner party, when the dour Wordsworth set himself up as a judge of wit, “Why do you call Voltaire dull?” Nobody talked this way to Wordsworth: their host compared them to Lear and his Fool. Coleridge got similar treatment. Once, dilating on his brief stint as a Unitarian minister, he asked whether Charles had ever heard him preach. “I never heard you do anything else,” Lamb wearily replied.
Was this gentleness? Lamb didn’t think so. “For God’s sake,” Lamb wrote to Coleridge in their twenties, when Coleridge’s “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison” was first anthologized,
(I never was more serious), don’t make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print, or do it in better verses…. The meaning of “gentle” is equivocal at best, and almost always means poor-spirited.1
But the tag stuck, and in one ver-sion or another it has been used by Lamb’s admirers to explain away the ego strength that sustained him in his friendships with these overbearing men. In Coleridge: Early Visions, Richard Holmes argues that Lamb’s literary advice (“Cultivate simplic-ity, Coleridge”) was crucial to Coleridge’s early development. His influence didn’t end there. For Coleridge, Wordsworth, William Godwin, and many others, Lamb’s judgments always mattered, even—especially—when these stung.2
As a schoolboy Charles excelled in classics and in verse composition. He dreamed of becoming a Cambridge don, but there was never any doubt that he would follow his father and brother in making his living as an office clerk. Because of his stammer, university was closed to him: university scholarships were earmarked for students who might enter the clergy, and clergymen were expected to preach. So at fourteen Charles left school, returned to his family, and was apprenticed, first in a counting house, then at the South Sea Company. At eighteen he took a position in the accounting department of the East India Company. There he would spend the next thirty-three years.
When he was twenty, the one romance of his youth, with a girl named Ann Simmons, ended badly and Lamb fell into what may have been the first of his several debilitating depressions. Lamb’s biographers, including Burton and Watson, have never known how seriously to take this courtship of Simmons—neither did Lamb, looking back—but at the time the breakup left him in despair. Although Burton tries to temper the “gloom and tedium” pervading most biographers’ accounts of the East India Company, Lamb’s letters and conversations leave no doubt that he loathed his job. If this were not enough, his elder brother, John, had left Charles and Mary to care for their parents, who were now old and infirm—their father senile, their mother half-paralyzed by strokes—then moved back in to be nursed by Mary after a piece of masonry fell on his foot. The foot became infected and eventually had to be amputated.
Meanwhile all of this caretaking, for a brother and mother who had never treated her well, was wearing Mary down. She kept house, spent her evenings making dresses to supplement the family income, and shared a bed with their mother so she could tend to her at night. At moments of exhaustion Mary had begun, we don’t know when, to show signs of mental disturbance.
Charles fell apart before Mary did. In December 1795, after months of anguishing over the end of his love affair, he became convinced that he was the hero of a popular stage tragedy, and he spent six weeks in one of the private madhouses that had sprung up in the neighborhood of Hoxton, in northeast London.
Within a few months Charles could joke about his brush with madness. “I am got somewhat rational now,” he wrote to Coleridge, “and don’t bite any one.” But that September Mary suffered a much more serious psychotic break. Over the course of several days she grew so disturbed that Charles took a morning off work to go in search of the specialist who had treated him in his madness. While he was out, Mary picked up a carving knife off the family dinner table and stabbed her mother in the heart.
“My poor dear, dearest sister, in a fit of insanity,” Lamb wrote to Coleridge five days afterward, “has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp.”
Mary was declared insane by a coroner’s inquest and confined to a madhouse. As was normal in such cases at the time, she never stood trial. For Charles and Mary and their friends, as Burton and Watson both show, there was never any question of Mary’s moral innocence. The question, for everyone but Charles, was what to do with her. According to law, Mary could either be locked up or else taken into custody by her family. John favored the former course, but Charles opposed him resolutely. “I know John will make speeches about it,” he told Coleridge, “but she shall not go into an hospital.” Within six months Mary had temporarily recovered her sanity, and Charles managed to install her in a boarding house, where he spent his evenings and Sundays. Although he had foresworn poetry in the first shock of the murder, he did most of his early writing—the tragedy, the novella, and his one well-known poem, “The Old Familiar Faces”—in the two years after his mother’s death.
As soon as their father died, in 1799, Charles took Mary home.
Outwardly Charles and Mary’s later life was uneventful. Its milestones—aside from their literary productions—were Mary’s bouts of sometimes violent dementia. At first these came more or less yearly. They could last days, weeks, or months. The news of a death often set her off. So did moving house, as they frequently had to do when the landlord learned of Mary’s illness. So did travel. (The Lambs always packed a straitjacket in their luggage.) When her attacks were acute, Mary returned to confinement: a friend once caught sight of Charles and Mary walking to the madhouse arm and arm, in tears. During her periods of sanity, Mary took a hand in the writing that helped support them. Between 1806 and 1809 they did all of their collaborative writing for children: Tales from Shakespeare, Mrs. Leicester’s School, and Poetry for Children. These were also the years in which Charles published his anthology of playwrights.
As she grew older Mary’s attacks came more frequently and lasted longer. She and Charles were forced to spend more and more time apart. Her writing stopped, and with the brief exception of the essays, most of which Charles rushed out between 1820 and 1823, his production slowed to a trickle. He never got used to their separations. Even in his fifties, Charles described life without Mary as an “interregnum”: he didn’t know what to do with himself when she wasn’t there. Increasingly, as the years went by, he drank.
At their poorest, Charles and Mary had always played host to a crowd of family friends, writers, scholars, and actors. Their frugal Thursdays at home were focal gatherings for two generations of Romantics. In his mid-forties, thanks to his essays, Charles became a celebrity and a sought-after guest. Yet as soon as the East India Company granted him a pension, at age fifty, he and Mary left London—with Emma Isola, the orphaned teenaged daughter of family friends—for the village of Enfield, hoping the quiet would improve Mary’s condition. Instead she got worse. She spent more and more time in a small madhouse in nearby Edmunton. Eventually Charles and Emma moved into the madhouse to be with her.
As much as Lamb had hated accounting, he found that he hated retirement even more. He was lonely and bored (“If you ever run away, which is problematical,” he advised Mary Shelley, “don’t run to a country village”). He passed the time by taking twenty-mile walks, then stopping at the ale house on his way home. He died of an infected cut that he got falling down on one of these walks. According to rumor, he’d been drunk. Mary lived another fourteen years, looked after by their friends and by Emma and her husband, Charles’s last publisher, Edward Moxon. Although the Lambs had both worried what would become of Mary if Charles died first, she survived his death—their friends and biographers generally agree—better than he would have survived hers.
We would likely have forgotten the Lambs if not for the essays Charles wrote under the name of Elia.3 In them Lamb developed a style and a character that were rooted in the traditions of the essay and, at the same time, unmistakably original. The authorship of the essays was a secret at first, but within several issues of the London Magazine anyone who knew Charles would have recognized the man he was writing about. Elia looked like Lamb, he stuttered like Lamb, he was shy the way Lamb was shy; he had grown up in Lamb’s neighborhood. For the first time this private person, who had lived all his adult life in the shadow of an unmentionable past, was able publicly to turn his gaze on himself.
Lamb’s favorite subjects were his bachelorhood, the street life around him, his reading, and the eccentrici-ties of his friends. But as Elia he was able to write on everything from the subjugation of women, to his struggle with alcohol, to the pleasures of roasted pig. He wrote about his failed love affair with Ann Simmons, his frustrated career, his childhood fears, and his fear of death. Eventually, using made-up names, and disguising his literal family relationships, Lamb wrote about his father and brother. He found he could even write about Mary. Soon, under the code name Bridget Elia, she became his costar in the essays.
The singularity of Lamb’s approach was clear from the beginning. His first essay as Elia, “Recollections of the South Sea House,” was written, without explanation or apology, in a pastiche of Tudor and Jacobean prose. This was odd enough. Odder still, it dealt with accountants—dead, unknown, bachelor accountants—individually and at length, as if they were interesting in themselves. For instance, John Tipp:
With Tipp form was everything. His life was formal. His actions seemed ruled with a ruler. His pen was not less erring than his heart. He made the best executor in the world: he was plagued with incessant executorships accordingly, which excited his spleen and soothed his vanity in equal ratios. He would swear (for Tipp swore) 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. With all this there was about him a sort of timidity—(his few enemies used to give it a worse name)—a something which, in reverence to the dead, we will place, if you please, a little on this side of the heroic.
Elia’s portraits of his colleagues harked back to the Renaissance genre of the “character,” a forerunner of the character sketch. But were these men essay material? Were they even real? Lamb deliberately let such questions hang in the air. “Reader, what if I have been playing with thee all this while?” Elia asks at the end of his first piece.
Peradventure the very names, which I have summoned up before thee, are fantastic—insubstantial…. Be satisfied that something answering to them has had a being. Their importance is from the past.
These peculiarities—the theatrical reticence, the archaism, the nostalgia, the celebration of oddity for its own sake—are regular features of Lamb’s essays, and they helped to change the English (and American) idea of what an essay should be. Even when personal essayists don’t flaunt their power to mislead us, even when we no longer expect belle-lettrists to write old-fashioned prose, we still expect essays to deliver that same Elian tension between the personal and the truly private and to tell stories that are digressive and inconclusive. Most of all we expect personal essayists to speak to us from behind a stylized version of themselves, rather than give us the whole man—as Montaigne or Lamb’s favorite devotional writers seem to do—or a more-or-less representative man like the Spectator of Addison and Steele. Lamb is not the only Romantic essayist who wrote this way: Hazlitt soon followed suit, so did De Quincey and Hunt and others. But Lamb was the first. Ever since Elia, eccentricity has been the rule.
Another quality inherited from Elia—observed less generally now than a hundred years ago, and never universal—is that the essayist shall be at peace with himself, even if it takes a full retreat from the world. Typically, this retreat takes the form of reading. Lamb’s dual portrait of himself and his “cousin Bridget” (i.e., Mary) in the essay “Mackery End” is a famous example of this mode:
We house together, old bachelor and maid, in a sort of double singleness…. We are generally in harmony, with occasional bickerings—as it should be among near relations. Our sympathies are rather understood than expressed; and once, upon my dissembling a tone in my voice more kind than ordinary, my cousin burst into tears, and complained that I was altered. We are both great readers in different directions. While I am hanging over (for the thousandth time) some passage in old Burton, or one of his strange contemporaries, she is abstracted in some modern tale, or adventure, whereof our common reading-table is daily fed with assiduously fresh supplies.
Celebrations of bookishness are nothing new in literature. Montaigne and Francis Bacon made the library a stock subject for the essayist. What is characteristically Elian is the way the essay shades from the domestic arrangements of Elia and Bridget to their reading habits. Lamb psychologizes the contemplative life, sets it in the contexts of class and circumstance. He grounds Elia’s and Bridget’s reading in their personal quirks and disappointments. And by confessing to his own escapism, Elia excuses a similar weakness in us. He writes to show us how to be comfortable with ourselves in the presence of our limitations.
Even at their darkest moments, the essays never lose this quality of self-acceptance. In “Dream Children: A Reverie” Elia imagines the marriage and children he never had. This daydream becomes—like many of Lamb’s essays—a meditation on loss. Elia tells his imaginary children about his own lost childhood, about the grandmother they never got to meet, and finally about his dead cousin James Elia, Lamb’s code for his brother, John. Near the end of the essay Lamb drops his mask, and mourns “John L.” by name. It is one of the most clear-eyed evocations of grief in Romantic English prose:
I bore his death as I thought pretty well at first, but afterwards it haunted and haunted me; and though I did not cry or take it to heart as some do, and as I think he would have done if I had died, yet I missed him all day long, and knew not till then how much I had loved him. I missed his kindness and I missed his crossness, and wished him to be alive again, to be quarreling with him (for we quarreled sometimes), rather than not have him again, and was uneasy without him as he their poor uncle must have been when the doctor took off his limb.
Lamb is as matter-of-fact about his grief and its limits as he is, in other essays, about his inability to carry a tune. To report so forgivingly on the chaos of normal feeling takes gentleness, generosity, and something like defiance.
Lamb’s friends considered him a cult writer. So did Lamb, and his devotees have sometimes plumed themselves on his obscurity. One hundred years ago, E.V. Lucas interrupted his massive two-volume Life of Charles Lamb to assert the minorness of his subject:
The work of Charles Lamb forms no integral part of the history of English literature: he is not in the main current, he is hardly in the side current of the great stream…. In other words, the Essays of Elia are perhaps as easily dispensed with as any work of fancy and imagination in the language.
This is faithful to the Elian spirit, but as literary history it is pure fantasy. Dickens acknowledged a deep debt to Lamb. Swinburne insisted that no good criticism of Lamb could ever be written—he was too well loved by the readers who knew him best. Pater found the essence of the modern essay, and modern “subjectivity” itself, in Elia’s combination of intimacy and playacting. In her letters Virginia Woolf despaired of ever writing as well as Lamb, and Joyce parodied Lamb’s prose in “The Oxen of the Sun.”
During his lifetime Lamb’s essays sold out on both sides of the Atlantic and appeared in pirate editions. By the middle of the nineteenth century he was thoroughly absorbed into those “side currents,” the magazine essay and humor piece, that have often formed the mainstream of American literature. In Elia’s humorist mode (for instance in the essay “Popular Fallacies,” where Elia riffs ecstatically on the ugliness of his friend Mrs. Conrady), he is the closest thing Mark Twain has to an English antecedent. Today Lamb finds popular imitators in Anne Fadiman and Thomas Lynch, while Phillip Lopate has transmuted Lamb’s style at different times to deal with the French New Wave, New York sublets, and his own sexual misadventures, among other unlikely topics. As an anthologist (The Art of the Personal Essay, 1994), Lopate has done more than any living writer to educate young American readers in the essay form: his preface to the Essays is the best available introduction to Lamb’s masterpiece.4
Since Mary’s death in 1847 there have been many biographies of Charles. The definitive one is still Lucas’s 1905 Life of Charles Lamb. Lucas, who had compiled an edition of the Lambs’ works and letters, took an essentially editorial approach to his task. He quoted the Lambs, their friends, and their critics at vast length, noted discrepancies in the record, and hazarded very few guesses of his own where the record was silent. The result was a highly organized scrapbook. In its serene lack of argument, its artless assurance that its subject is interesting in his own right, the Life belongs to another era in literary biography. Although there have been several biographies of Mary, and several double portraits, she has never received such sustained attention. Too little of her own writing, or other people’s writing about her, has survived. Given these limitations, it is hard to imagine that any life of Mary will supercede Kathy Watson’s small, splendid The Devil Kissed Her: The Story of Mary Lamb.5
The Devil Kissed Her appears hard on the heels of Sarah Burton’s A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb, and the books cover much of the same ground. Both draw attention to Mary’s one surviving essay, “On Needle-work,” in which Mary attacked the practice of urging middle-class girls to do their own sewing. Not only did this homework put poor women out of a job, Mary argued, it kept women of leisure from pursuing a life of the mind. The essay shows Mary’s powers of analysis in a way that her letters only suggest, just as her children’s books reveal habits of feeling that she kept out of her correspondence.
Both biographies give absorbing accounts of the Lambs’ career as writers for children. At a time when the place of imaginative literature in a child’s education was fiercely contested, the Lambs struck powerful blows for fantasy, against the moral didacticism then in favor with book-buying parents. Watson reads Mary’s stories for children more closely than Burton does, and her readings are always illuminating. She notes, for instance, that Mary tended to turn Shakespeare’s comedies into “mini-courtship novels”—the kind of fantasy Mary liked best—and worked a painful obsession with lost mothers and rejected daughters into the tales of Mrs Leicester’s School.
What distinguishes The Devil Kissed Her from A Double Life, however, is the tact with which Watson approaches the Lambs’ private lives—for instance, when she revisits the old debate over Charles’s feelings for his and Mary’s adopted charge, Emma. Weeks after Charles’s death, during a period of insanity, Mary told a friend that her brother had been in love with the girl. To this supposed romance Burton ascribes the two bouts of “nervous fever” that Charles suffered in 1825, the year Emma came to live with the Lambs. Watson observes that Charles offered his own, more credible explanation for these breakdowns—the disappointment of his retirement, which began the same year. A good deal of ink was spilled fifty years ago, in the heyday of psychoanalytic biography, over possible sexual tensions in the Lamb household and their effect on the Lambs’ mental health, but nobody has handled these questions as sensitively as Watson does. Although Emma’s presence complicated the Lambs’ relationship, Watson suggests, it didn’t drive anyone crazy. Emma was, on the contrary, the last source of great happiness in their lives.
Watson’s account of Charles’s open infatuation with the actress Fanny Kelly—which resulted in a proposal of marriage—is equally nuanced. Earlier biographers, committed to the idea of Lamb’s sexual immaturity, have dismissed the proposal as an empty gesture of esteem. But as Burton and Watson both note, Kelly seems to have taken it seriously enough (she told a friend that she considered Mary’s insanity the main obstacle to the match). Watson traces Charles’s growing fascination with Kelly through his reviews of her performances, and her account shows how deeply Kelly’s work and physical presence affected him. She has done better than any biographer of Mary or Charles in capturing his self-deprecating, frustrated, but frank sexuality, and if she occasionally seems to look too hard for a corresponding “strong-willed and sensual” strain in Mary’s character, she vividly demonstrates that Mary “understood enough and thought enough of love and lovers to know what she was missing” in the life she made with Charles.
The greatest blank facing any biographer of Mary is her life “from home,” the long periods she spent in the madhouses at Hoxton between 1796 and 1817. Here Burton and Watson rely on similar evidence—letters written by Mary and contemporary reports on the widespread abuse of patients at Hoxton—and reach similar conclusions: that Mary certainly witnessed the abuse of other patients and may have been mistreated herself. Yet their accounts differ in emphasis; again Watson seems in closer touch with her subjects. Burton suggests that Mary may have been routinely brutalized during her confinements, yet she never properly accounts for the fact that Charles discussed Mary with the women who took care of her, and them with her. As vulnerable as Mary was, there is no reason to think that either of the Lambs suffered—or even feared—the beatings, taunting, thefts, or rapes that made Hoxton a hell for many other patients. Mary’s confinements were bad enough even when these occurred at home (in old age she dislocated a shoulder during one of her fits; Watson points out that she was probably struggling against a straitjacket), but Watson is surely right to point to the atmosphere of misery at Hoxton—rather than any likelihood of regular abuse—as “one of the worst aspects of Mary’s illness.”
“What moves us in the lives of Mary and Charles Lamb,” Watson writes, “is the hard work they put into not being defeated by the painful circumstances of their lives.” The Devil Kissed Her focuses on Mary’s side of this struggle in the decades after her mother’s death. A Double Life has a broader scope, and although Burton has little to say about Charles’s writing, she retells the story of the Lambs’ childhood and Charles’s schooling, career, and friendships with admirable fluency, sympathy, and intelligence. Both books point the way to a new biography of Charles. It would analyze the rising institutions that shaped the Lambs—the free school, the East India Company, the opposition press, the private madhouse—and it would follow Jane Aaron’s A Double Singleness (1991) in treating the Lambs’ life and work as a lasting challenge to the “strongly polarized gender system typical of the Victorian period,” not to mention our own.
Most important, it would take Charles’s writings seriously—as literature, and as a rival to any secondhand account. In their brave confrontation of sexual loneliness, professional disappointment, and the universal disappointment of getting old, they are more attractive than ever, and more wonderfully out of step with received ideas about the business of being a man or a woman. To read them is to feel that you know Charles Lamb, however obliquely, that you are in possession of an original, and that any writing about him is only a copy. It will take a critical biography to account for this feeling, and let us see the larger half of this fascinating couple with fresh eyes.
October 21, 2004
In his next letter Lamb repeated the complaint: “please to blot out gentle-hearted, and substitute drunken-dog, ragged-head, seld-shaven, odd-eyed, stuttering, or any other epithet that properly belongs to the gentleman in question.” ↩
See, e.g., Letter LXXXVIII to Lamb’s friend Thomas Manning. After Lamb expressed reservations about Lyrical Ballads, volume two, Wordsworth replied in a long letter, comparing himself favorably to Shakespeare and accusing Lamb of insensibility. “This was not to be all my castigation,” Lamb complained: ↩
The source and correct pronunciation of the name are unclear. In a letter to one of his book publishers, Lamb claimed to have borrowed his pseudonym from an Italian fellow clerk at the South Sea House. Many biographers, including Burton, believe this story, but no Elia has ever been found on the South Sea Company payroll; “Elia” is also, as Lamb pointed out to a better friend, an anagram of “a lie.” (At different times, Lamb instructed his publishers to pronounce the name in the Italian manner [Ellia] or as a homonym for “a liar.”) ↩
The notes to this edition are less impressive but not without charm. They are based on the unpublished 1928 notes of an undergraduate English class unearthed from the University of Iowa archives. Among other small errors, the students mistake “the consigner of undipt infants to eternal torments, Austin”—i.e., Saint Augustine—for one unfortunate “William Austin (1754–1793), an English physician.” Their work is supplemented by more trustworthy notes from the two scholarly editions of Lamb’s works that are in the public domain. ↩
Another biography, Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London, by Susan Tyler Hitchcock, is due to appear in January from W.W. Norton. ↩