Charles Lamb’s letters have always been admired: he was an agreeable if mannered stylist and his correspondence is replete with human interest and information about books and writers. The letters span the era from 1796 to 1834 with extended series addressed to Coleridge and Wordsworth and more intermittent exchanges with three generations of writers ranging from John Dyer (1755-1841) to John Forster (1812-1876). The letters are very diverse in character: long, serious literary epistles, short social and business notes, and a goodly number of familiar letters in which Lamb would exercise his wit on anything or nothing. While the letters are mostly about himself, few letter-writers were more adept than Charles Lamb at adjusting tone and contents to suit a particular correspondent.
They began appearing in print three years after Lamb’s death, with Thomas Talfourd’s Letters of Charles Lamb, with a Sketch of his Life, 2 vols (1837) succeeded by Final Memorials of Charles Lamb: consisting chiefly of his Letters not before published, with Sketches of some of his Companions, 2 vols (1848). There followed a long series of collected editions by various editors as well as single volumes and correspondences published in periodicals. At the turn of the twentieth century the rival editions of Lamb’s works and letters compiled by Alfred Anger and E. V. Lucas enjoyed sales of a magnitude unthinkable today. Editions of Lamb’s letters did for his contemporaries what editions Boswell’s biography had done for Johnson’s, becoming magnets for annotation and anecdote and resources for information as well as entertainment.
The Lucas edition of Lamb’s Works, 7 vols (1903-05) and the republication of Letters, 3 vols (1935) set new standards for antiquarian work on a modern writer: obscure pamphlets and newspapers were quarried to good purpose. Lucas’s work benefited from the labors of several generations of Lamb enthusiasts, as did the scholarly edition of the Letters edited by Edwin W. Marrs Jr., 3 vols (1975-78) and Claude A. Prance’s Companion to Charles Lamb: a Guide to People and Places 1760-1847 (1983). The zeal with which the Lamb fraternity set about documenting the essayist’s life and times answered to Lamb’s own antiquarian curiosity about past persons and places, books and events.
The texts of Lamb’s letters have been less well served. Marrs abandoned his edition at the half-way point and the earlier editions suffer from the usual problems. Letters were mangled by autograph collectors, destroyed by privacy zealots, dispersed among purchasers, and hoarded by speculators. Lucas often had to work from printed texts that were cut and otherwise corrupt; he himself bowdlerized passages in 1905, nor were they restored in 1935 when he was able to issue his much more comprehensive second edition. One feels for his frequent laments for items “not available for this edition,” including letters he himself had edited but which were then the property of a rival publisher. Nor have matters changed so very much: since the 1935 edition is “not available” seventy-five years on, we present the 1905 text which, for all its sins, is a far sight better than the usual Victorian collection of letters.
The 1905 commentary by Edward Verral Lucas (1868-1938) was reprinted largely verbatim in 1935, by which time he was chairman of Methuen and Co. It is chatty and digressive, but always attentive to what readers might need to know to make sense of Lamb’s often deliberately nonsensical or misleading letters. “We have met X before,” he reminds us in the case of an Alsager or Arnold or Ayrton about whom we might feel a little perplexed. Or, “this is the first appearance of Y about whom we will shortly hear more.” Lucas strove to identify, with remarkable success, the tide of obscure names of aunts and cousins, neighbors and visitors, clerks and innkeepers, actors, and actresses that flowed through the lives of Charles and Mary Lamb, attaching where possible an anecdote to bring them to life.
As an observer of the passing scene Lamb was positioned lower on the social scale than most letter-writers of his skill or significance. He had not, like Wordsworth or Coleridge, been to college, and his blue-coat school education prepared him for a career in commerce rather than the professions. This involved a status distinction as opposed to a financial one: by mid-life Lamb was earning, by clerical standards (clerk or clergy), a handsome salary, but even in his days of fame there would be no visits to clubs and country houses. Writing to Haydon about a gallery visit, he describes how “two lord-like Bucks came in, upon whose strictures my presence seemed to impose restraint: I plebeian’d off therefore.” Lamb’s comments about Byron, all negative, display a similar class consciousness. There must have been equivalent uncomfortable moments with those below him—his cousin the bookbinder for instance—and the saintly Lamb does occasionally express impatience with his rowdy visitors and financial dependents.
If he was in the middle order of things financially and socially, Lamb tended to be on the edge of things intellectually. The inns of court were his native element and many of his friends and associates were barristers and law clerks. Others were dissenters: Quakers, famously—the Lloyds in his youth and Bartons in his maturity—but this group ran the gamut from the atheist William Godwin to the mystic Edward Irving. Lamb was comfortable with dissent and uncomfortable with the established church, straining his relationship with Southey. He was also a member of the theatrical community as a reviewer, playwright, and life-long enthusiast. Perhaps it is not altogether astonishing that he would propose marriage to the actress Fanny Kelly. Lamb was equally involved, if often less enthusiastically, with the publishing fraternity: the Godwins and the Hunts, Taylor and Hessey, Charles Cowden Clarke, Richard Hone, and Edward Moxon. He was a “corresponding member” of the Lake School whose affairs run through his letters from first to last. Merchants, mathematicians, musicians: Lamb made a point of cultivating friends and correspondents from outside the mainstream of polite society.
For all his attachment to persons and places Lamb led an untethered existence. Much of the wandering—it is difficult to say exactly how much—had to do with the family affliction. The letters begin shortly after Charles Lamb’s 1795 six-week stay in the Hoxton Asylum, soon followed by his sister’s murderous fit, and procede to chronicle a three-decade struggle with madness and melancholia. Frequent moves and shufflings of social acquaintance suggest that the Lambs may have been difficult to live with and certainly life with Mary made conventional social life impossible. If Lamb’s bleakest melancholia is only occasionally given free rein, one senses that there was something more than merely literary in his attraction to Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, and Jacobean drama. It is moving to observe in the correspondence one sibling cover for the other in an epistolary economy where Mary would assume the role of the sane correspondent and Charles the mad one.
The letters were important for Lamb’s career as an writer. Lucas frequently calls attention to the origin of this or that essay in this or that letter; Lamb would work and rework his material, trying out on a correspondent a new subject or a new persona that would eventually find its way into print. Ontology recapitulates philology: just as the essay genre evolved out of the familiar epistle, so Lamb the essayist evolved out of Lamb the correspondent. If the literary essay is no longer the potent marketplace force it was a century ago this may have something to do with the diminishment of the familiar letter as a primary channel of communication. Like Walter Scott’s, his reputation rose and fell with the genres he cultivated.
The antiquarian tastes common to Lamb and Scott likely owed more than a little to the clerical professions that financially supported their inky flights of fancy. They were both urban writers, students of Shakespeare, and masters of pastoral. Scott and Lamb appealed to nineteenth century readers because of their happy facility for looking at the recent past through the spectacles of seventeenth and eighteenth-century books. As the recent past became the distant past their popularity dissipated, but what they lose as reporters they gain as visionaries. It is fascinating to follow in the letters Lamb’s discovery of seventeenth century literature, his quest for books, and the resulting development of the Elia persona. It is twice fascinating to read Lamb in the Lucas edition where the Victorian accretions add yet more layers to the historical melange—the nostalgia for nostalgia, the notes upon notes.
Throughout the letters Charles Lamb figures more as a reader than as a writer. He spoke from the margins as it were—the margins of books and the margins of society. At Haydon’s famous dinner-party Lamb addressed his remarks from off to one side where he was (seemingly) “dozing by the fire.” Over the course of his life he participated in many literary circles and yet properly belonged to none. His correspondence is a central resource less because he was at the middle of events than because, being the most social of introverts and melancholiacs, he crossed the lives of so many people.
David Hill Radcliffe