Elia breaks the fall

Charles Lamb has often appeared at the margins of other people’s stories. As the companion of famous men – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, most notably, but also William Godwin, William Wordsworth and many other leading Romantic figures – Lamb has figured in the pages of multiple biographies as witness to and commentator on the lives and work of others. His own story, however, has often been compressed into three well-known facts. Namely: that as Elia he immortalized the world around him in essays; that he combined a literary career with the drudgery of work at the East India Office; And that his life was devoted to the care of his sister Mary, who, in a fit of madness in 1796, stabbed her mother with a kitchen knife.

In Dream-Child: A life of Charles Lamb, Eric G. Wilson goes beyond this skeleton of oft-repeated historical morsels in order to present Lamb as a biographical subject in his own right. The Elia essays and the East India Office and the stabbing are all here, of course: indeed, all three reappear constantly throughout Wilson’s book. They do so in a narrative rich in complexity and nuance, though, in which the foundational events of Lamb’s life are read in dialogue with his writing and the onward progress of his career. One of the great strengths of Wilson’s work is that he makes Lamb unfamiliar, as he constantly recurs to the unstable explorations of authorship and identity that run through Lamb’s work. Readers who have turned to the Elia essays for comfort and good cheer will find in Dream-Child an Elia they recognize, but they will also find a stranger, a more contradictory figure who offers in his rather literary experiment exhilaration than comfort and bracing confusion as well as cheerful jokes.

Charles Lamb was born in 1775 and spent the first part of his childhood roaming the cloistered spaces of the Inner Temple, where his father worked as a clerk. The Inner Temple represented an Eden hidden amid the cacophonous, often dangerous streets of the City, and it is in that contrast, and its fluid migration between danger and security, that Wilson opens his narrative. Contrasts that render both security and danger illusory also dominate Lamb’s accounts of his time as a schoolboy at Christ’s Hospital, a period Wilson recreates by reading two very different essays by Lamb about the school.

One essay, published in 1813, represents Christ’s Hospital as a halcyon place of games, good food and festivities, where distinctions of wealth and class are dissolved. A second, dating from 1820, rounds on the earlier account, as Elia accuses “Mr Lamb” of neglecting to catalog the abuses meted out by older boys and masters to those beneath them: abuses that encompass floggings, brandings, routine and petty starvation , as well as immurement in “Bedlam cells, where a boy could just lie at his length upon straw and a blanket”. In evoking Lamb’s schooldays through his essays, Wilson moves his narrative forward, but he simultaneously keeps in playing questions about the extent to which Lamb himself is or is not elided with the figure of Elia. The effect of the different perspectives at work in the essays on Christ’s Hospital is, Wilson writes, “unsettling: who is the author? where is the authority?”. But, he continues, “it is also liberating; freed from the consistency of one identity the essay can metamorphose into virtually anything”.

As an adult Lamb had a need of the freedom offered by emotional and intellectual metamorphosis, particularly as the exigencies of earning a living and caring for his sister closed in around him. Wilson offers an excellent account of the internal spaces at the East India Office, where Lamb spent much of his adult life. He is less confident in his analysis of what he terms the “the gap between the irreverent, sensitive Lamb and his working for the most brutal engine in London’s imperialistic machine”. He writes as if he wants Lamb to reject the economic model that paid his salary only via the systematic subjection of millions of people, and he posits that Lamb was only able to square his work with his conscience because he was “a master at mental compartmentalizing” “.

A less psychologically driven explanation might simply be that Lamb, as his work shows, was a man of his time, and he did not tarry too long with thoughts of the oppressed lives that enabled the goods and transactions he logged day after day. Although he often complained of the drudgery of his labors, he also wrote acutely about the ways in which work and identity merge. “Elia”, Wilson writes, quoting Lamb, “is his work”. Before retirement he “had grown to [his] desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into [his] soul”. It is in these moments, when Wilson skilfully brings Lamb’s voice into the conversation, where the narrative comes alive, rather than in the sometimes reductive psychologizing of mental trauma or family dynamics.

This is particularly true in Dream-Child‘s central account of the event that changed Lamb’s life. On September 22, 1796, Lamb returned to his family’s lodgings to find that his sister Mary had stabbed their mother to death, while their father and aunt cowered in the corner. With great sympathy Wilson evokes the multiple strains on Mary that led to a momentary collapse of reason on what Lamb always termed the “day of horrors”. He writes vividly of the horrors from which Lamb saved his sister when he elected, almost immediately, to care for her himself, apart from during the periods when both knew they had no option but for Mary to enter a private asylum voluntarily. Women inmates of public asylums at the end of the eighteenth century were routinely tortured and abused, and in keeping Mary out of the hells that were the asylums at Bethlem or Hoxton, Lamb created the conditions under which she could recover and they could forge a life together. The need to have enough money available to pay for private asylums was one of the chief factors that kept Lamb at the East India Office, but the result was that, for much of the time following 1796, he was cared for by Mary just as surely as he cared for her.

The relationship between Charles and Mary lies at the heart of Wilson’s book, but it takes its place alongside a host of other relationships that shaped Lamb’s life and work. His most important friendship was with Coleridge, who he had known since his school days, and with whom he collaborated on a book of poetry in 1797. Poems, by ST Coleridge, Second Edition. Which Are Now Added Poems by Charles Lamb, and Charles Lloyd was published just at the point when Coleridge was shifting his poetic allegiances away from the world that Lamb represented – “the poetry of sensibility”, Wilson writes, “the London literary scene” – towards the vision he would champion alongside Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads. The relationship between Lamb and Coleridge came under great strain during this episode, but the friendship and Coleridge’s intellectual example remained of paramount importance to Lamb even during periods of misunderstanding and estrangement.

Other friendships with less famous men brought Lamb delight and relief, and Wilson intersperses his biography with essay-length accounts of some of these: with George Dyer, for example, or Thomas Manning. Dyer and Lamb shared a certain absurdity of person that endeared them to each other and to their friends; Wilson reads Lamb’s letters to Manning as test beds for the Elia essays.

Wilson’s Lamb is a modern, metropolitan figure, a writer emphatically of the city and of the innovations of his own historical moment. Wilson notes, for example, that “Lamb’s development as a writer depended upon the post”, because it was through the medium of the letter – quickly written, received, read and responded to – that he was most able to forge the voice that was at once of and not of himself. Lamb’s letters to Manning Wilson characterizes as “nonsensical in a … serious way”, akin to the work of Beckett or Marcel Duchamp. “Call it hyperbolic parody”, he writes, “a mockery of stultifying convention through exaggerating those conventions at the extreme.”

Dream-Child is most illuminating in these moments, when Wilson immerses himself in what he terms the “complex tonality” of Lamb’s prose. He is a superb reader of Lamb, finding nuance in pieces that have sometimes been read as slight. A particularly fine chapter on puns exemplifies his approach: he asks why a particular literary form or experiment matters to Lamb, then takes it seriously, on Lamb’s terms. The pun, in Wilson’s account, says less about its funniness (in fact, as he points out, puns are often not funny) “and more about its transgressive qualities”. For Lamb, he writes, the pun “goes beyond semantic acrobatics … to a metaphysical category: revelation of a heightened order of being where oppositions are momentarily balanced”.

Some readers may feel that in his assertion of Lamb’s seriousness here and elsewhere Wilson protests too much, but it is precisely this serious, experimental, daring Lamb who emerges with exhilarating clarity in his analysis. It is in this experimentation that the Lamb of Dream-Child escapes the biographical shackles of the East India Office and madhouse. Of the play with identity and authorship in the Elia essays Wilson notes, “questions proliferate, answers proliferate. This is the mind alive, and not, for a time, melancholy.”

Dream-Child Lamb’s mind alive through his own words and is at its best when it cleaves closely to Lamb’s writing. Some of the contextual material is dealt with perfunctorily, as if Wilson is aware that the reader needs to know it, but can’t invest it with the same degree of energy and clarity that he brings to reading Lamb himself. There are moments of disjunction, but these are a result of the focus that brings Lamb into such sharp relief. Wilson writes that he is “the better” for telling Lamb’s story, and he tells that story with great humanity. To immerse oneself in the emotional and intellectual contours of a biographical subject’s life is a privilege, particularly when the subject speaks of the joys and terrors of being alive with such acuity as Lamb, and Wilson is always aware of this. Writing, towards the end of Dream-Child, about Lamb’s essays on comedy, he describes an irony that is “as uncanny and melancholy and big-hearted as ever – and also redemptive.” Thus, in a triumph of biographical sympathy, he paraphrases both Lamb’s argument and his way of being in the world:

Just as you can transform teacups into raptures, you can torque terror into wit. Life is terrible. Sisters kill mothers. It is also funny, slapstick funny. Gravity knocks you about, but since you know how to go down, nothing hurts as much as it should. Lamb stumbles, Elia breaks the fall.

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