The 19th century was a great century for writers. If I could only bring one century of writing with me to a desert island, I would choose the nineteenth without hesitation. Not only for the literature but for the essays: the essayists of the 19th century were wide-ranging in their interests and witty, smart, and wildly and passionately involved with the world they wrote about. They immersed themselves in all sorts of activities, writing being only one their passions, and arguing — discussion and disputation — being the foremost. They ranged from deeply pessimistic (Thomas Carlyle) to profoundly positive (Ralph Waldo Emerson), and they wrote about everything from law and society (Oliver Wendell Holmes) to travels abroad and at home (Washington Irving), to art and politics (John Ruskin) to self-knowledge and civil responsibility (Henry David Thoreau).
My two favorite essayists of the 19th century (or any century, for that matter) are William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. They wrote about everything and anything, and they wrote well, with passion and with discipline, and with complexity of argument, acuity of observation, and deliverance of truth. Yesterday I read a 1913 collection of Charles Lamb’s essays, entitled Last Essays of Elia. His first Essays of Elia was published in 1823 and his Last Essays of Elia was first published in 1833. In his absolutely marvelous essays, Lamb writes about life in all its humble and daily, as well as unique and grandiloquent, occasions. No matter that he wrote from two centuries past: so many of his observations of human nature, predilections, and pastimes are still true today. Those comments of his that are dated are still fun to read, as when he decries the “modern” art of John Martin and his 1821 painting “Belshazzar’s Feast”. Lamb was right-on his criticisms, the painting is histrionic, and I would love to read what Lamb would write about the lacerations of Pollock or the cubes of Picasso or the shark of Damien Hirst.
Lamb’s detailed but straightforward descriptions of interiors and of landscapes (as in “Blakesmoor in H–Shire”) are evocative time capsules of England in the nineteenth century and a must-read for any lover of the English literature of the time, as he gives a perfect backdrop of information — what everyone reading at the time already knew — that helps with the atmosphere from the Brontes to Austen. His essays on other occasions and situations of his 19th century life also provide escape into that world with picture-perfect visual observations as well as commentary on the social mores of the time, as in “A Wedding”, “The Old Margate Hoy”, “Poor Relations”, and “Captain Jackson”.
Many of his observations are still topical, as well as relevant, as in the “The Tombs in the Abbey” in which he censures the charging of admissions fees into Westminster Abbey, at a cost of two shillings a head. Today’s burdensome fee of fifteen pounds falls as heavily and with as little reason. Lamb argues, “Did you ever see or hear, of a mob in the Abbey, while it was free to all? Do the rabble come there….It is all you can do to drive them into your churches; they do not voluntarily offer themselves. They have, alas! no passion for antiquities, for tomb of king or prelate, sage or poet. If they had, they would no longer be rabble.”
Lamb is a very clever and witty writer, as demonstrated by the above logic turning rabble into worthy abbey-visitors, and in such inventive and pleasurable essays as the must-read “Rejoicings Upon the New Year’s Coming of Age” in which all the days of the year gather at an end of year party. The jesting April Fool places Ash Wednesday next to Christmas Day who proceeds to make that sour puss Lent drink from “the wassail-bowl, till he roared, and hiccup’d“, and began to have a really good time; the poor 29th day of February has a seat off to the side and not enough to eat, and Valentine’s Day plays court to pretty May “slipping amorous billets-doux under the table, till the Dog-days (who are naturally of a warm constitution) began to be jealous, and to bark and rage accordingly.”
Another must-read essay that is both relevant, hysterically funny, and acute in its observations is “Popular Fallacies” wherein Lamb attempts to lay to rest such well-known quips of false wisdom as “Ill-Gotten Gains Never Prosper“, “Handsome is as Handsome Does” (“Those who use this phrase have never seen Mrs. Conrady“), and “Love me, love my dog” ( still so relevant, as a recent house guest proved to me).
I particularly liked his demolition of the saying “Enough is Good as a Feast“. He argues that no one “really believes this saying. The inventor did not believe it himself….It is a vile cold-scrag-of-mutton sophism; a lie palmed upon the palate, which knows better things.” He rightly lumps this saying in with the “class of proverbs which have a tendency to make us undervalue money” and seek to make us see gold as “mere muck.” Lamb argues that “legs and shoulders of mutton, exhilarating cordials, books, pictures, the opportunities of seeing foreign countries, independence, heart’s ease, a man’s own time to himself, are not muck.”
Lamb himself was a man not born to money; he worked for years as a clerk, took on the care of his ill sister, and in his spare time, wrote and read and enjoyed life. He understood money and what its true worth was, as he understood so many things in life. He was able to articulate in his essays all that he observed and thought about, to lay aside the mundane and accepted ideals and to instead develop and present original, exciting, and enlivening ways of thinking about the ordinary happenings and the exceptional, the minor occurrences and the major ones. Lamb was thorough in his examination of life, and in his enjoyment, and he was sought to share that understanding and enjoyment to others through his wide-ranging, free-wheeling, and yet wholly disciplined — and completely gratifying — Essays of Elia.
A humble clerk with the East India Company for much of his life, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) came into his own writing essays "under the phantom cloud of Elia". This assumed name, borrowed from another clerk, enabled him to put the full resources of his wit at the service of a form to which he was temperamentally suited, and made his own.
Tragic domestic circumstances bound Charles to his sister Mary, with whom he lived "in a sort of double singleness", after she stabbed their mother to death in a fit of madness. Contrasting his tastes in reading with those of his sister, who "must have a story – well, ill, or indifferently told", Lamb confides that "out-of-the-way humours and opinion – heads with some diverting twist in them – the oddities of authorship please me most". Montaigne, whose presence hovers over the Essays of Elia (1823), would have approved.
Lamb's nimble, cadenced prose, with its occasional antiquated turn of phrase, exhibits the same curious mixture of erudition and colloquialism, of seriousness and jest, as that of his French predecessor. For his unruly "little sketches", Lamb, like Montaigne, quarries his own experience, his circle of acquaintances and relatives thinly disguised beneath initials and pseudonyms, just like Elia himself.
Evoked with rare sensuality, the minutiae of everyday life – a card game in "Mrs Battle's Opinions on Whist", the ritual of saying "Grace Before Meat", the perils of lending books in "The Two Races of Men" – are all grist to his mill. Essays of Elia certainly lends itself to repeated reading, and when Lamb's popularity was at its height, his Victorian and Edwardian readers could recite entire passages. Thanks to this elegant new Hesperus edition, Charles Lamb's forgotten masterpiece is ripe for rediscovery.