Dream-Child: A Life of Charles Lamb by Eric G Wilson - review by Edward Weech

Edward Weech

The Man with the Golden Pun

Dream-Child: A Life of Charles Lamb


Yale University Press 544pp £25 order from our bookshop

Despite being among the most entertaining and accessible of Romantic authors, Charles Lamb (1775–1834) has been out of fashion for many years. After his death, generations of Victorians and Edwardians continued to be charmed by his essays, letters and children’s books. But he exerted less lasting influence than more philosophical peers, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and in the interwar period, changing tastes and Leavisite critical hostility contributed to Lamb being dropped from the popular Romantic canon. Lamb has always attracted admirers (notably in the ranks of the Charles Lamb Society) and numerous books on aspects of his life and work have been published. Yet, as Eric G Wilson observes, Dream-Child is the first full-scale biography in over a century.

Covering the gamut of Lamb’s life and literary career, Wilson aims to demonstrate that Lamb ‘speaks to our age’, highlighting his enthusiasm for ‘the grit and speed and diversity of the urban’ and his ‘fluid, collaborative vision of identity’. Lamb’s absence from the syllabus has rendered him obscure to many readers, and while this book is based on rigorous scholarship, it does not assume extensive prior knowledge. Instead, it serves as a good introduction for non-specialists and will hopefully encourage more to seek out Lamb’s works.

Dream-Child is broadly but not strictly chronological, and this flexibility allows Wilson to embellish his narrative with material from the mature Lamb’s semi-autobiographical essays. For all his subject’s evasiveness, Wilson helps us see behind the mask, capturing Lamb’s authentic and somewhat tortured character. He came from humble origins: his paternal grandfather was a Lincolnshire cobbler and his father was a legal clerk at London’s Inner Temple. It was his father’s employer, the lawyer Samuel Salt, who arranged for Lamb to receive a good education at Christ’s Hospital school, the alma mater of friends such as Coleridge and Leigh Hunt. Sensitive and hyper-intelligent, Lamb could be immensely, often inappropriately funny, but he stuttered and suffered from low self-esteem and chronic depression. He had already had one spell in an asylum before the ‘day of horrors’, 22 September 1796, when his beloved sister, Mary, stabbed to death their elderly mother during a fit of insanity. It was Lamb who wrested the knife from her grasp.

Aged twenty-one, Lamb promised the authorities that he would take responsibility for his sister’s care. This arrangement ensured that Mary would not be institutionalised, but it required stability and a guaranteed income. In turn, this meant that Lamb had to commit to a conventional career. Thereafter, he looked on with envy from his life of salaried drudgery as a clerk at East India House while friends like Coleridge and Wordsworth enjoyed comparative freedom to pursue literary fame. Lamb’s responsibilities towards Mary also undermined his chances of getting married, and he would remain a lifelong bachelor. But the siblings were devoted to each other and Mary was ‘by far the most significant person’ in Lamb’s life. She was also a literary collaborator, their joint children’s volume Tales from Shakespeare being published by William and Mary Jane Godwin in 1807.

Besides Mary’s companionship, humour was another consolation. Comedy was a feature not just of Lamb’s published writings but also of his conversation and letters. Only Lamb could have written a letter to the austere Wordsworth switching between red and black ink in alternate lines (‘I am glad this aspiration came upon the red ink line. It is more of a bloody curse’). Lamb was notorious as a punster, and this much-maligned branch of comedy assumed, for him, a moral dimension. As Wilson explains, punning requires humility and the willingness to set aside ‘personal dogma’. This is one reason why fanatical and deadly serious people find puns so difficult to tolerate. Lamb himself observed that ‘I never knew an enemy to puns who was not an ill-natured man.’

The task of any Lamb biographer is made easier by the liveliness and brilliance of the man’s writings, many of which have a timeless quality. Dream-Child does justice to this source material, but as a comprehensive survey of Lamb’s career it also covers his juvenile love poems, late verse and brief stints as a dramatist and writer on current affairs.

Lamb’s reputation for whimsy and selflessness contributed to his literary beatification, with Thackeray dubbing him ‘St Charles’. Our own time demands earthier, more realistic portrayals of historical figures, and Lamb himself provides plenty of ammunition for such a portrayal in the form of frank confessions of self-loathing and heavy drinking. Wilson highlights how Lamb’s irony provided a safety valve for dealing with life’s misfortunes: he nurtured the ‘darkly humorous sense that expectations exist to be undercut, and it’s comical to see men forget this’. Comparing Lamb to modern writers, Wilson rightly observes that ‘Lamb’s transgressions retain a sweetness lacking in twentieth-century avant-garde … he was no nihilist.’ One major factor distinguishing Lamb from later ironists was his earnest, private and complex Christian faith, which drew heavily on Unitarianism and Quakerism.

Lamb’s penchant for irony ensures that his moments of sincerity are doubly powerful. A defining characteristic of his writing is the embrace of particularity: the way that one specific object, such as a fountain or sundial, can be ‘mesmerizingly itself’. This made him an enemy of Utilitarianism. Lamb shared Wordsworth’s interest in what Sir Jonathan Bate has called the ‘particularity lodged in personal memory’. Where Wordsworth focused on the memory of an individual tree or the sound of a river at a certain moment in time, Lamb was more concerned with the experience of scenes and sensations in his beloved London. Blazing a trail for urban Romantics, Lamb revelled in London’s variety, vivacity and vice. He was as much at home in the company of younger, ‘Cockney School’ writers, such as William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt and John Keats, as he was with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Robert Southey.

Lamb was a prominent figure in Regency London’s circles of Romantic sociability and he was present (roaring drunk and behaving badly) at the ‘Immortal Dinner’ in December 1817, at which the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon introduced Wordsworth to Keats. Lamb also befriended lesser-known intellectuals and eccentrics, such as the minor poet George Dyer, ‘whose blend of absentmindedness, poor eyesight, pedantry, poor hygiene, benevolence, and naïveté’ Lamb found ‘irresistible’. Another confidant was Thomas Manning, a Cambridge mathematician who became one of the first Englishmen to learn Chinese and was the first of his countrymen to visit Lhasa, where he met the Dalai Lama. By the time Manning left England for Asia in 1806, he had overtaken Coleridge as Lamb’s ‘closest friend and most frequent correspondent’. Manning did more than anyone else to evoke Lamb’s comic energy and he elicited his best epistolary prose, with Lamb’s letters to Manning becoming ‘test runs’ for his mature style.

Manning’s fascination with China reminds us that British Romanticism unfolded in a global context. Lamb himself maintained a studied, self-satirising parochialism, but he worked for the East India Company for over three decades, recording shipments and payments in its endless ledgers. Lamb hated his job, but he and Mary needed the security it provided. Today, the East India Company’s reputation is so tainted that even routine clerical work in its service can invite condemnation. Wilson grapples with ‘the gap between the irreverent, sensitive Lamb and his working for the most brutal engine in London’s imperialistic machine’. This gap can partly be accounted for by changes in attitudes since that time, when there was less aversion to what might now be considered ‘hard’ imperialism. But the prevailing image today of the East India Company might have been recognised in Lamb’s time as a caricature, as might Wilson’s suggestion that the period was a ‘hell of reactionary brutality’. For all its faults, the Britain that gave rise to the Romantic movement was more complicated than this.

While the icon of ‘St Charles’ may be well and truly broken, this frank, sympathetic and intimate study should help win new admirers for an admirable and hugely entertaining author.

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