Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

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Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

Postby toucana on November 10th, 2019, 5:03 am 

Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

Essayist and antiquarian author Charles Lamb has been described as “the most lovable figure in English literature”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Lamb

In September 1796, Charles Lamb was a moderately prosperous young man aged 32 who was working as clerk in the London offices of the British East India Company. He had entered this employment four years earlier in 1792, and subsequently maintained it for 25 years.

Although he was the youngest of three surviving chidren, Charles Lamb had taken over responsibilty as the head of the household after his father John who was a lawyer suffered a serious stroke in 1792, and lapsed into senility. Charles Lamb’s closest bond was to his sister Mary who was 11 years his senior. It was Mary who had taught him to read at an unusually early age, and introduced him to a love of books and learning. It was only the unfortunate fact that Charles Lamb suffered from a marked stutter that had prevented him from going on to university and pursuing a more distinguished clerical career.

One of the shadows that lay over both Charles and Mary was that of periodic episodes of lunacy. Mary was prone to fits of profound melancholia, while Charles himself had been confined to an asylum after an attack of mania.

“My life has been somewhat diversified of late” he wrote to his old school-friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge in May 1796.

“The six weeks that finished last year and began this, your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad house in Hoxton - I am got somewhat rational now, and I don’t bite any one. But mad I was - and many a vagary my imagination played with me, enough to make a volume all told”.

On Thursday 22 September 1796, a singular catastrophe befell the family. Mary Lamb got into a violent argument with her mother Elizabeth while preparing dinner. In a sudden fit of madness Mary snatched up a kitchen knife and stabbed her mother to death through the heart. Her brother Charles Lamb who was alerted to the row by servants was only just in time to snatch the knife from her hand and save his father from a similar fate.

The potential legal consequences were dire in the extreme. Mary was promptly arrested and charged with matricide. In normal circumstances she would have been tried, condemned to death for murder, and then hanged three clear Sundays later. There was only one conceivable defence, that of lunacy. With great difficulty, and the help of public-spirited friends, Charles Lamb engaged a lawyer to argue this defence in the face of a deeply hostile judge on the bench. The defence prevailed and Mary Lamb was acquitted of wilful murder.

But the problem was that she was now an attested criminal lunatic who was likely to be confined for the rest of her days in one of the dreadful public asylums like the notorious Bethlehem Hospital or ‘Bedlam’ - As Lamb himself knew only too well, these asylums were horrible human zoos in which the inmates were often viciously abused, and habitually put on display as animal-like exhibits for the amusement of the public.

Against the wishes of his elder brother John, Charles Lamb spent much of his meagre resources to keep his sister Mary in a more comfortable private madhouse in Islington until the death of their father in 1799, which meant that she could come and live with him once again. Under English law as it stood at the time, it was possible for a certfied criminal lunatic to live in a private dwelling provided that a legal guardian was responsible for them at all times, and a qualified medical person was in attendance on a regular basis.

Once again, public-spirited friends helped Charles Lamb overcome the legal obstacles, and in 1799 Mary Lamb was allowed to leave the madhouse and enter the family home in Pentonville once more. A year later they set up home together in Mitre Court in the Temple where they lived until 1809.

Charles and Mary Lamb went on to share a rich and active social life together within the literary circles of London life. They became one of the most celebrated literary couples within the salon culture of London society. Both of them were keen bibliophiles and collectors of old manuscripts. Charles Lamb became a famous essayist, best known for his Essays of Elia, and also for the enduringly popular Lambs Tales From Shakespeare. This was written in tandem by both of them. Charles Lamb wrote the tragedies, while Mary wrote the comedies to avoid any risk of emotional upset.

Charles Lamb often wrote endearing and affectionate cameos about the life that he shared with his sister at this time. He fictionalised her identity as that of ‘Cousin Harriet’, but the portrait is unmistakable. One of the loveliest and most touching tributes to her memory can be found in the essay Old China, while another can be found in the essay Mrs Battle’s Opinion Of Whist.

There was a darker side to this happy life together that was left largely untold. Mary Lamb suffered several relapses into melancholia and insanity, and she re-entered a lunatic asylum on several occasions. Charles Lamb had been planning to marry a fiancee at the time of the family tragedy, but he felt compelled to end the engagement once he became the legal guardian of a lunatic sister. In 1819 at the age of 44 he fell in love again with an actress called Fanny Kelly of Covent Garden and proposed to her, but she refused him, and he died a batchelor.

In 1833 Charles and Mary Lamb moved to a new dwelling at Bay Cottage in Church Street, Edmonton London (now part of Enfield). A year later Charles Lamb slipped on the street and sustained a graze to his face which turned septic. He died of streptococcal erysipelas on 27 December 1834 aged 59.

Mary Lamb survived her brother for over a dozen years, and continued to live in the same address until her death in 1847. They are buried together side by side in the churchyard of All Saints Church Edmonton.
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toucana
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Re: Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

Postby toucana on November 11th, 2019, 5:59 am 

He was of course 21 years old in September 1796 - (doh !) - Born 10th February 1775
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