LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Recollections of Writers
Mary Lamb

Chapter I.
Chapter II.
Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX
John Keats
Charles Lamb
‣ Mary Lamb
Leigh Hunt
Douglas Jerrold
Charles Dickens
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Those belonging to a great man—his immediate family connexions, who are, as it were, a part of himself—are always reflectively interesting to his admirers. His female relatives especially, who form so integral a portion of his home existence, possess this interest, perhaps, beyond all others. In a more than usual degree was Charles Lamb’s sister, Mary Lamb, blended with his life, with himself—consociated as she was with his every act, word, and thought, through his own noble act of self-consecration to her. The solemn story of this admirable brother-and-sister couple is told in all its pathetic circumstances by Thomas Noon Talfourd, in his “Final Memorials of Charles Lamb;” and there Miss Lamb is pictured with esteeming eloquence of description. To that account of her are here appended a few remembered touches, by one who enjoyed the privilege of personal communion with “the Lambs,” as they were affectionately styled by those who knew them in what Wordsworth calls their beautiful “dual loneliness” of life together. So simple, so holy a sobriety was there in all their ways, that to the unperceiving eyes of youth they scarce appeared so great as they really were; and yet less did any idea of the profoundly tragic secret attaching to their early years present itself to the imagination of her who knew them as
“Mr. and Miss Lamb,” prized friends of her father and mother, taking kindly notice of a young girl for her parents’ sake.

Miss Lamb bore a strong personal resemblance to her brother; being in stature under middle height, possessing well-cut features, and a countenance of singular sweetness, with intelligence. Her brown eyes were soft, yet penetrating; her nose and mouth very shapely; while the general expression was mildness itself. She had a speaking-voice, gentle and persuasive; and her smile was her brother’s own—winning in the extreme. There was a certain catch, or emotional breathingness, in her utterance, which gave an inexpressible charm to her reading of poetry, and which lent a captivating earnestness to her mode of speech when addressing those she liked. This slight check, with its yearning, eager effect in her voice, had something softenedly akin to her brother Charles’s impediment of articulation: in him it scarcely amounted to a stammer; in her it merely imparted additional stress to the fine-sensed suggestions she made to those whom she counselled or consoled. She had a mind at once nobly-toned and practical, making her ever a chosen source of confidence among her friends, who turned to her for consolation, confirmation, and advice, in matters of nicest moment, always secure of deriving from her both aid and solace. Her manner was easy, almost homely, so quiet, unaffected, and perfectly unpretending was it. Beneath the sparing talk and retired carriage, few casual observers would have suspected the ample information and large intelligence that lay comprised there. She was oftener a listener than a speaker. In the modest-havioured woman simply sitting there, taking small share in general conversation, few who did not know her would
have imagined the accomplished classical scholar, the excellent understanding, the altogether rarely-gifted being, morally and mentally, that Mary Lamb was. Her apparel was always of the plainest kind; a black stuff or silk gown, made and worn in the simplest fashion. She took snuff liberally—a habit that had evidently grown out of her propensity to sympathize with and share all her brother’s tastes; and it certainly had the effect of enhancing her likeness to him. She had a small, white, and delicately-formed hand; and as it hovered above the tortoise-shell box containing the powder so strongly approved by them both, in search of the stimulating pinch, the act seemed yet another link of association between the brother and sister, when hanging together over their favourite books and studies.

As may be gathered from the books which Miss Lamb wrote, in conjunction with her brother—“Poetry for Children,” “Tales from Shakespeare,” and “Mrs. Leicester’s School,”—she had a most tender sympathy with the young. She was encouraging and affectionate towards them, and won them to regard her with a familiarity and fondness rarely felt by them for grown people who are not their relations. She entered into their juvenile ideas with a tact and skill quite surprising. She threw herself so entirely into their way of thinking, and contrived to take an estimate of things so completely from their point of view, that she made them rejoice to have her for their co-mate in affairs that interested them. While thus lending herself to their notions, she, with a judiciousness peculiar to her, imbued her words with the wisdom and experience that belonged to her maturer years; so that, while she seemed but the listening, concurring friend, she was also the helping, guiding friend. Her valuable moni-
tions never took the form of reproof, but were always dropped in with the air of agreed propositions, as if they grew out of the subject in question, and presented themselves as matters of course to both her young companions and herself.

One of these instances resulted from the kind permission which Mary Lamb gave to the young girl above alluded to—Victoria Novello—that she should come to her on certain mornings, when Miss Lamb promised to hear her repeat her Latin grammar, and hear her read poetry with the due musically-rhythmical intonation. Even now the breathing murmur of the voice in which Mary Lamb gave low but melodious utterance to those opening lines of the “Paradise Lost,”—
“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,”—
sounding full and rounded and harmonious, though so subdued in tone, rings clear and distinct in the memory of her who heard the reader. The echo of that gentle voice vibrates through the lapse of many a revolving year, true and unbroken, in the heart where the low-breathed sound first awoke response; teaching, together with the fine appreciation of verse music, the finer love of intellect conjoined with goodness and kindness. The instance of wise precept couched in playful speech pertained to the Latin lessons. One morning, just as Victoria was about to repeat her allotted task, in rushed a young boy, who, like herself enjoyed the privilege of Miss Lamb’s instruction in the Latin language. His mode of entrance—hasty and abrupt—sufficiently denoted his eagerness to have his lesson heard at once and done with, that he
might be gone again; accordingly, Miss Lamb, asking Victoria to give up her turn, desired the youth—
Hazlitt’s son—to repeat his pages of grammar first. Off he set; rattled through the first conjugation post-haste; darted through the second without drawing breath; and so on, right through in no time. The rapidity, the volubility, the triumphant slap-dash of the feat perfectly dazzled the imagination of poor Victoria, who stood admiring by, an amazed witness of the boy’s proficiency. She herself,—a quiet, plodding little girl—had only by dint of diligent study, and patient, persevering poring, been able to achieve a slow learning, and as slow a repetition of her lessons. This brilliant, off-hand method of despatching the Latin grammar was a glory she had never dreamed of. Her ambition was fired: and the next time she presented herself, book in hand, before Miss Lamb, she had no sooner delivered it into her hearer’s, than she attempted to scour through her verb at the same rattling pace which had so excited her emulative admiration. Scarce a moment, and her stumbling scamper was checked. “Stay, stay! how’s this? What are you about, little Vicky?” asked the laughing voice of Mary Lamb. “Oh, I see. Well, go on: but gently, gently: no need of hurry.” She heard her to an end, and then said, “I see what we have been doing—trying to be as quick and clever as William, fancying it vastly grand to get on at a great rate as he does. But there’s this difference: it’s natural in him, while it’s imitation in you. Now, far better go on in your old, staid way—which is your own way—than try to take up a way that may become him but can never become you, even were you to succeed in acquiring it. We’ll each of us keep to
our own natural ways, and then we shall be sure to do our best.”

On one of these occasions of the Latin lessons in Russell Street, Covent Garden, where Mr. and Miss Lamb then lived, Victoria saw a lady come in, who appeared to her strikingly intellectual-looking, and still young; she was surprised, therefore, to hear the lady say, in the course of conversation, “Oh, as for me, my dear Miss Lamb, I’m nothing now but a stocking-mending old woman.” When the lady’s visit came to an end, and she was gone, Mary Lamb took occasion to tell Victoria who she was, and to explain her curious speech. The lady was no other than Miss Kelly; and Mary Lamb, while describing to the young girl the eminent merits of the admirable actress, showed her how a temporary depression of spirits in an artistic nature sometimes takes refuge in a half-playful, half-bitter irony of speech.

At the house in Russell Street Victoria met Emma Isola; and among her pleasantest juvenile recollections is the way in which Mary Lamb thought for the natural pleasure the two young girls took in each other’s society, by bringing them together; and when, upon one occasion, there was a large company assembled, Miss Lamb allowed Emma and Victoria to go together into a room by themselves, if they preferred their mutual chat to the conversation of the elder people. In the not too spacious London lodging, Mary Lamb let them go into her own bedroom to have their girlish talk out, rather than let them feel restrained. Most, most kind, too, was the meeting she planned for them, when Emma was about to repair to school, at the pleasant village of Dulwich. Miss
Lamb made a charming little dinner: a dinner for three, herself and the two girls,—a dinner most toothsome to young feminine appetite; roast fowls and a custard-pudding. Savoury is the recollection of those embrowned and engravied birds! sweet the remembrance of that creamy cate! but pleasant, above all, is the memory of the cordial voice which said, in a way to put the little party at its fullest ease, “Now, remember, we all pick our bones. It isn’t considered vulgar here to pick bones.”

Once, when some visitors chanced to drop in unexpectedly upon her and her brother, just as they were going to sit down to their plain dinner of a bit of roast mutton, with her usual frank hospitality she pressed them to stay and partake, cutting up the small joint into five equal portions, and saying in her simple, easy way, so truly her own, “There’s a chop a-piece for us, and we can make up with bread and cheese if we want more.” With such a woman to carve for you and eat with you, neck of mutton was better than venison, while bread and cheese more than replaced varied courses of richest or daintiest dishes.

Mary Lamb, ever thoughtful to procure a pleasure for young people, finding that one of her and her brother’s acquaintances—Howard Payne—was going to France, she requested him, on his way to Paris, to call at Boulogne and see Victoria Novello, who had been placed by her parents in a family there for a time to learn the language. Knowing how welcome a visit from any one who had lately seen her friends in England would be to the young girl, Miss Lamb urged Howard Payne not to omit this; her brother Charles seconding her by
adding, in his usual sportive style, “Do; you needn’t be afraid of Miss Novello, she speaks only a little coast French.”

At “the Lambs’ house,” Victoria several times saw Colonel Phillips (the man who shot the savage that killed Captain Cook), and heard him describe Madame de Staël’s manner in society, saying that he remembered she had a habit while she discoursed of taking a scrap of paper and a pair of scissors, and snipping it to bits, as an employment for her fingers; that once he observed her to be at a loss for this her usual mechanical resource, and he quietly placed near her the back of a letter from his pocket: afterwards she earnestly thanked him for this timely supply of the means she desired as a needful aid to thought and speech. He also mentioned his reminiscence of Gibbon the historian, and related the way in which the great man held a pinch of snuff between his finger and thumb while he recounted an anecdote, invariably dropping the pinch at the point of the story. The colonel once spoke of Garrick, telling how, as a raw youth, coming to town, he had determined to go and see the great actor, and how, being but slenderly provided in pocket, he had pawned one of his shirts (“and shirts were of value in those days, with their fine linen and ruffles,” he said), to enable him to pay his entrance at the theatre. Miss Lamb being referred to, and asked if she remembered Garrick, replied, in her simple-speeched way, “I saw him once, but I was too young to understand much about his acting. I only know I thought it was mighty fine.”

There was a certain old-world fashion in Mary Lamb’s diction which gave it a most natural and quaintly pleasant
effect, and which heightened rather than detracted from the more heartfelt or important things she uttered. She had a way of repeating her brother’s words assentingly when he spoke to her. He once said (with his peculiar mode of tenderness, beneath blunt, abrupt speech), “You must die first, Mary.” She nodded, with her little quiet nod and sweet smile, “Yes, I must die first, Charles.”

At another time, he said in his whimsical way, plucking out the words in gasps, as it were, between the smiles with which he looked at her, “I call my sister ‘Moll,’ before the servants; ‘Mary,’ in presence of friends; and ‘Maria,’ when I am alone with her.”

When the inimitable comic actor Munden took his farewell of the stage, Miss Lamb and her brother failed not to attend the last appearance of their favourite, and it was upon this occasion that Mary made that admirable pun, which has sometimes been attributed to Charles—“Sic transit gloria Munden!” During the few final performances of the veteran comedian, Victoria was taken by her father and mother to see him, when he played Old Dornton in “The Road to Ruin,” and Crack in “The Turnpike Gate.” Miss Lamb, hearing of the promised treat, with her usual kindly thought and wisdom, urged the young girl to give her utmost attention to the actor’s style. “When you are an old woman like me, people will ask you about Munden’s acting, as they now ask me about Garrick’s, so take particular care to observe all he does, and how he does it.” Owing to this considerate reminder, the very look, the very gesture, the whole bearing of Munden—first in the pathetic character of the gentleman-father, next in the farce-character of the village
cobbler—remain impressed upon the brain of her who witnessed them as if beheld but yesterday. The tipsy lunge with which he rolled up to the table whereon stood that tempting brown jug; the leer of mingled slyness and attempted unconcernedness with which he slid out his furtive thought to the audience—“Some gentleman has left his ale!” then, with an unctuous smack of his lips, jovial and anticipative, adding, “And some other gentleman will drink it!”—all stand present to fancy, vivid and unforgotten.

Still more valuable was Mary Lamb’s kindness at a period when she thought she perceived symptoms of an unexplained dejection in her young friend. How gentle was her sedate mode of reasoning the matter, after delicately touching upon the subject, and endeavouring to draw forth its avowal! more as if mutually discussing and consulting than as if questioning, she endeavoured to ascertain whether uncertainties or scruples of faith had arisen in the young girl’s mind, and had caused her preoccupied, abstracted manner. If it were any such source of disturbance, how wisely and feelingly she suggested reading, reflecting, weighing; if but a less deeply-seated depression, how sensibly she advised adopting some object to rouse energy and interest! She pointed out the efficacy of studying a language (she herself at upwards of fifty years of age began the acquirement of French and Italian) as a remedial measure; and advised Victoria to devote herself to a younger brother she had, in the same way that she had attended to her own brother Charles in his infancy, as the wholesomest and surest means of all for cure.

For the way in which Mary Lamb could minister to a
stricken mind, witness a letter of hers addressed to a friend—a mother into whose home death had for the first time come, taking away her last-born child of barely two months old. This letter, sacredly kept in the family of her to whom it was written, is here given to the eyes of the world. Miss Lamb wrote few letters, and fewer still have been published. But the rareness of her effusions enhance their intrinsic worth, and render it doubly imperative that their gentle beauty of sense and wisdom should not be withheld from general knowledge. The letter bears date merely “Monday, Newington,” and the post-mark is undecipherable; but it was written in the spring of 1820, and was directed to
Mrs. Vincent Novello:—

My dear Friend,—Since we heard of your sad sorrow, you have been perpetually in our thoughts; therefore, you may well imagine how welcome your kind remembrance of us must be. I know not how enough to thank you for it. You bid me write you a long letter; but my mind is so possessed with the idea that you must be occupied with one only thought, that all trivial matters seem impertinent. I have just been reading again Mr. Hunt’s delicious Essay,1 which I am sure must have come so home to your hearts, I shall always love him for it. I feel that it is all that one can think, but which none but he could have done so prettily. May he lose the memory of his own babies in seeing them all grow old around him! Together with the recollection of your dear baby, the image of a little sister I once had comes as fresh into my mind as if I had seen her as lately. A little cap with white satin ribbon, grown yellow with long keeping,

1 Entitled “Deaths of Little Children,” which appeared in the Indicator for 5th April, 1820, and which had its origin in the sorrowful event that occasioned Miss Lamb’s letter.

and a lock of light hair, were the only relics left of her. The sight of them always brought her pretty, fair face to my view, that to this day I seem to have a perfect recollection of her features. I long to see you, and I hope to do so on Tuesday or Wednesday in next week. Percy Street!2 I love to write the word: what comfortable ideas it brings with it! We have been pleasing ourselves ever since we heard this piece of unexpected good news with the anticipation of frequent drop-in visits, and all the social comfort of what seems almost next-door neighbourhood.

Our solitary confinement has answered its purpose even better than I expected. It is so many years since I have been out of town in the Spring, that I scarcely knew of the existence of such a season. I see every day some new flower peeping out of the ground, and watch its growth; so that I have a sort of an intimate friendship with each. I know the effect of every change of weather upon them—have learned all their names, the duration of their lives, and the whole progress of their domestic economy. My landlady, a nice, active old soul that wants but one year of eighty, and her daughter, a rather aged young gentlewoman, are the only labourers in a pretty large garden; for it is a double house, and two long strips of ground are laid into one, well stored with fruit-trees, which will be in full blossom the week after I am gone, and flowers, as many as can be crammed in, of all sorts and kinds. But flowers are flowers still; and I must confess I would rather live in Russell Street all my life, and never set my foot but on the London pavement, than be doomed always to enjoy the silent pleasures I now do. We go to bed at ten o’clock. Late hours are life-shortening things; but I would rather run all risks, and sit every night—at some places I could name—wishing in vain at eleven o’clock for the entrance of the supper tray, than be always up and alive at eight o’clock breakfast as I am here. We have

2 Whither Miss Lamb’s friend was about to remove her residence from the farther (west) end of Oxford Street.

a scheme to reconcile these things. We have an offer of a very low-rented lodging a mile nearer town than this. Our notion is, to divide our time, in alternate weeks, between quiet rest and dear London weariness. We give an answer to-morrow; but what that will be, at this present writing, I am unable to say. In the present state of our undecided opinion, a very heavy rain that is now falling may turn the scale. “Dear rain, do go away,” and let us have a fine cheerful sunset to argue the matter fairly in. My brother walked seventeen miles yesterday before dinner. And notwithstanding his long walk to and from the office, we walk every evening; but I by no means perform in this way so well as I used to do. A twelve-mile walk one hot Sunday morning made my feet blister, and they are hardly well now.
Charles is not yet come home; but he bid me, with many thanks, to present his love to you and all yours, to all whom and to each individually, and to Mr. Novello in particular, I beg to add mine. With the sincerest wishes for the health and happiness of all, believe me, ever, dear Mary Sabilla, your most affectionate friend,

Mary Ann Lamb.

Many a salutary influence through youth, and many a cherished memory through after-years, did Victoria owe to her early knowledge of Charles Lamb’s sister. This revered friend entered so genuinely and sympathetically into the young girl’s feelings and interests, that the great condescension in the intercourse was scarcely comprehended by the latter at the time; but as age and experience brought their teaching, she learned to look back upon the gracious kindness shown her in its true light, and she became keenly aware of the high privilege she had once enjoyed Actuated by this consciousness, she has felt impelled to record her grateful sense of Mary Lamb’s generous genial goodness and noble qualities
by relating her own individual recollections of them, and by sharing with others the gratification arising out of their treasured reminiscences.

This Victoria Novello was a namesake of honoured Mary Lamb, having been christened “Mary” Victoria. When she married, she abided by her first and simpler baptismal name, as being more in consonance with the good old English (plain but clerkly) surname of her husband, and became known to her readers as their faithful servant,

Mary Cowden Clarke.