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In reading English literature we notice that names of authors fall into groups. Thus we speak of the Elizabethan period, and Shakespeare, Spenser, Ben Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher, Beaumont, and others occur to us; or the age of Queen Anne brings to mind Addison, Steele, Pope, Swift. Sometimes the writers of a period may have little to do with each other in a friendly way. Sometimes we think of them almost as much through their social relations as through their independent work. The period which extended from near the end of the last century to the close of the first third of this has a certain separateness, and as we get farther away from it we are likely to set it off in our minds. It was not so great a period as the Elizabethan ; it had no such commanding genius as Shakespeare, but it was a period full of beginnings in literature, and it is very close to us in feeling, so that it will be long before it seems to be a past epoch.
Now the interesting writers of that time were for the most part on very friendly terms with each other. When we read the lives, and the writings also, of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Lamb, De Quincey, Hazlitt, and others, we trace in each the names and personalities of the rest. In the essays and the letters of Charles Lamb, for example, we are constantly running across references to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and Hazlitt, and thus we think of Lamb
through all his life as living in the society of other men of letters. But there was one person whose name is very closely and very beautifully associated with that of Charles Lamb, his sister, Mary Lamb.
The Essays of Elia, by which Lamb is best known, abound in happy little references to his early life; but they are silent, as well they might be, regarding the tragedy which fell upon the brother and sister when they were on the threshold of life. Charles Lamb was born February 10, 1775, in the Temple, the great lawyers' house on the banks of the Thames in London; and in London or its immediate neighborhood Lamb lived all his days; he was restless to get back to the city when occasional slight journeys took him away. He was born in the Temple because his father was clerk and servant to a lawyer living there. He had an older brother and sister, John twelve years, and Mary ten years his senior. The family was poor, but when Charles was eight years old he had the very great privilege, as it was for a boy of such a family, of being admitted to the school known as Christ's Hospital, and there he spent seven years, a recollection of which he has left in one of the most delightful of his essays. One of his schoolmates, with whom he was intimate, was Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
When he left school he was fifteen years old. He loved books and seemed marked out for a scholar, but he had an impediment in his speech which would have stood in his way sadly had he entered one of the learned professions ; but, besides, his family was poor, and he was needed as one of the breadwinners. His father was failing in health and powers; his elder brother held a clerkship in the South Sea House, the offices of a great trading company to the South Sea, but seems to have been an easy-going, rather self-indulgent fellow, who would make no sacrifice of his own comfort for the help of his family. Mary, ten years older than Charles, was his dearest companion, and sympathized with him in his tastes. In his boyhood he soinetimes went with her to his grandmother's home in Hertfordshire, and the sweet country life filled his mind with many beautiful images, though as a man he was most fascinated by the roar and fulness of city streets.
For a short time Charles Lamb held a minor post in the South Sea House, but in April, 1792, he obtained a clerkship in the office of the East India Company, and in the service of that corporation he continued all his working life, being finally retired from duty on a pension. With the earnings of his clerkship he helped maintain his aged father and mother, and his sister Mary. They were all living in a humble
way in Little Queen Street. His mother was a confirmed invalid, his father was in his second childhood, and Mary was helping to support the household by needlework. Charles Lamb had for three years been working at the East India House, when for a brief period he was stricken with a mild form of insanity, and had for a while to be kept under restraint. It is probable that the disease was in the family blood, for not long after Mary Lamb, broken down by the strain upon her, lost her reason wholly, and, ignorant of what she was doing, killed her mother and wounded her father. Charles, who was present and tried in vain to interpose, was himself injured.
It was a terrible experience, and the sadness was deepened by the knowledge that they could not be sure of Mary's permanent recovery. She was in the asylum when her father died, and Charles begged to have her brought back to him. Thenceforth she was his companion through life, and outlived him. The mania never returned to afflict him, but from time to time Mary was obliged to go back to the asylum. She could commonly anticipate the attacks, and Mr. Charles Lloyd on one occasion met the brother and sister “slowly pacing together a little footpath in Hoxton fields, both weeping bitterly, and found, on joining them, that they were taking their solemn way to the accustomed asylum."