Charles Lamb was an English literary figure from the late 18th and early 19th century who was described by his biographer, E V Lucas, as “the most lovable figure in English literature”. He was a contemporary of famous English writers Samuel T Coleridge and William Wordsworth and Lamb collaborated with both at different times on the publication of his poems and enjoyed lifelong friendships with both men. Lamb himself was known more for his essay writing, for various publications, and he produced these under the pen-name “Elia”. He never married and lived a good deal of his life with his sister Mary who was eleven years his senior. The pair worked together on collections of essays about William Shakespeare including their book aimed at children called Tales from Shakespeare.
Charles Lamb was born in London in February 1775 into a large family of brothers and sisters but, typical of those times, most of the children did not live beyond infancy. Their father worked as clerk to a barrister in the Inner Temple, London and it was here that the young Charles, accompanied by his sister Mary, enjoyed their childhood. Perhaps it was a foretaste of the family tragedy to come that family life was not particularly happy. Charles’s mother resented the attention given to her son by her sister in law Hetty even though, in truth, Hetty was only trying to give him the love and care that was not forthcoming from his own mother.
There was some degree of escape for Charles in the situation that his maternal grandmother found herself in. She was housekeeper at a large country house in Hertfordshire where, after the death of the lady of the house, she often found herself as sole custodian due to the master’s frequent absences. Charles visited often and delighted in the freedom to explore the house and grounds. One of his “Elia” essays talks about these happy times and here is an extract from Blakesmoor in Hertfordshire:
The close relationship that Charles had with his sister Mary is probably the most significant feature of Charles’s life. She was closest to him age-wise so assumed a protective role from very early on. She taught him to read up to the time of his admittance to a charity boarding school called Christ’s Hospital, in London. Despite the brutality often inflicted there by the masters Charles survived without really excelling. He had developed an unfortunate stutter and was therefore limited in his career choices. He actually left school at 14 and worked in a number of office jobs until his retirement.
Writing was his primary interest though and he produced a lot of work jointly with his sister. The pair lived together in London for many years and their house was a magnet for literary figures such as Coleridge and Shelley where ideas and inspiration were shared happily among friends. Lamb contributed poems to other collections such as Coleridge’s Poems on Various Subjects but his poetry was never really appreciated either at the time or now. His most famous piece is called The Old Familiar Faces and is very much a lament about lost loves and friendships. Here are extracts from the poem, the first verse referring to the tragic day of his mother’s death at the hands of his sister Mary (she stabbed her mother during a temporary fit of insanity):
Charles Lamb died in December 1834 of a streptococcal infection of the face which occurred after a minor accident in the street. He was 59 years old.