Our book today is Young Charles Lamb, 1775-1802 by Winifred Courtney (a lucky break for Lamb, obviously: a biographer named Winifred will invariably be not only trustworthy but discreet).

One writer on Lamb summed him up accurately – at the same time throwing a spotlight on what’s so different about this book:

Had it not been for Mary [his sister], age would not have fallen so suddenly and engulfingly upon him. Without her, we might be able to imagine Lamb as a young man rather than always picturing him as a smoky and eccentric oldish fellow, settled in both his habits and his singleness, whose youth had come to an abrupt end with his childhood.

That’s the natural view of Lamb, the established East India clerk and revered author of the ‘Elia’ essays that brought him fame and income in the 1820s, and the aim of Courtney’s biographical study is to blow some of the dust off that legendary figure by taking a close look at Lamb’s early life, before and immediately after the signal event that blasted it apart.

A 21-year-old Lamb walked in on that event one evening when he came home from his job at the East India Company to find his older sister Mary standing over the dead body of his mother with a carving knife in her hand. The family – Lamb’s old and senile father, his mother, his sister Mary and his aunt – had gathered at the table for supper, and something set Mary (who had often shown signs of insanity and even violence in the past) off. By the time Lamb walked innocently into the room, his mother was dead, stabbed through the heart, and his father was wounded, and his aunt was insensate with shock. It was Lamb who gently took the knife out of Mary’s hands.

He swore that his sister would never go to one of the state-run mental hospitals that would certainly have been her fate without him. Instead, for the rest of his life he devoted himself to providing her with private care, even for the years when there was no money, when there was no help (when a ‘bad time’ would come upon her, the two would hurriedly pack her things – and her straight jacket – and go to whichever private care facility Charles could manage; the arrangement horrified his friends even while it also filled them with a kind of involuntary wonder at his steadfastness). The two had been friends before Mary killed their mother; after, they fell into the deepest of sibling bonds, sitting together on countless nights at the same work-table, Charles writing whichever piece was paying that week and Mary doing her best to help him. In all of English literature, it’s easily the weirdest, most unaccountable authorial relationship of them all.

Courtney explores the roots of that relationship – she digs around all of Lamb’s relationships, including the large correspondence he conducted with his best friend Coleridge … indeed, one of the best pleasures of her very enjoyable book is the trove of letters to and fro she so liberally quotes; they give a feel for Lamb and everybody else that’s a fascinating counterpart to the famous essays.

Since she’s dealing with Lamb’s unsettled youth, she’s had to master a mountain of financial and clerical details, and she presents everything with a clear, weighing mind – she doesn’t even succumb to the typical biographer’s vice of universally praising her subject. Although Lamb dearly loved poetry and tried his hand at it for most of his life, Courtney is under no illusions as to the merits of the result:

After the period covered by this book Lamb gave up trying to be a serious poet, though (with Mary) he later wrote children’s verse for money and would now and then drop into rhyme for comic or political or friendly purposes to the end of his life, even publishing more of it than was strictly wise (it is hard to give up an old love).

Despite this, the book is full of poets: obscure, owlish Wordsworth, beautiful, passionate Coleridge, stately, meticulous Southey … and moving amongst them, storing up the voracious and eclectic reading that would later come to such glorious flower, was tiny little tobacco-addict Lamb, always listening patiently, always ready with that deceptively winning self-deprecation that would in later years make all his essays such endlessly charming and endearing little masterpieces:

My reading has been lamentably desultory and immethodical. Odd, out of the way, old English plays, and treatises, have supplied me with most of my notions, and ways of feeling. In everything that relates to science, I am a whole Encyclopedia behind the rest of the world. I should have scarcely cut a figure among the franklins, or country gentlemen, in King John’s days. I know less geography than a schoolboy of six weeks’ standing.

Courtney follows the young Lamb through all his various forays into journalism and the formative writing of literary essays; she follows him through the ever-expanding circle of friendships for which he always showed a singular appetite; and most of all she follows him through the ups and downs of his troubled guardianship of Mary’s best interests. The result is a familiar portrait (less so the actual portrait on the book’s cover, done of Lamb in 1804 by none other than William Hazlitt, before he abandoned painting in favor of writing): Lamb the rock, Lamb the ever-affable friend to all, Lamb the voice of sanity and balance.

But a portrait may be familiar and still be wonderfully done, and Young Charles Lamb is certainly that. It’s not only a fascinating book in its own right – it’s also a virtually indispensable companion to the ‘Elia’ essays and the other famous writings of Lamb’s much later life. It’s here you see the forces that shaped those later writings, and it’s a great feat Courtney has done, explicating those forces so exhaustively, and so well.

  • Greg

    Great post!

    Any more info on these “Elia” essays?

  • steve

    ‘Info’? On “these ‘Elia’ essays”? What is this, the stock exchange?

    They’re a very famous collection of very companionable essays – really, a kind of plateauing of the personal essay, Lamb’s one great contribution to the field of English letters – on a range of comfortable topics. They’ve had about a million different editions, so they turn up all the time at used bookstores with high turnover rates. We’ll keep an eye out to get you a copy, and then in addition to having ‘info’ on them, you could actually READ them!

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