Charles Lamb often complained of not being able to think on his own. “I dare not think, lest I [should think] wrong,” he told Dorothy Wordsworth in 1805, when his sister, Mary, disappeared once more into the local madhouse. “I am like a [fool, bere]ft of her co-operation.” The death in 1834 of Coleridge, his close confidante since their schooldays, felt like the end of thinking altogether: “I cannot think a thought, I cannot make a criticism on men or books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him.” He read insatiably, he explained in the London Magazine in the character of Elia, his literary alter ego, so that he didn’t have to try. “I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.”
The kind of thinking Lamb struggled to do alone was the thinking that spun together the threads of his essays and letters: conversational, allusive, associative. It was receptive, open rather than finished, temperamentally unsystematic. “My head is so whimsical a head,” he wrote apologetically to William Godwin in 1803, late again with a review, “that I cannot, after reading another man’s book, let it have been never so pleasing, give any account of it in any methodical way.” Here he is thinking unmethodically about food in a letter of 1805, thrilling over the unexpected gift of a hunk of brawn (a terrine made from pigs’ heads) from a friend in the kitchens of Trinity Hall, Cambridge:
He might have sent…the tops of asparagus, fugitive livers, runaway gizzards of fowls, the eyes of martyred Pigs, tender effusions of laxative woodcocks, the red spawn of lobsters, leverets’ ears, and such pretty filchings common to cooks: but these had been ordinary presents, the every-day courtesies of Dish-washers to their sweethearts. Brawn was a noble thought. It is not every common Gullet-fancier that can properly esteem of it. It is like a picture of one of the choice old Italian masters. It’s gusto is of that hidden sort…. It will be wooed & not unsought be won. Now, ham-essence, lobsters, turtle, such popular minions absolute court you, lay themselves out to strike you at first smack, like one of David’s Pictures (they call him Darveed) compared with the plain russet-coated wealth of a Titian or a Corregio.
This is Lamb cogitating. First, there is the list of kitchen “filchings,” which spirals outward from unadorned asparagus tops to increasingly bizarre personifications: the thought of “fugitive,” or miscellaneous, livers leads to “runaway” fowl gizzards, imagined scampering headless from their bodies; pigs, revolving stoically on a spit, are pictured as “martyred”; woodcocks are “laxative” and their droppings “tender,” the profusion of adjectives comically overcooked. Then there is the imaginative leap to Titian and Correggio, the “choice old Italian masters,” by dint of an association no “common Gullet-fancier,” surely, could have made: fine foods, Lamb says, “ham-essence, lobsters, turtle,” are flirtatious, too obvious by half, just like David’s paintings (here the spoken voice butts in to remind us it’s “Darveed”); what you want is the hidden “gusto,” the coyly “plain” riches, of Titian and brawn.
Lamb’s own manner of courting, the performative intimacy of his printed voice, has tended to repel as much as seduce. For Victorian and Edwardian readers, moved to tears by his self-sacrificing care for his sister, Lamb’s style was of a piece with his character: whimsical, affable, heroically self-deprecating—“lovable,” in the words of his biographer E.V. Lucas. Sentiment proved the death of his reputation. When, between the wars, literary biography and the familiar essay fell out of fashion, Lamb did too. His “whimsies,” according to Denys Thompson in F.R. Leavis’s essay collection Determinations (1934), were mere surface charm, a kind of braying overfamiliarity (“One wants to shout ‘don’t breathe in my ear’”)—a mush of pleasantries “for toothless gums to mumble.”
Eric G. Wilson’s excellent Dream-Child, the first full-length biography since Lucas’s in 1905, marks an important staging post on the road back to respectability. Since the 1980s, critics have sought to downplay Lamb’s whimsicality in favor of recuperating his darkness and seriousness: his “unflagging humour,” in the critic Thomas McFarland’s words, isn’t just jocularity but a defense mechanism, rooted in trauma; he is complexly self-conscious rather than merely odd; his literary criticism, though not theoretical like Coleridge’s or Hazlitt’s, expresses a coherent Romantic aesthetic; his criticism of Shakespeare’s tragedies, in particular, exhibits sensitive psychological insight. What Wilson’s biography aims to show is that, in Lamb, “silliness” and “seriousness” might go together, the one set off, or set up, by the other. In his essays, under the sign of Elia, Lamb’s primary mode was ironic, and in his life his mode was ironic too—unstable, postmodern in being constantly “self-opposing.”
Lamb was born in London in 1775, in the back room of the Inner Temple chambers where his father, John, served as a barrister’s clerk. Mary, ten years older than Charles and desperate for a childhood companion, nursed him through smallpox and taught him to read. At seven he was sent to Christ’s Hospital, a charity school for bright boys from poorer families. Its cleverest pupils, Coleridge among them, became “Grecians,” or members of the upper grammar school, where they were subjected to the ritual violence of the headmaster as preparation for Oxford and Cambridge. (In an early Elia essay, Lamb, with typical slipperiness, appropriates Coleridge’s tougher school experience as his own, describing a diet of “scanty mutton crags,” starvation punishments, and elaborate ceremonies of humiliation for malefactors.) Because he stammered and struggled with public speaking, Lamb was precluded from Grecian status and a university education; he was, in the school’s damning classification, merely “a deputy Grecian.”
Instead, at fourteen, he went to work. Through his father’s connections, he found positions totting up figures at a merchant’s countinghouse, then in the examiner’s office of the South Sea Company. Finally, at seventeen, he moved to the ritzy, Palladian headquarters of the East India Company on Leadenhall Street, to take up the clerking job he would hold for the next thirty-three years of his life. On his high stool in the accountants’ department, six days a week, he recorded figures that were both tedious and impossibly significant—How much tea, cotton, cocoa, porcelain, spices, on which ships, at what cost?
At twenty-one, he found himself working not merely to help support the family but to save Mary from Bethlem (also known as Bedlam), the public madhouse. In September 1796 he had come home to find her holding a bloody kitchen knife; she had attacked both their parents, killing their mother. Forced to make a decision about their shared future, he agreed, against the advice of his worldlier brother, to take on the financial burden of her care in perpetuity. The private asylums to which he had Mary periodically confined weren’t, Wilson reminds us, necessarily any less barbaric than Bethlem. One facility in particular was notorious for gagging, force-feeding, chaining, and beating. In 1795 Lamb entered an institution in Hoxton himself, after a breakdown likely caused by romantic rejection. “Dream not Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur & wildness of Fancy, till you have gone mad,” he told his friend afterward, not without enthusiasm. Had Mary’s actions not made it imperative for at least one sibling to maintain control, he might, as Wilson speculates, have done it again.
The exigencies of work meant that his literary life, unlike Coleridge’s, was an amateur one, squeezed in around his professional hours, topping or tailing swaths of time that didn’t belong to him. All the endless clerking and jotting was, he was painfully aware, a sort of writing. His real “Works,” as he joked, were the sheaves of accounting pages he accumulated at East India House—“more MSS. in folio than ever Aquinas left, and full as useful!” He spent his days surrounded by hefty volumes that looked like books but turned out to be mere “things in books’ clothing,” textbooks and tables rather than novels or plays. (On the flyleaf of Booth’s Tables of Simple Interest, he scribbled fake critical notices: “This is a Book of great interest, but does not much engage our sympathy.”) His own literary writing was like marginalia, taking place, as Wilson puts it, in the “gaps” and “interstices” of his days. “The very parings of a counting-house are, in some sort, the settings up of an author,” he wrote as Elia in 1820: what an ordinary clerk would throw away at the end of the day, “your outside sheets, and waste wrappers of foolscap,” became, for him, at home and by candlelight, incidental spaces of composition, homes for new “sonnets, epigrams, essays.”
In the early years, Lamb’s escape was Coleridge and his mesmeric conversation—evenings spent with the poet at the Salutation and Cat, a tavern near their old school. But when Coleridge moved to the West Country in 1795 and befriended the Wordsworths, he cooled toward Lamb. Four sonnets by Lamb appeared in Coleridge’s first volume, Poems on Various Subjects (1796). In 1801, however, in a letter to William Wordsworth, Lamb has mixed feelings about Lyrical Ballads (1800), his friends’ great collaborative effort: sometimes the poetry is didactic, and therefore faulty, he tells Wordsworth; the preface is reductive and dogmatic. In answer to his critique, as Lamb recounted to his friend Thomas Manning, Wordsworth
did not sleep a moment. I received almost instantaneously a long letter of four sweating pages from my reluctant Letterwriter, the purport of which was, that he was sorry his 2d vol. had not given me more pleasure (Devil a hint did I give that it had not pleased me), and was “compelled to wish that my range of Sensibility was more extended.”
Shortly afterward, there was more of the same from Coleridge, who, having not written to Lamb for “some months,” “start[ed] up from his bed of sickness, to reprove me for my hardy presumption: four long pages, equally sweaty and more tedious.”
It’s possible to see Lamb’s rejection of Wordsworth’s nature-centric Romanticism as a question of necessity: he was bound to London, to his work and to Mary, and could rarely afford a visit to the Lake District, let alone a life there. A letter to Manning of 1802, following a holiday in Keswick, shows him see-sawing between mountain-worship and making the best of a bad job: “After all I could not live in Skiddaw: I could spend a year, two, three years, among them, but I must have a prospect of seeing Fleet Street at the End of that time…. Still Skiddaw is a fine Creature.” But in other letters from the same period his choice is positive and emphatic (or borderline rude: “Hills, woods, Lakes, and mountains, to the Eternal Devil”), and he writes about London with a new “paratactic openness to novelty,” as Wilson describes it, a style that looks forward to the associative prose of Elia’s essays. In this vision, “all the furniture” of his urban world, “streets, streets, streets, markets, theatres, churches, Covent Gardens,” “drunken scenes, rattles,” “cries of fire & stop thief,” melds together into a single, brilliant spectacle, “a pantomime and a masquerade.”
The limitations of his situation, whether embraced or chafed against, were an abiding theme of Lamb’s writing during his thirties and forties. John Woodvil (1802), his first attempt at a tragedy, is a drama of political division within a family; its plot turns on an evening of prodigious, compulsive drinking, the kind of excess to which Lamb found himself increasingly attracted in his hours away from the office. (Wilson is particularly good on the realities and implications of Lamb’s alcoholism, a part of his life earlier biographers have sought to explain away.) An intimation of how trapped he felt in his domestic life, resentful of the restrictions Mary’s condition placed on his freedom and guilty for feeling resentful, comes through in his retelling of King Lear, part of the siblings’ collaborative Tales from Shakespeare (1807). In Charles’s version, the paragon of the story isn’t Cordelia or Edgar but Kent, the impossibly loyal servant of a mad master, who attends Lear right through the “sad period of his decay,” driven by “poor loyalty” to “stay and abide all consequences.”
Then there are the essays he contributed in 1811–1812 to the Reflector, a short-lived radical newspaper edited by his Christ’s Hospital contemporary Leigh Hunt. Their odd, unsettling subjects—a man who still bears the scar of the noose on his neck reflects on the stigma of having been half-executed; another man is so addicted to eating that he manages to do himself out of an inheritance—express an understanding of selfhood as being about “what you can’t do,” as Wilson puts it, of being granted a particular, unlucky hand and having no choice but to play it out.
Humor was both a compulsion for Lamb and one of his “primary coping mechanisms.” He couldn’t not joke, especially when he wasn’t supposed to. His first recorded quip took place in a graveyard: “Mary, where do all the naughty people lie?” In fine company he liked to sit silently and then, provoked by a chance word or thought, “stutter out some senseless pun” that invariably alienated everyone around him. When, in 1819, the actress Frances Kelly rejected his proposal of marriage (among other things, she was anxious about having to live with Mary in their shared house), he responded in a manner that shows him trying, and failing, not to revert to type: “I had thought to have written seriously, but I fancy I succeed best in epistles of mere fun: puns & that nonsense.”
Thomas Carlyle, in a vicious dissection of Lamb’s character, called such humor “clatter”—a “wearisome” business of “epigrammatic contrasts, startling exaggerations, claptraps that will get a plaudit from the galleries.” But Lamb was interested in jokes less for their funniness, as Wilson observes, than for their “transgressive” possibilities: he understood them as mechanisms for thinking with, or, more accurately, for resisting the way other people liked to think. As he argued in his essay “Popular Fallacies” (1826), the best puns worked because they refused to “bear an analysis,” because they were “brazen,” absurd, incomplete, built to swerve critical judgment. (A farce he wrote for the Drury Lane stage, Mr. H. (1806), hangs on the unexpected revelation that the suave, mysterious Mr. H.’s name is “Hogsflesh”—an overworked joke stretching across two acts.)
In their unexpectedness, Lamb contended, puns had the power to unsettle, or thwart, the processes of more methodical minds—to resist conventional intelligences, stymie philosophical debate. Faced in 1800 with an importunate visitor, one Miss Benje, who “begged to know” his opinions on the “organization” of the human brain, Lamb reported to Coleridge that he’d “attempted to carry it off with a pun upon organ; but that went off very flat.” His visitor “immediately conceived a very low opinion of my metaphysics” and left Lamb alone.
Miss Benje aside, Lamb surrounded himself with people who were apt to be as offbeat and surprising as he was. “He chose his companions for some individuality of character which they manifested,” Elia’s mock-obituarist (another Lamb persona) writes in “A Character of the Late Elia, by a Friend” (1823). “Hence, not many persons of science, and few professed literati.” Starting in 1806, every Wednesday evening he and Mary held parties at their lodgings, inviting men and women who could be relied on to supply “out-of-the-way humours and opinions”: Hazlitt (whose manners Coleridge found “singularly repulsive; brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange”); Sarah Burney, a ferocious, obsessive player of whist; her fifteen-year-old son, Martin, “the queerest fish out of water”; sometimes Hunt, Godwin, Wordsworth, Coleridge. “When a stranger came in,” Hazlitt recalled, “he was not asked, ‘Has he written anything?’—we were above that pedantry; but we waited to see what he could do.” Historical figures were subjected to the same eccentric valuation. Yes, Locke and Newton had written great things, Lamb agreed; but “they were not persons—not persons”—not characters, not people you would want to meet.
His “ragged regiment” of favorites had little in common with one another or the world, but each gratified, in his or her individual oddness, some answering oddness in Lamb himself. The best of them, in their eccentricity, brought out the quirks and freaks of his style in the Elia essays, summoning the unlikeliest, aptest language he possessed. Evans, a benevolent old clerk whom Elia recalls in “The South-Sea House” (1820), is melancholic at his desk but becomes another person entirely at six o’clock: “Then was his forte, his glorified hour! How would he chirp, and expand, over a muffin!” “Chirp” here, coupled with “expand” and “muffin,” is both impossibly weird and unimprovable; we know, somehow, that no other verb would have done—much as, in Elia’s description of his cousin James, the stubbornly archaic verb endings (“discovereth,” “stoppeth,” “assureth”) manage to capture something of James’s contrariness.
In his criticism, Lamb elevated this style of personality into a literary principle. The writers he loved shared an ability to “inform and animate other existences,” as he wrote of Shakespeare, to dramatize particular passions and intelligences rather than abstract moral qualities. In his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets (1808), credited by T.S. Eliot with stimulating the revival of interest in Elizabethan drama, Lamb singled out for praise the “truly personated” characters, the “vigorous passions,” “virtues clad in flesh and blood” of Marlowe, Webster, and Tourneur. Shakespeare’s complex, thinking tragic heroes—Hamlet with his “light-and-noise-abhorring ruminations,” Lear with his powerful “mind…laid bare”—could hardly be represented onstage, he argued, by actors relying on “a few general effects” and gestures.
Hogarth, whose prints, Lamb said, were to be “read” like books (“They have the teeming, fruitful, suggestive meaning of words”), he admired for the artist’s scenes packed with “living and significant things,” “faces so strongly charactered,” eloquent “tables, and chairs, and joint-stools,” wickedly leaning houses: “Here are no furniture-faces, no figures brought in to fill up the scene like stage choruses, but all dramatis personae.” The best writing in all genres, he believed, was dramatic—meaning alive, particular, personal. Hazlitt, he explained in a review of Table-Talk (1821), was a brilliant critic because his writing had the “force & life” of personal preference: he “quarrels,” Lamb wrote, “with every thing in the world, except what he likes.” Likewise, Bishop Burnet’s much-discredited History of His Own Time was admirable, he told Manning, because it had none of the “Damned Philosophical Humeian indifference” of respectable historiography; it buzzed with its own partiality. “The fishes are absolutely charactered,” he exclaimed delightedly of Walton’s The Compleat Angler.
Elia, the highest-paid contributor to John Scott’s chatty, eclectic London Magazine during the early 1820s, was born because Lamb needed a character. “A series of Miscellaneous Essays,” he argued in his Table-Talk review, “however well executed in the parts, if it have not some pervading character to give a unity to it, is ordinarily as tormenting to get through as a set of aphorisms.” To read Montaigne’s essays was to be carried along by the strength of the essayist’s “personal peculiarities”; to read Johnson’s Rambler pieces was to be charmed, if unwillingly, by his “egotism”; but Addison’s still-fashionable Spectator essays, with their postures of neoclassical detachment, read, to Lamb, like a set of “cold generalities.” Personality was everything.
Elia—“a liar”?—is neither Charles Lamb in disguise nor, properly, a fictional character. Instead, he’s something in between, a product of “Lamb’s love of irony,” as Wilson argues, of the generative gap between “is” and “is not.” His character was to be, Lamb wrote in 1820, “a tissue of truth and fiction impossible to be extricated,” a dramatic personality both appealingly familiar and, for those who stopped to look closely, curiously illegible. Elia’s material—Christ’s Hospital, Mary, James, the South Sea House, books, food—is drawn from Lamb’s life, but with the particulars blurred or doctored. Identities change (Mary becomes Bridget Elia, a cousin rather than a sister); dates slip (Lamb worked at the South Sea House thirty years ago, not forty, as Elia says); gaps in Lamb’s life, enforced by his circumstances, are filled (one essay imagines Elia’s golden-haired “little ones,” John and Alice). Self-revelation occurs, but as if through a trick mirror. When Lamb republished, as Elia, his “Confessions of a Drunkard” (1822), a deeply personal exploration of alcoholism he’d first printed anonymously in 1813, the elements that had once made it confessional now seemed ambiguous. From Elia’s lips, its rawest moments were apt to look hammy (“Shall I lift up the veil of my weakness any further?”), its professions of inarticulacy merely rhetorical.
Across the essays, inconsistencies of character are placed like little landmines, cautions to readers to be on their guard. In May 1822, in his “A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis,” we find Elia urging generosity toward the “mendicant fraternity,” explaining that he prefers to be credulous rather than suspicious of beggars’ tales: “Give, and ask no questions.” In September’s “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig,” however, he reflects bitterly on an occasion when, as a schoolboy, he gave away a whole cake to an “insidious, good-for-nothing, old grey impostor.” Credulity, here, is both Elia’s subject and what’s at risk in the dynamic between essayist and reader. How to trust someone who goes about undermining what he thinks, and whose character seems to mold to its subject, shifting and reforming like quicksilver?
That Elia is hard to read, in every sense, is something of a commonplace of writing on Lamb. “No good criticism of Lamb, strictly speaking, can ever be written,” A.C. Swinburne declared in 1885. “Nobody can do justice to his work who does not love it too well to feel himself capable of giving judgment on it.” For Edmund Blunden, in 1937, it was the “sustained and interwoven” nature of Lamb’s style that was the problem, the impossibility of excerpting and analyzing lines of thought that seemed to sit naturally in full paragraphs. “Tell me then how you wrote your essays?” Woolf contemplates asking him in A Room of One’s Own (1929), as if the formal mechanics of his prose, the bolts and joins, were impossible to discover.
In the case of the Elia essays, the opposite may also be true: Lamb is hard to read because he gives us too many handles to grasp, because he is proleptically responsive to criticism in a manner that seems to do our job for us. Here he is describing a young sweep in “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers” (1822):
When a child, what a mysterious pleasure it was to witness their operation! to see a chit no bigger than one’s-self enter, one knew not by what process, into what seemed the fauces Averni—to pursue him in imagination, as he went sounding on through so many dark stifling caverns, horrid shades!… A bad sweep was once left in a stack with his brush, to indicate which way the wind blew. It was an awful spectacle certainly; not much unlike the old stage direction in Macbeth, where the “Apparition of a child crowned with a tree in his hand rises.”
Elia packs his prose with other writers’ voices. In this passage, there’s Virgil (“fauces Averni,” italicized, announces itself as a learned allusion); there is the Macbeth stage direction, in quotation marks; and, less pointedly, the “so many” imaginary “caverns,” which recall Coleridge’s “caverns measureless to man” in “Kubla Khan.” This accretion of references, a kind of baroque piling on, is Lamb stopping our detective work in its tracks by showing us his methods: it’s prose that both seems to cry out for interpretation and does its best to undo itself before you can get there. Is a little boy stuck in a chimney really like (or “not much unlike”) a child dressed as a tree in a play? Would the chimney itself really have struck the child Elia as resembling Virgil’s “jaws of hell”? And, if not, what is Lamb playing at?
The shape of Lamb’s life wasn’t made for literary biography. He—that is, Elia—peaked late at forty-five, having spent decades casting around for a form; then, once he ceased to be Elia in 1825 (he abandoned the character after five years, feeling “cramped,” he said, by the limits it imposed on expression), he wrote only a handful of short essays and a collection of occasional verse. The final chapters of his life in Wilson’s telling are, inevitably, a story of decline. Elia made Lamb a literary celebrity, which he hated (“I detest letters-affecting, authors-hunting ladies”). Mary’s episodes grew more frequent, as did his own bouts of melancholy, which incapacitated him. He grew increasingly lonely as, one by one, he lost his band of eccentric friends and relations. Having loathed his work at East India House for decades, when he was finally permitted to retire for health reasons in 1825, he found to his horror that doing nothing was worse. Shorn of the structures that removed him from his own unhappiness, he “lost the means for separating himself from himself,” in Wilson’s phrase. “I walk about, not to and from.”
In his letters of the late 1820s and early 1830s, there are glimpses of the thoughtful fooling that particular people and objects brought out of him. “The shortest of the daughters measured 5 foot eleven without her shoes,” he exclaimed to the poet Walter Savage Landor, describing a family of “17 brothers and 16 sisters,” all absurdly tall, who had come to stay.
There was one of them that used to fix his long legs on my fender, and tell a story of a shark, every night, endless, immortal. How have I grudged the salt-sea ravener not having had his gorge of him!