LAMB, CHARLES (1775–1834), essayist and humourist, was born on 10 Feb. 1775 in Crown Office Row in the Temple, London. His father, John Lamb, who is described under the name of Lovel in Charles Lamb's essay ‘The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple,’ was the son of poor parents in Lincolnshire, and had come up as a boy to London and entered domestic service. He ultimately became clerk and servant to Samuel Salt, a bencher of the Inner Temple, and continued to fill that position until Salt's death in 1792. He married Elizabeth Field, whose mother was for more than fifty years housekeeper at Blakesware in Hertfordshire, a few miles from Ware, a dower-house of the Plumers, a well-known county family. This Mary Field, Charles Lamb's grandmother, played an important part in the early development of his affections, and is a familiar presence in some of the most characteristic and pathetic of his writings.
To John and Elizabeth Lamb, in Crown Office Row, were born a family of seven children, of whom only three survived their infancy. The eldest of these three was John Lamb, born in 1763; the second Mary Ann, better known as Mary, born in 1764; and the third Charles, baptised 10 March 1775 ‘by the Rev. Mr. Jeffs.’ The baptisms of the entire family duly appear in the registers of the Temple Church, and were first printed by Mr. Charles Kent in his ‘Centenary Edition of Lamb's Works’ in 1875.
The block of buildings in which Samuel Salt occupied one or more sets of chambers, and in which the Lamb family were born and reared, is at the eastern end of Crown Office Row, and though considerably modified since in its interior arrangements, still bears upon its outer wall the date 1737.
Charles Lamb received his earliest education at a humble day-school kept by a Mr. William Bird in a court leading out of Fetter Lane (see Lamb's paper, ‘Captain Starkey,’ in Hone'sEvery-day Book, 21 July 1826). It was a school for both boys and girls, and Mary Lamb also attended it. At the age of seven Charles obtained a nomination to Christ's Hospital (the ‘Blue Coat School’), through the influence of his father's employer, and within its venerable walls he passed the next seven years of his life, his holidays being spent with his parents in the Temple or with his grandmother, Mrs. Field, in Hertfordshire.
What Charles Lamb learned at Christ's Hospital, what friendships he formed, and what merits and demerits he detected in the arrangements, manners, and customs of the school, are all familiar to us from the two remarkable essays he has left us, ‘On Christ's Hospital, and the Character of the Christ's Hospital Boys,’ published in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ in 1813, and the later essay ‘Christ's Hospital Five-and-thirty Years Ago,’ one of the Elia series, in the ‘London Magazine’ of November 1820. On the whole he seems to have been happy in the school, and to have acquired considerable skill in its special studies, notably in Latin, which he was fond of reading, and in a rough-and-ready way writing, to the end of his life. At the time of quitting the school he had not attained the highest position, that of ‘Grecian,’ but the nearest in rank to it, that of deputy Grecian. Perhaps the school authorities were not careful to promote him to the superior rank, seeing that he was not to proceed to the university. As a Grecian Lamb would have been entitled to an exhibition, but it was understood that the privilege was intended for those who were to enter holy orders, and a fatal impediment of speech—an insurmountable and painful stutter—made that profession impossible for him even if his gifts and inclinations had pointed that way. He left Christ's Hospital in November 1789, carrying with him, among other precious possessions, the friendship of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a friendship destined to endure, and to be the main living influence upon his mind and character till the latest year of his life. Coleridge was two years Lamb's senior, and remained at the school till 1792, when he went to Cambridge.
At the date of Lamb's leaving school his elder brother John was a clerk in the South Sea House, and a humbler post in the same office was soon found for Charles through the good offices of Samuel Salt, who was a deputy-governor of the company. But early in 1792 he was appointed to a clerkship in the accountant's office of the India House, and remained a member of the staff for the next thirty years. The court minutes of the old India House record that on 5 April 1792 ‘William Savory, Charles Lamb, and Hutcher Trower’ were appointed clerks in the accountant's office on the usual terms. Another entry of three weeks later tells that the sureties required by the office were in Lamb's case Peter Peirson, esq., of the Inner Temple, and John Lamb ‘of the Inner Temple, gentleman.’ The name of Peter Peirson recalls one of the most touching passages in the essay on the ‘Old Benchers.’
Samuel Salt died in this same year, leaving various legacies and other benefactions to his faithful clerk and housekeeper. The Lamb family had accordingly to leave the Temple, and there is no record of their place of residence until 1796, when we hear of them as lodging in Little Queen Street, Holborn. The family were poor, Charles's salary, and what his sister could earn by needlework, in addition to the interest on Salt's legacies, forming their sole means of subsistence, for John Lamb the younger, a fairly prosperous gentleman, was living an independent life elsewhere. John Lamb the elder was old and sinking into dotage. The mother was an invalid, with apparently a strain of insanity. Mary Lamb was overworked, and the continued strain and anxiety began to tell upon her mind. On 22 Sept. 1796 a terrible blow fell upon the family. Mary Lamb, irritated with a little apprentice-girl who was working in the family sitting-room, snatched a knife from the table, pursued the child round the room, and finally stabbed her mother, who had interposed in the girl's behalf. The wound was instantly fatal, Charles being at hand only in time to wrest the knife from his sister and prevent further mischief. An inquest was held and a verdict found of temporary insanity. Mary Lamb would have been in the ordinary course transferred to a public lunatic asylum, but interest was made with the authorities, and she was given into the custody of her brother, then only just of age, who undertook to be her guardian, an office which he discharged under the gravest difficulties and discouragements for the remainder of his life. Mrs. Lamb was buried in the graveyard of St. Andrew's, Holborn, on 26 Sept. 1796, and Charles Lamb, with his imbecile father and an old Aunt Hetty, who formed one of the household, left Little Queen Street. (The house no longer stands, having been removed with others to make room for a church, which now stands on its site.) The family removed to 45 Chapel Street, Pentonville, with the exception of Mary, who was placed under suitable care at Hackney, where Charles could frequently visit her. In February 1797 old Aunt Hetty died, and Charles was left as the solitary guardian of his father until the latter's death in 1799.
The letters of Charles Lamb, through which his life may be henceforth studied, open with a correspondence with Coleridge, beginning in May 1796. The earliest of these letters records how Charles Lamb himself had been for six weeks in the winter of 1795–6 in an asylum for some form of mental derangement, which, however, seems never to have recurred. It is likely that this tendency was inherited from the mother, and that moreover the immediate cause, in this case, may have been a love disappointment. This at least is certain, that already Charles Lamb had lost his heart to a girl living not far from Blakesware, his grandmother's home in Hertfordshire. The earliest intimation of the fact is afforded by the existence of two sonnets which Lamb submits to Coleridge in 1796 as having been written by him in the summer of 1795 (see Lamb's Letters, i. 4). Both poems refer to Hertfordshire, and the second distinctly reveals an attachment to a ‘gentle maid’ named Anna, who had lived in a ‘cottage,’ and with whom ‘in happier days’ he had held free converse, days which, however, ‘ne'er must come again.’ At that early date, therefore, it is clear that the course of love had not run smooth, and it is reasonable to connect Lamb's mental breakdown in the following winter with this cause. A year later, in writing to Coleridge after his mother's death, he speaks of his attachment as a folly that has left him for ever. All that is certain of this episode in Lamb's life is that the girl's name was Ann Simmons, that she lived with her mother in a cottage called Blenheims, within a mile of Blakesware House, and that she ultimately married a Mr. Bartram, a silversmith, of Princes Street, Leicester Square (she is mentioned under that name in the essay ‘Dream Children’). Thus far all is certain. The whole pedigree of the Simmons family is in the present writer's possession, but an old inhabitant of Widford (the village adjoining Blakesware), and intimate friend of the Lambs, from whom he obtained it, had never heard of the circumstances attending Lamb's unsuccessful wooing.
In the spring of 1796 Coleridge made his earliest appearance as a poet in a small volume published by Cottle of Bristol, ‘Poems on Various Subjects, by S. T. Coleridge, late of Jesus College, Cambridge,’ and among these were four sonnets by Lamb. ‘The effusions signed C. L. were written by Mr. Charles Lamb of the India House. Independently of the signature, their superior merit would have sufficiently distinguished them.’ Two of these sonnets refer also to Anna with the fair hair and the blue eyes. This was Lamb's first appearance in print. The sonnets are chiefly remarkable as reflecting the diction and the graceful melancholy of William Lisle Bowles [q. v.], whose sonnets had in a singular degree influenced and inspired both Lamb and Coleridge while they were still at Christ's Hospital. A year later, in 1797, Coleridge produced a second edition of his poems, ‘To which are now added Poems by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd’ (1775–1839) [q.v.] . Among these were included the ‘Anna’ sonnets, and the lines entitled ‘The Grandame,’ written on his grandmother, Mrs. Field, who had died at Blakesware in 1792. (These latter had already appeared in print, in a handsome quarto, with certain others of Charles Lloyd's.)
In the summer of 1797 Lamb devoted his short holiday (only one week) to a visit to Coleridge at Nether Stowey, where he made the acquaintance of Thomas Poole [q. v.], and met Wordsworth and others (see Mrs. Sandford, Thomas Poole and his Friends; and Lamb's Letters, i. 79). The following year, 1798, saw the publication of a thin volume, ‘Blank Verse, by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd,’ containing the touching verses on the ‘Old Familiar Faces.’ Later appeared Lamb's prose romance, ‘A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret,’ a story of sentiment written under the influence of Mackenzie, and having the scene laid in Lamb's favourite village of Widford in Hertfordshire. During this year Cottle of Bristol had a portrait taken of Lamb by Hancock, an engraving of which appeared many years later in Cottle's ‘Recollections of Coleridge.’ This is the earliest portrait of Lamb we possess. In November 1798 Coleridge, with Wordsworth and his sister, left England for Germany, and for the next eighteen months Lamb was thrown for literary sympathy upon other friends, notably on Southey, with whom he began a frequent correspondence. In these letters Lamb's individuality of style and humour became first markedly apparent.
In the spring of 1799 Lamb's father died, and Mary Lamb returned to live with her brother, from whom she was never again parted, except during occasional returns of her malady. But rumours of this malady followed them wherever they went. They had notice to quit their rooms in Pentonville in the spring of 1799, and they were accepted as tenants for a while by Lamb's old schoolfellow, John Mathew Gutch [q. v.], then a law-stationer in Southampton Buildings, Holborn. Here they remained for nine months, but the old difficulties arose, and the brother and sister were again homeless. Lamb then turned to the familiar precincts of the Temple, and took rooms at the top of King's Bench Walk (Mitre Court Buildings), where he remained with his sister for nearly nine years. They then removed to Inner Temple Lane for a period of another nine years.
Lamb's letters to Thomas Manning [q. v.], the mathematician and orientalist, and to Coleridge on his return from Germany, begin at the date of his settling in the Temple, and continue the story of his life. Manning's acquaintance he had made at Cambridge while visiting Charles Lloyd. Lamb now began to add to his scanty income by writing for the newspapers (see his Elia essay, Newspapers Thirty-five Years Ago). He contributed for some three years facetious paragraphs and epigrams to the ‘Morning Post,’ ‘Morning Chronicle,’ and the ‘Albion.’ In 1802 he published his ‘John Woodvil,’ a blank-verse play of the Restoration period, but showing markedly the influence of Massinger and Beaumont and Fletcher, full of felicitous lines, but crude and undramatic. It was reviewed in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ April 1803, not unfairly, but ignorantly. The Elizabethan dramatists were still sealed books save to the antiquary and the specialist. Meantime Charles and Mary Lamb were struggling with poverty, and with worse enemies. Lamb's journalistic and literary associates made demands on his hospitality, and good company brought its temptations. In 1804 Mary Lamb writes that they are ‘very poor,’ and that Charles is trying in various ways to earn money. He was still dreaming of possible dramatic successes, but these were not to be. In 1803 he sends Manning his well-known verses on Hester Savory, a young quakeress with whom he had fallen in love, though without her knowledge, when he lived (1797–1800) at Pentonville, and who had recently died a few months after her marriage. In September 1805 he is still thinking of dramatic work, and has a farce in prospect. The project took shape in the two-act farce, ‘Mr. H.,’ accepted by the proprietors of Drury Lane, and produced on 10 Dec. The secret of Mr. H.'s real name (Hogsflesh) seemed trivial and vulgar to the audience, and in spite of Elliston's best efforts, the farce was hopelessly damned. Lamb was himself present, and next day recorded the failure by letter to several of his friends. He now turned to a wider field of work in connection with the drama. He made Hazlitt's acquaintance in 1805, and Hazlitt introduced him to William Godwin, who had turned children's publisher. For Godwin Lamb and his sister agreed to write the ‘Tales from Shakespeare,’ published in January 1807, a second edition following in the next year. Lamb did the tragedies and Mary the comedies. This was Lamb's first success, and first brought him into serious notice. It was followed by a child's version of the adventures of Ulysses, made from Chapman's translation of the ‘Odyssey,’ for Lamb's knowledge of Greek was moderate. This appeared in 1808. A much more important work was at hand. The publishing house of Longmans commissioned him to edit selections from the Elizabethan dramatists. This also appeared in 1808, under the title of ‘Specimens of English Dramatic Poets contemporary with Shakespeare.’ Lamb was at once recognised as a critic of the highest order, and of a kind as yet unknown to English literature, and from this time forward his position as a prose writer of marked originality was secure among the more thoughtful of his contemporaries, though it was not till some ten years later that he reached the general public. Between 1808 and 1818 his chief critical productions were the two noble essays on Hogarth and on the tragedies of Shakespeare, published in Leigh Hunt's ‘Reflector’ in 1811, while the ‘Recollections of Christ's Hospital,’ in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ of 1813, and the ‘Confessions of a Drunkard,’ contributed to his friend Basil Montagu's ‘Some Enquiries into the Effects of Fermented Liquors’ in 1814, were the first specimens of the miscellaneous essay in the vein he was to work later, with such success, in the ‘Essays of Elia.’ Meantime he was strengthening his position and widening his interests by new and stimulating friendships, Talfourd, Proctor, Crabb Robinson, Haydon, and others appearing among his correspondents, while the old relations with the Wordsworths and Coleridge remained among the best influences of his life.
In the autumn of 1817 Lamb and his sister left the Temple for lodgings in Great Russell Street, Covent Garden. Soon after a young bookseller, Charles Ollier, induced him to publish a collection of his miscellaneous writings in verse and prose, including some, like ‘John Woodvil’ and ‘Rosamund Gray,’ long out of print. These appeared in two volumes, dedicated to Coleridge, in 1818, and at once obtained for Lamb a wider recognition. A more important result was to follow. The ‘London Magazine’ made its first appearance in January 1820. Hazlitt, who was on the staff, introduced Lamb to the editor, John Scott, and he was invited to contribute occasional essays. The first of these, ‘Recollections of the South Sea House,’ appeared in August 1820. In writing the essay, Lamb remembered an obscure clerk in that office during his own short connection with it as a boy, of the name of Elia, and as a joke appended that name to the essay. In subsequent essays he continued the same signature, which became inseparably connected with the series (see letter of Lamb to his publisher, John Taylor, in July 1821). ‘Call him Ellia,’ writes Lamb, and it seems probable that the name was really thus spelled. Between August 1820 and December 1822 Lamb contributed five-and-twenty essays, thus signed, at the rate of about one a month. These were reprinted in a single volume in 1823: ‘Elia—Essays that have appeared under that signature in the “London Magazine.”’
Meantime, Lamb's elder brother John had died (November 1821), and to the increasing loneliness of his existence we owe the beautiful essay, ‘Dream Children.’ In 1822 Charles and his sister for the first time went abroad, paying a short visit to their friend James Kenney [q. v.] the dramatist, who lived at Versailles, and whose son, born in 1823, was christened Charles Lamb Kenney [q. v.] During this absence from England Mary Lamb had one of her now more frequent attacks of mental derangement. The next year brought a new anxiety into Lamb's life, in the form of a criticism from the pen of an old friend on the ‘Elia’ volume of 1823. Southey, in reviewing a work by Grégoire upon deism in France, drew a moral from the hopeless tone of one of Lamb's essays—that on ‘Witches and other Night Fears’—adding that the essays as a whole lacked a ‘sound religious feeling.’ The charge pained Lamb keenly, both as coming from an old friend and as touching a vein of real sorrow and anxiety in his mental history. He replied to the charge in the well-known ‘Letter of Elia to Robert Southey, Esq.,’ in the ‘London Magazine’ for October 1823. Southey, in reply, wrote a loving and generous letter of explanation to Lamb, and the breach between the old friends was at once healed. The same year that brought Lamb this distress was to bring compensation in a new interest added to his life. He and his sister were in the habit of spending their autumn holiday at Cambridge, where they had a friend, Mrs. Paris, sister of Lamb's old friend, William Ayrton. Here the Lambs met a little orphan girl, Emma Isola, daughter of Charles Isola, one of the esquire bedells of the university. They invited her to spend subsequent holidays with them, and finally adopted her. During the remaining ten years of Lamb's life the companionship of the young girl supplied the truest solace and relief amid the deepening anxieties of the home life. Lamb and his sister devoted themselves to her education, and though in after years she left them at times to become herself a teacher of others, their house was her home until her marriage with Edward Moxon, the publisher, in 1833. Mrs. Moxon died in March 1891.
In August 1823 the Lambs left their rooms in Russell Street, Covent Garden, ‘over the Brazier's,’ and took a cottage in Colebrooke Row, Islington, the New River flowing at the foot of their garden. Lamb describes the house in a letter of 2 Sept. to Bernard Barton [q.v.] , the quaker poet of Woodbridge, who was one of Lamb's later friends, acquired through the ‘London Magazine.’ To him many of Lamb's happiest letters are addressed. Meantime Lamb was writing more ‘Elia’ essays, though with weakening health and increasing restlessness. Already he was considering the chances of retirement from the India House, and a severe illness in the winter of 1824–5 brought the matter to an issue. His doctors urgently supported his application to the directors, and the happy result was made known to him in March 1825, when it was announced that a retiring pension would be awarded him, consisting of three-fourths of his salary, with a slight deduction to insure an allowance for his sister in the event of her surviving. ‘After thirty-three years' slavery,’ he wrote to Wordsworth, ‘here am I a freed man, with 441l. a year for the remainder of my life.’ The first use that Lamb made of his freedom was to pay visits of varying length in the country, always in the direction of his favourite Hertfordshire. The brother and sister took lodgings occasionally at the Chace, Enfield, and after two years became sole tenants of the little house. Meantime the trials of having nothing to do became very real to them both. Lamb was an excellent walker, and in the summer months he found great pleasure in exploring the scenery of Hertfordshire, with the comforting remembrance that he was still in easy touch with London and friends. But old friends were dying, and Lamb's loyal nature found little compensation in the cultivation of new ones. That devoted friend of his childhood, Mr. Randal Norris, sub-treasurer of the Inner Temple, died in January 1827, and is the subject of a pathetic letter to Crabb Robinson—‘To the last he called me Charley. I have none to call me Charley now.’ Randal Norris left two daughters, who set up a school at Widford, to which village their mother had belonged. The younger, Mrs. Arthur Tween, who was well known to the present writer, died at an advanced age at Widford in July 1891. During the few remaining years of Lamb's life it was a favourite excursion for him and Miss Isola to walk over to Widford and beg a half-holiday for the girls and tell them stories.
In 1828 Lamb obtained some literary work of a kind thoroughly congenial. He wished to assist Hone, then producing his ‘Table Book,’ and undertook to make extracts (after the model of his ‘Dramatic Specimens’ of 1808) from the Garrick plays in the British Museum. He had written also for the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ in 1826, his essays called ‘Popular Fallacies.’ He wrote also occasional verse, and at times in his happiest and most characteristic vein, such as the lines ‘On an Infant dying as soon as born,’ written on the death of Thomas Hood's first child, in 1828. Acrostics also, and other such trifles, and album verses, became increasingly in request among his young lady friends. And in 1830, to help his friend Moxon, then newly starting as publisher, he made a collection of these, under the title of ‘Album Verses, with a few others.’ In the summer of 1829 the brother and sister had again to change their residence. Mary's health was steadily weakening, her attacks and periods of absence from home became longer, and the cares of housekeeping proved intolerable. They moved, accordingly, to the adjoining house in Enfield Chace, and boarded with a retired tradesman and his wife, a Mr. and Mrs. Westwood. The immediate effects were satisfactory, and for a while Mary Lamb seemed to improve in health and spirits. But Charles meantime became less at ease in country life. The next year brought him new distractions. Emma Isola, for whom the Lambs had found a situation as governess in Suffolk, had a serious illness, during which Lamb visited her, and finally brought her home, convalescent, to Enfield. In 1833 the Lambs moved once more, and for the last time. Mary's improvement in health had been merely temporary, and it became necessary for her to be under more skilful and constant nursing. During previous illnesses she had been placed under the care of a Mr. and Mrs. Walden, at Bay Cottage, Edmonton (the parish adjoining Enfield), and now the brother and sister moved together, to spend, as it proved, the last two years of their united lives under the Waldens' roof.
In the same year Emma Isola became engaged to Edward Moxon, and the marriage took place in July 1833, leaving Charles Lamb yet more lonely, and without social resource. The ‘Last Essays of Elia,’ mainly from the ‘London Magazine,’ were published this year by Moxon, and but for an occasional copy of verses for a friend's album, Lamb's literary career was closed. In July 1834 Coleridge died, and with this event Lamb's last surviving friend passed from him. He himself, more and more lonely and forlorn, bore his heavy burden five months longer. One day in December, while walking on the London Road, he stumbled and fell, slightly wounding his face. A few days later erysipelas supervened, and he had no strength left to battle with the disease. He passed away without pain, on 27 Dec. 1834, and was buried in Edmonton churchyard. His sister survived him nearly thirteen years, dying at Alpha Road, St. John's Wood, on 20 May 1847; she was buried beside her brother. Charles left her his savings, amounting to about 2,000l., and she was also entitled to the pension reserved to her by the terms of Lamb's retirement from the India House.
No figure in literature is better known to us than Lamb. His writings, prose and verse, are full of personal revelations. We possess a body of his correspondence, also of the most confidential kind, and his friends have left descriptions of him from almost every point of view. He numbered among his earliest friends Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, and among his later Proctor, Talfourd, Hood, Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, Crabb Robinson, while many of his most characteristic letters were written to men who have attained general fame mainly through Lamb's friendship. Notable among these are Thomas Manning and Bernard Barton. No man was ever more loved by a wide and varied class of friends. His lifelong devotion to his sister, for whose sake he abjured all thoughts of marriage; the unique attachment between the pair; Lamb's unfailing loyalty to his friends, who often levied heavy taxes on his purse and leisure; his very eccentricities and petulances, including his one serious frailty—a too careless indulgence in strong drinks—excited a profound pity in those who knew the unceasing domestic difficulties which he surmounted so bravely for eight-and-thirty years. It is likely that the necessity of protecting and succouring his sister acted as a strong power over his will, and helped to preserve his sanity during the hardship of the years that followed. But one result of the taint of insanity inherited from his mother was that a very small amount of alcohol was enough at any time to throw his mind off its balance. He was afflicted, moreover, all his life with a bad stutter, and the eagerness to forget the impediment, which put him at a disadvantage in all conversations, probably further encouraged the habit. The infirmity, which has been in turn denied and exaggerated by friends and enemies, never interfered with the regular performance of his official duties, or with his domestic responsibilities.
The extant portraits of Lamb are the following: 1. By Robert Hancock of Bristol, 1798, drawn for Joseph Cottle; in the National Portrait Gallery. 2. By Wm. Hazlitt, 1805, in a fancy dress; in the National Portrait Gallery. 3. By G. F. Joseph, A.R.A., 1819; water-colour drawing made to illustrate a copy of ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers;’ in the British Museum. 4. Etching on copper by Brook Pulham, a friend of Lamb's in the India House, 1825. 5. By Henry Meyer, 1826; in the India Office: of two small replicas one is in the National Portrait Gallery and the other belongs to Sir Charles Dilke, bart., M.P. 6. By T. Wageman, 1824 or 1825; engraved in Talfourd's ‘Letters of Charles Lamb,’ 1837; in America. 7. Charles Lamb and his sister together, by F. S. Cary, 1834; in the National Portrait Gallery. 8. By Maclise, sketch in ‘Fraser's Magazine,’ 1835.
Lamb's writings published in book form are: 1. ‘Poems on Various Subjects, by S. T. Coleridge, late of Jesus College, Cambridge,’ 1796, contains four sonnets by Lamb signed ‘C. L.,’ referred to by Coleridge in his preface as by ‘Mr. Charles Lamb of the India House.’ 2. ‘Poems by S. T. Coleridge, 2nd edit., to which are now added Poems by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd,’ 1797. 3. ‘Blank Verse by Charles Lloyd and Charles Lamb,’ 1798. 4. ‘A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret, by Charles Lamb,’ 1798. 5. ‘John Woodvil, a Tragedy, by Charles Lamb,’ &c., 1802. 6. ‘Mrs. Leicester's School,’ &c., 1807, by Charles and Mary Lamb, Charles contributing three of the stories, ‘The Witch Aunt,’ ‘First Going to Church,’ and the ‘Sea Voyage.’ 7. ‘Tales from Shakespeare, &c., by Charles Lamb,’ 1807. The bulk of the tales were written by Mary Lamb, Charles contributing the tragedies. 8. ‘The Adventures of Ulysses, by Charles Lamb,’ 1808. 9. ‘Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, with Notes by Charles Lamb,’ 1808. 10. ‘Poetry for Children, entirely original, by the author of “Mrs. Leicester's School,”’ anonymous, by Charles and Mary Lamb. The respective shares of the two writers were not indicated. A few of Lamb's verses were reprinted by him in his ‘Collected Works’ in 1818. 11. ‘Prince Dorus,’ a poetical version of an ancient tale, 1811. 12. ‘The Works of Charles Lamb,’ in 2 vols. London, 1818. 13. ‘Elia—Essays which have appeared under that signature in the “London Magazine,”’ 1823. 14. ‘Album Verses, with a few others,’ by Charles Lamb, 1830. 15. ‘Satan in Search of a Wife,’ 1831. 16. ‘The Last Essays of Elia,’ 1833. In this list are not included Lamb's occasional contributions to periodical literature, such as albums and keepsakes, prologues, and epilogues to plays, and the like, almost all of which are to be found collected in posthumous editions of his works. As to Lamb's authorship of a child's book, done for Godwin, on the fairy tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ there is no direct evidence, while all the indirect evidence points to an opposite conclusion.[Excepting short memoirs, which appeared after Lamb's death, by Forster, Moxon, B. Field, and others, the first biography was Talfourd's Letters of Charles Lamb, with a Sketch of his Life, 1837. After Mary Lamb's death, in 1847, Talfourd produced a supplementary volume, the Final Memorials of Charles Lamb, 1848. An independent memoir, based upon personal recollections, by Barry Cornwall—Charles Lamb, a Memoir—appeared in 1866. In 1868, and again in 1875, Talfourd's two books were reissued, digested into a continuous narrative, with many additions, prefixed to new editions of the Works, the second of these edited by Mr. Percy Fitzgerald. In 1886 Mr. W. C. Hazlitt edited afresh Talfourd's two works, again digested into one, with additions, both to the letters and Talfourd's own text. Meantime, in 1875, Mr. Charles Kent prefixed a short memoir of Lamb to Routledge's one-volume Centenary Edition of the Works, adding several new facts of interest, including a letter from Fanny Kelly regarding the essay ‘Barbara S.’ In 1882 the present writer furnished the memoir of Lamb in the Men of Letters Series, since revised and enlarged, 1888. An annotated edition of Lamb's complete Works and Correspondence, by the same writer, was published in six volumes (1883–8). Other works referring in various ways to Lamb are Cottle's Early Recollections of Coleridge, 1837; Patmore's My Friends and Acquaintances, 1854; Hood's Literary Reminiscences (Hood's Own, 1st ser.); Crabb Robinson's Diary; Leigh Hunt's Autobiography; Memoirs of W. Hazlitt; Mr. and Mrs. Cowden Clarke's Recollections of Writers; Mary Lamb, by Mrs. Gilchrist, in the Eminent Women Series. The last attempt at a complete bibliography of Lamb's writings is that by Mr. E. D. North, appended to Martin's In the Footprints of Charles Lamb, New York, 1890.]
Location of death: Edmonton, Middlesex, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, All Saints Churchyard, Edmonton, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Author, Critic
Executive summary:Essays of Elia
English essayist and critic, born in Crown Office Row, Inner Temple, London, on the 10th of February 1775. His father, John Lamb, a Lincolnshire man, who filled the situation of clerk and servant-companion to Samuel Salt, a member of parliament and one of the benchers of the Inner Temple, was successful in obtaining for Charles, the youngest of three surviving children, a presentation to Christ's Hospital, where the boy remained from his eighth to his fifteenth year (1782-89). Here he had for a schoolfellow Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his senior by rather more than two years, and a close and tender friendship began which lasted for the rest of the lives of both. When the time came for leaving school, where he had learned some Greek and acquired considerable facility in Latin composition, Lamb, after a brief stay at home (probably spent, as his school holidays had often been, over old English authors in Salt's library) was condemned to the labors of the desk -- "an inconquerable impediment" in his speech disqualifying him for the clerical profession, which, as the school exhibitions were usually only given to those preparing for the church, thus deprived him of the only means by which he could have obtained a university education. For a short time he was in the office of Joseph Paice, a London merchant, and then for twenty-three weeks, until the 8th of February 1792, he held a small post in the Examiner's Office of the South Sea House, where his brother John was established, a period which, although his age was but sixteen, was to provide him nearly thirty years later with materials for the first of the Essays of Elia. On the 5th of April 1792, he entered the Accountant's Office in the East India House, where during the next 33 the hundred official folios of what he used to call his true "works" were produced.
Of the years 1792-95 we know little. At the end of 1794 he saw much of Coleridge and joined him in writing sonnets in the Morning Post, addressed to eminent persons: early in 1795 he met Robert Southey and was much in the company of James White, whom he probably helped in the composition of the Original Letters of Sir John Falstaff; and at the end of the year for a short time he became so unhinged mentally as to necessitate confinement in an asylum. The cause, it is probable, was an unsuccessful love affair with Ann Simmons, the Hertfordshire maiden to whom his first sonnets are addressed, whom he would have seen when on his visits as a youth to Blakesware House, near Widford, the country home of the Plumer family, of which Lamb's grandmother, Mary Field, was for many years, until her death in 1792, sole custodian.
It was in the late summer of 1796 that a dreadful calamity came upon the Lambs, which seemed to blight all Lamb's prospects in the very morning of life. On the 22nd of September his sister Mary, "worn down to a state of extreme nervous misery by attention to needlework by day and to her mother at night", was suddenly seized with acute mania, in which she stabbed her mother to the heart. The calm self-mastery and loving self-renunciation which Charles Lamb, by constitution excitable, nervous and self-mistrustful, displayed at this crisis in his own history and in that of those nearest him, will ever give him an imperishable claim to the reverence and affection of all who are capable of appreciating the heroisms of common life. With the help of friends he succeeded in obtaining his sister's release from the lifelong restraint to which she would otherwise have been doomed, on the express condition that he himself should undertake the responsibility for her safekeeping. It proved no light charge: for though no one was capable of affording a more intelligent or affectionate companionship than Mary Lamb during her periods of health, there was ever present the apprehension of the recurrence of her malady; and when from time to time the premonitory symptoms had become unmistakable, there was no alternative but her removal, which took place in quietness and tears. How deeply the whole course of Lamb's domestic life must have been affected by his singular loyalty as a brother needs not to be pointed out.
Lamb's first appearance as an author was made in the year of the great tragedy of his life (1796), when there were published in the volume of Poems on Various Subjects by Coleridge four sonnets by "Mr. Charles Lamb of the India House." In the following year he contributed, with Charles Lloyd, a pupil of Coleridge, some pieces in blank verse to the second edition of Coleridge's Poems. In 1797 his short summer holiday was spent with Coleridge at Nether Stowey, where he met the Wordsworths, William and Dorothy, and established a friendship with both which only his own death terminated. In 1798, under the influence of Henry Mackenzie's novel Julie de Roubign�, he published a short and pathetic prose tale entitled Rosamund Gray, in which it is possible to trace beneath disguised conditions references to the misfortunes of the author's own family, and many personal touches; and in the same year he joined Lloyd in a volume of Blank Verse, to which Lamb contributed poems occasioned by the death of his mother and his aunt Sarah Lamb, among them being his best-known lyric, "The Old Familiar Faces." In this year, 1798, he achieved the unexpected publicity of an attack by the Anti-Jacobin upon him as an associate of Coleridge and Southey (to whose Annual Anthology he had contributed) in their Jacobin machinations. In 1799, on the death of her father, Mary Lamb came to live again with her brother, their home then being in Pentonville; but it was not until 1800 that they really settled together, their first independent joint home being at Mitre Court Buildings in the Temple, where they lived until 1809. At the end of 1801, or beginning of 1802, appeared Lamb's first play John Woodvil, on which he set great store, a slight dramatic piece written in the style of the earlier Elizabethan period and containing some genuine poetry and happy delineation of the gentler emotions, but as a whole deficient in plot, vigor and character; it was held up to ridicule by the Edinburgh Review as a specimen of the rudest condition of the drama, a work by "a man of the age of Thespis." The dramatic spirit, however, was not thus easily quenched in Lamb, and his next effort was a farce, Mr. H---, the point of which lay in the hero's anxiety to conceal his name "Hogsflesh"; but it did not survive the first night of its appearance at Drury Lane, in December 1806. Its author bore the failure with rare equanimity and good humor -- even to joining in the hissing -- and soon struck into new and more successful fields of literary exertion. Before, however, passing to these it should be mentioned that he made various efforts to earn money by journalism, partly by humorous articles, partly as dramatic critic, but chiefly as a contributor of sarcastic or funny paragraphs, "sparing neither man nor woman", in the Morning Post, principally in 1803.
In 1807 appeared Tales founded on the Plays of Shakespeare, written by Charles and Mary Lamb, in which Charles was responsible for the tragedies and Mary for the comedies; and in 1808, Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare, with short but felicitous critical notes. It was this work which laid the foundation of Lamb's reputation as a critic, for it was filled with imaginative understanding of the old playwrights, and a warm, discerning and novel appreciation of their great merits. In the same year, 1808, Mary Lamb, assisted by her brother, published Poetry for Children, and a collection of short schoolgirl tales under the title Mrs. Leicester's School; and to the same date belongs The Adventures of Ulysses, designed by Lamb as a companion to The Adventures of Telemachus. In 1810 began to appear Leigh Hunt's quarterly periodical, The Reflector, in which Lamb published much (including the fine essays on the tragedies of Shakespeare and on Hogarth) that subsequently appeared in the first collective edition of his Works, which he put forth in 1818.
Between 1811, when The Reflector ceased, and 1820, he wrote almost nothing. In these years we may imagine him at his most social period, playing much whist and entertaining his friends on Wednesday or Thursday nights; meanwhile gathering that reputation as a conversationalist or inspirer of conversation in others, which William Hazlitt, who was at one time one of Lamb's closest friends, has done so much to celebrate. When in 1818 appeared the Works in two volumes, it may be that Lamb considered his literary career over. Before coming to 1820, and an event which was in reality to be the beginning of that career as it is generally known -- the establishment of the London Magazine -- it should be recorded that in the summer of 1819 Lamb, with his sister's full consent, proposed marriage to Fanny Kelly, the actress, who was then in her thirtieth year. Miss Kelly could not accept, giving as one reason her devotion to her mother. Lamb bore the rebuff with characteristic humor and fortitude. The establishment of the London Magazine in 1820 stimulated Lamb to the production of a series of new essays (the Essays of Elia) which may be said to form the chief cornerstone in the small but classic temple of his fame. The first of these, as it fell out, was a description of the old South Sea House, with which Lamb happened to have associated the name of a "gay light-hearted foreigner" called Elia, who was a clerk in the days of his service there. The pseudonym adopted on this occasion was retained for the subsequent contributions, which appeared collectively in a volume of essays called Elia, in 1823. After a career of five years the London Magazine came to an end; and about the same period Lamb's long connection with the India House terminated, a pension of �450 having been assigned to him. The increased leisure, however, for which he had long sighed, did not prove favorable to literary production, which henceforth was limited to a few trifling contributions to the New Monthly and other serials, and the excavation of gems from the mass of dramatic literature bequeathed to the British Museum by David Garrick, which Lamb laboriously read through in 1827, an occupation which supplied him for a time with the regular hours of work he missed so much. The malady of his sister, which continued to increase with ever shortening intervals of relief, broke in painfully on his lettered ease and comfort; and it is unfortunately impossible to ignore the deteriorating effects of an over-free indulgence in the use of alcohol, and, in early life, tobacco, on a temperament such as his. His removal on account of his sister to the quiet of the country at Enfield, by tending to withdraw him from the stimulating society of the large circle of literary friends who had helped to make his weekly or monthly "at homes" so remarkable, doubtless also tended to intensify his listlessness and helplessness. One of the brightest elements in the closing years of his life was the friendship and companionship of Emma Isola, whom he and his sister had adopted, and whose marriage in 1833 to Edward Moxon, the publisher, though a source of unselfish joy to Lamb, left him more than ever alone. While living at Edmonton, where he had moved in 1833 so that his sister might have the continual care of Mr. and Mrs. Walden, who were accustomed to patients of weak intellect, Lamb was overtaken by an attack of erysipelas brought on by an accidental fall as he was walking on the London road. After a few days' illness he died on the 27th of December, 1834. The sudden death of one so widely known, admired and beloved, fell on the public as well as on his own attached circle with all the poignancy of a personal calamity and a private grief. His memory wanted no tribute that affection could bestow, and Wordsworth commemorated in simple and solemn verse the genius, virtues and fraternal devotion of his early friend.
Charles Lamb is entitled to a place as an essayist beside Michel de Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. He unites many of the characteristics of each of these writers -- refined and exquisite humor, a genuine and cordial vein of pleasantry and heart-touching pathos. His fancy is distinguished by great delicacy and tenderness; and even his conceits are imbued with human feeling and passion. He had an extreme and almost exclusive partiality for earlier prose writers, particularly for Fuller, Browne and Burton, as well as for the dramatists of Shakespeare's time; and the care with which he studied them is apparent in all he ever wrote. It shines out conspicuously in his style, which has an antique air and is redolent of the peculiarities of the 17th century. Its quaintness has subjected the author to the charge of affectation, but there is nothing really affected in his writings. His style is not so much an imitation as a reflection of the older writers; for in spirit he made himself their contemporary. A confirmed habit of studying them in preference to modern literature had made something of their style natural to him; and long experience had rendered it not only easy and familiar but habitual. It was not a masquerade dress he wore, but the costume which showed the man to most advantage. With thought and meaning often profound, though clothed in simple language, every sentence of his essays is pregnant.
He played a considerable part in reviving the dramatic writers of the Shakesperian age; for he preceded Gifford and others in wiping the dust of ages from their works. In his brief comments on each specimen he displays exquisite powers of discrimination: his discernment of the true meaning of his author is almost infallible. His work was a departure in criticism. Former editors had supplied textual criticism and alternative readings: Lamb's object was to show how our ancestors felt when they placed themselves by the power of imagination in trying situations, in the conflicts of duty or passion or the strife of contending duties; what sorts of loves and enmities theirs were.
As a poet Lamb is not entitled to so high a place as that which can be claimed for him as essayist and critic. His dependence on Elizabethan models is here also manifest, but in such a way as to bring into all the greater prominence his native deficiency in "the accomplishment of verse." Yet it is impossible, once having read, ever to forget the tenderness and grace of such poems as "Hester", "The Old Familiar Faces", and the lines "On an infant dying as soon as born" or the quaint humor of "A Farewell to Tobacco." As a letter writer Lamb ranks very high, and when in a nonsensical mood there is none to touch him.
Father: John Lamb (clerk)
Mother: (d. murder, by his sister)
Sister: Mary Ann
British East India Company
Risk Factors: Smallpox
Do you know something we don't?
Submit a correction or make a comment about this profile
Copyright ©2014 Soylent Communications