Dream-Child: A Life of Charles Lamb, by Eric G. Wilson
Yale University Press, 2022
That prismatic cast of characters collectively known as the English Romantic Poets remains enduringly fascinating, whether you’re talking the supremely gifted hothouse flower Keats, dead from TB at just twenty-five, Shelley the ecstatic radical, Byron with his caustic worldview and fearsome wit, the garrulous Coleridge who couldn’t keep off the opium, or Wordsworth, whose staid latter years belied his early Republican sympathies. Amongst the supporting satellites who orbited these luminaries, the figure of Charles Lamb regularly crops up, particularly with reference to Coleridge and Wordsworth. More often than not, Lamb can be found in an auxiliary role at some gathering where Coleridge was being verbosely erudite, or as one of Wordsworth’s more artfully expressive correspondents. In Dream-Child: A Life of Charles Lamb, Eric G. Wilson aims to raise his subject’s profile from that of mere bit-part player in somebody else’s life story, and instead show his subject as the complex and fascinating character that he actually was.
As Wilson points out, given Lamb’s estimable literary accomplishments and decidedly mercurial personal history, it is a wonder that there has been no full-scale biography of him since 1905. Anyone vaguely familiar with Lamb’s work will probably remember his Essays of Elia and the Tales from Shakespeare which he co-authored with his sister Mary. However, that neither of these projects immediately spring to mind when recalling the nineteenth-century literary canon in general is indicative of how far Lamb’s stock has fallen since his death in 1834. Whilst Wilson makes a convincing case for his subject’s writings to be reappraised, it is, ultimately, Lamb’s life story that holds the greater allure.
He was born in 1775 into a family which appears to have been fundamentally unhappy, with deep-seated tensions existing between his parents as well as between his mother and paternal Aunt Sarah who lived with them. Lamb was the youngest of three surviving children, with a brother and sister who were considerably older than him. His father worked as an assistant to a barrister in London’s Inner Temple, whilst his mother, who was “tall, stately, graceful and strikingly beautiful,” nursed a grudge that she had married beneath her. Wilson identifies two factors that shaped the young Lamb’s character: the Temple environs in which he grew up, and the companionship of his sister Mary. Although the Inner Temple represented tranquillity in the midst of London’s hurly-burly, his mutually devoted relationship with Mary was tragically striated by his sister’s mental illness. In a time when such afflictions were often seen as a shameful secret to be kept within the family, Mary’s periodic bouts of ‘madness’ became something with which her brother helped her cope throughout his life. Contemporary accounts describe the ‘sane’ Mary as “charming, clever, sensitive and comforting,” and Lamb himself avowed that “when she is not violent her rambling chat is better to me than the sense and sanity of this world.” However, the violent aspect of Mary’s illness would one day lead to tragedy.
Before then, however, Lamb, having been schooled at the prestigious Christ’s Hospital public school, got himself a job in 1792 working for the British East India Company in central London. He retained this position for the next twenty-five years, thus being one of the few Romantic poets to remain in humdrum daily employment for most of his life as well as becoming, in the process, one of those disaffected, eccentrically skittish clerks with whom Dickens would later populate his novels. Not that this meant that Lamb was a cantankerous character who only blossomed into his charismatic literary self once the working day was done. In fact, he was known as the office wit who would regularly amuse colleagues with his diverting conversation and insubordinate buffoonery. By this time he could already count Coleridge as a friend, having met the future poet and literary critic during their schooldays together. If Coleridge is in some ways the embodiment of the Romantic aesthete, drifting through life sustained by a formidable intellect and modish drug habit, Lamb, although shackled to the desk at India House, was an equally capricious character, prone to binge drinking and, like his sister, periods of mental instability. As such he is a richly complicated character whose dealings with his more celebrated peers cast an intriguing light on the literary and social milieu that he inhabited.
It was on the 22nd of September 1796 that Lamb’s life was fundamentally changed by an incident, or “day of horrors” as Wilson puts it, which would cast a significant shadow over not only his future but also that of his beloved sister. Wilson, in his best penny-dreadful tones, describes the scene:
“Chairs, crockery, peas, beef, and bread on the floor: mother, bloody from chest to waist, lifeless; father, forehead gashed, bellowing; Aunt Sarah flinching in the corner, Mary towers over the riot, her eyes animal-wild. She has a knife.”
It seems that Mary’s onerous daily task of making fashionable dresses for clients, with all the tediously achy needlework that it entailed, whilst having to care for her mother who by then, we are told, was almost fully paralysed —along with her father who “had no more sense than a small child”— had brought on her most severe episode of mental illness to date. That she was not one to complain out loud, even when under the severest stress, seems to have fuelled a furnace of resentment deep within which, if it manifested at all, usually took the form of rapid, free-associative talk or, as a witness to these monologues put it, “it was as if the finest elements of her mind had been shaken into fantastic combinations, like those of a kaleidoscope.” Coleridge had also experienced the onset of one of Mary’s bouts of violent agitation, describing how, just before one of her attacks, “she smiled in an ominous way.” On the flip side of such extreme behaviour and perhaps equally indicative of acute mental instability, at other times Mary was described as being “preternaturally calm.” On the day in question, though, Lamb returned home just in time to remove the knife from Mary’s grasp and, as the only one who could reach her in such as state, set about attempting to calm her down. Within hours he had arranged for Mary to be admitted to Fisher House, a private asylum in Islington. If this horrific incident had happened just a few years later, following the passage of the Criminal Lunatics Act, Mary could well have been consigned for life to Bethlem Hospital (aka ‘Bedlam’), which was still inflicting nightmarish abuses on its inmates. Fortunately, Lamb managed to keep Mary at Fisher House for six months —the coroner having returned a verdict of lunacy in relation to her mother’s death— where she was said to have been treated with kindness by its proprietors. This, however, was not the last time that Mary would have to be confined in a mental facility.
In the aftermath of this family tragedy, Lamb took solace in his friendship with Coleridge. Although he freely admitted to deliberately distancing himself from others, he admitted to his illustrious friend that “I love to write to you. I take pride in it. It makes me think less meanly of myself. I makes me think myself not totally disconnected from the better part of Mankind.” A few months after his sister’s breakdown Lamb, with Coleridge’s help, published Poems, Chiefly Love Sonnets by Charles Lamb of the India House dedicated to “Mary Ann Lamb. The author’s best friend and sister.”
However, far from this being a period in which Lamb was granted some respite from the shades of mental illness which seemed to persistently lurk amongst his circle of family and friends, an acquaintance to whom he became close whilst staying with Coleridge in 1797, a minor poet named Charles Lloyd, also seems to have displayed some disquieting personality traits. Prone to seizures, his best-known work entitled Desultory Thoughts in London, Lloyd seems to have embodied the kind of tragically disaffected ambience from which Lamb struggled to disentangle himself. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, given Lamb’s own skirmishes with nervous sensibility, the two men struck up an intimate friendship. Then, just to add to the various travails which seemed to crowd around Lamb, in February 1798 his beloved Aunt Sarah died, having, as Lamb put it, “never recovered from the shock she received on our evil day.” This accumulation of anxiety-inducing episodes would come to be a way of life for Lamb, and abundantly helps to explain his own fragility and foibles. Not that Lamb ever doted upon his troubles in a wholly self-pitying manner. When Coleridge’s affections were diverted from his old schoolfriend towards Wordsworth in a liaison that would reach its apogee in the publication of their ground-breaking Lyrical Ballads of 1798, Lamb, assessing his own exclusion from these two poets’ literary affiliation, “blamed only himself,” according to Wilson. Even so, a predisposition to wear his melancholy like a comfortably shabby overcoat seems to have been Lamb’s default position, and led in January 1798 to the composition of one of his better-known poems. In The Old Familiar Faces, Lamb’s meditation on those family members and friends who now exist only in memory is a disarmingly frank account of the author’s deep-seated sense of loss. It was also in 1798 that Lamb published his first novel, A Tale of Rosamund Grey and Old Blind Margaret, which, with its sub-Wordsworthian title and folk-ballad-inspired storyline of blighted innocence, reveals (for Wilson) its author’s “lost idealism and struggle with a dark, broken, excruciating world.”
By this point Lamb could boast of interactions with such prominent literary figures as Shelley, who was full of praise for Rosamund Grey, and a friendship with future Poet Laureate Robert Southey. At the same time he continued to hold down a job, care for his senile father and keep an anxious eye on his sister’s behaviour. In Lamb’s world, where eccentricity of some sort seems to have characterised many of those whom he encountered, the figure of George Dyer provides a singular case-in-point. Dyer, a classics scholar who was twenty years older than Lamb and was known as a political radical and generous supporter of younger talent, was possessed of “poor eyesight, pedantry, poor hygiene and naiveté.” He was also an “over-composing poet of middling talent” with an unintentional aptitude for slapstick. This was the same person who was once seen in Fleet Street “taking off his inexpressibles to give them to a poor man who was wretchedly clad,” and who once “took up a coal-scuttle instead of a hat, and its contents fell into his neck and down his back.” Nevertheless, Dyer’s scholarly credentials and radical convictions made a marked impression on Lamb, who would draw on his curious friend’s character and opinions in his Essays of Elia.
Wilson digs deep into Lamb’s evolving friendship circle, highlighting individuals such as Dyer with whom, for one reason or another, this paradoxically sociable melancholic spent many a convivial evening. An integral aspect of this conviviality was the extent to which alcohol played a part in Lamb’s dealings with the world. As a drunk who could certainly put the hard stuff away, he seems to have continuously flipped between engaging wittiness and objectionableness. Some of his letters celebrate the freedoms of tipsiness, whilst others bemoan the inevitable effects of overindulgence. When truly in his cups Lamb became annoyingly animated, both physically and conversationally. Here was someone who, on a river trip with some friends, drunkenly fell into his “accustomed gambols” so that his movements almost capsized the small boat that they were in. Here also is someone whom none other than Thomas Carlyle described in polite company as “a confirmed shameless drunkard; asks vehemently for gin-and-water in strangers’ houses; tipples until he is utterly mad, and is only not thrown out of doors because he is too much despised for taking such trouble with him.” Such behaviour would actually see Lamb, aged thirty-four, placed in the stocks in Barnet for public insobriety. Lamb’s arduous struggles with his addiction would find literary expression in his essay “Confessions of a Drunkard” along with his play John Woodvil, set in post-Restoration England and featuring the carousing exploits of its eponymous hero.
If Lamb’s frenetic excesses seem a world away from the Zen-like state of accordance with nature espoused by his more celebrated peers such as Wordsworth (whose occasionally sententious piety rankled with the clerk of East India House), some of this antipathy for the quiet life can be attributed to a love of London’s hustle and bustle as opposed to the Lake District’s sublime grandeur. Lamb’s innate predilection for the Capital is identified by Wilson as a type of urban Romanticism that bears several precursive parallels with the mindset of the flâneur as described by Baudelaire and celebrated by Walter Benjamin. In one of his letters Lamb described how he had “cried with the fullness of joy at the multitudinous scenes of life in the crowded streets of ever dear London,” an enthusiasm for the many-faceted metropolis that served him well in his journalism. This, in turn, gave him a platform for pontificating on the pressing issues of the day, and at a time —the turn of the nineteenth century— when the English establishment feared that the insurrectionary zeitgeist that had led to the French Revolution might similarly manifest on these shores.
During his time as a journalist contributing to a number of transient publications, Lamb’s relish for “the multitudinous scenes of life” around him produced a flood of articles and reviews on a multiplicity of subjects which, if nothing else, seemed to distract him from depressive episodes of self-examination. The heavy drinking continued to muddy his existence, however, as did his sister’s mental fragility. Mary endured a series of particularly distressing mental breakdowns between 1803 and 1807, from which she recovered, albeit only temporarily. She was insightful enough to be able to describe the kind of painful bond that these fluctuating travails created between her and her brother: “When I am pretty well his low spirits throws me back again into dejection and when he begins to get a little cheerful then I do the same kind of office for him.” She elaborates, “you should see us looking at each other with long and rueful faces and saying how do you do and how do you do and then we fall acrying and say we will be better on the morrow.” Indeed, so frequent were Mary’s bouts of illness that Lamb bought a straitjacket to keep on hand in case his sister needed to be suddenly restrained. However, even when her attacks did not manifest in violence, the tell-tale signs of another impending period of insanity would send them —arm in arm and weeping— to the local asylum so that Mary could be looked after for a spell. As for his own particular affliction, Lamb did make several efforts to stop drinking only to consistently fall off the wagon, including one episode in 1809 when he got so drunk that a coachman had to carry him upstairs to his rooms.
Despite the seemingly ruinous disorder that troubled their daily lives, somehow Mary and Charles Lamb managed to co-author a book which became a bestseller, has been translated into forty languages, and remains in print. Tales from Shakespeare was, as stated on the title page, “designed for the use of young persons,” and comprised a selection of summarised retellings of the Bard’s comedies and tragedies for a juvenile audience. Whilst some of the prose might now seem either somewhat cloying or tediously prolix, contemporary reviewers praised the work for “conquering the distaste for knowledge and learning which so frequently opposes itself to the instruction of young children.” This literary success was followed by a collection of short stories entitled Mrs. Leicester’s School in which the Lambs supplied, as Wilson puts it, “guidebooks for life’s tragedies” by means of turning “the loss, madness, and poverty of their own lives into a melancholy yet sturdy vision of how a young girl might live.” Despite this sounding, on the face of it, an unappealing volume, it went through eight editions before finally being consigned to the vast dusty stockpile of books that our ancestors found worth perusing for some long-forgotten reason. Even more troubling was their Poetry for Children, published in 1810, which features (amongst other delightful narratives) the tale of a boy who, because he stomped on some bees, gets lost in a forest in which he catches a life-threatening fever, along with Nurse Green, a disturbing poem about a young girl who cannot sleep because she knows that her erstwhile nanny is now a corpse laid out in the room next door.
Notwithstanding his success as co-author of enlightening fables (albeit steeped in bizarre early nineteenth-century morality), Lamb’s evenings at this time continued to be spent “brim full of gin and water and snuff” amongst a circle of acquaintances who were prepared to put up with his inebriated transgressions. A notable example was his attendance on the 28th of December 1817 at the celebrated ‘Immortal Dinner’ where, in the company of several artistic luminaries, a very refreshed Lamb had to be bundled out of the room by Keats and the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, after loudly insisting that the guest whom Wordsworth had brought along was nothing but “a silly fellow.” It is all the more remarkable, then, to find that throughout this prolonged period of excess, Lamb’s considerable forte for essay writing, in the guise of ‘Elia,’ saw him produce what have been considered some of the finest exemplars of the genre in the whole of English literature.
It was by assuming the nom-de-plume and character of Elia that Lamb, late in his life, achieved true literary celebrity. This was in no small part due to the way that he engagingly explored the various aspects of his cultural milieu, managing, in the process, to encounter such singular characters as John Clare, the so-called ‘peasant poet’ from Northamptonshire, while he was also one of the few visitors to attend the only exhibition held by William Blake. All the while he remained an employee of the East India Company until he eventually retired due to ill health in 1825, at the age of fifty. Although initially elated at having sloughed off his daily labours, within three months he fell into what he described as a “damned nervous fever,” claiming, with regard to the leisure time stretching before him, “having all holidays, I am as though I had none…All days are the same.” Although he still published essays and occasional poetry, his output slowed considerably in contrast to what it had been when he was in full-time employment. Not only did he retire from work, he also withdrew from his beloved London. He and Mary moved to a small village near Enfield where Lamb, the former social butterfly, got bored stiff, with only long walks (inevitably taking in nearby pubs) to distract him from his “odious and detestable” circumstances. It was one of these desultory perambulations whilst under the influence which led to Lamb’s death. In December 1834 he fell in the street, wounding his face. The injury became infected and turned into necrotising fasciitis, a particularly nasty flesh-eating condition which killed him within a short period. His beloved sister Mary, who continued to be plagued by severe bouts of mental illness, died in 1847 and is buried next to her brother. Wilson’s account of this largely forgotten luminary of English Romanticism offers a striking evocation of Lamb’s life in all its chaotic and often profoundly sad aspects. To read about how he tirelessly attempted to help his sister stay psychologically well, but was also staunchly comforting whenever another of her bouts of madness was brewing, is to gain a heartrending insight into how mental illness impacted on friends and family of the afflicted in the late Georgian period. Added to this, Lamb’s own struggles with depression and alcohol present a picture of a man who battled with his demons, whilst at the same time somehow managing to gain reknown amongst his illustrious peers for his literary talents.
As one of his chapter headings Wilson uses the title of Robert Burton’s famous tome The Anatomy of Melancholy, which neatly sums up the narrative of his subject’s lifelong tribulations. And yet for all that, this is no doom-and-gloom biography but an engagingly detailed investigation of Charles Lamb’s remarkable life.--Mark Jones