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This beautiful devotion of Charles Lamb to his sister, which bade him renounce marriage, was repaid by the most tender companionship. Both loved books and the play. In the essays the Bridget Elia who is so often referred to is hardly more than another name for Mary Lamb. Their cozy rooms were the gathering place for the poets, the wits, and the critics of their day. Charles Lamb, the gentle, as he was affectionately called, had a nature which was tender to all that was weak and erring ; especially was he ever solicitous for his sister's welfare. He was a reader who delighted in the best of old English literature, and did much to bring back a taste for it. He was an exceedingly acute critic both of literature and of some other forms of art, and in conversation he was constantly saying witty and bright things. With his sister he wrote the Tales from Shakespeare that are so widely known, and he wrote some happy verse. After his death his letters to his friends were published, and they are among the most delightful letters in the English language.
But as has been said already, he is best known by his essays. He took for a signature Elia, the name of an obscure fellow clerk, and from time to time wrote playful papers containing reminiscences, light studies of persons, and sly hits at manners, delicate criticism of books, and bits of imaginative fancy. He contributed them one by one to journals, and some were not gathered into books till after his death, which took place December 27, 1834. Mary Lamb died May 20, 1847, at the age of eighty-two.
The notes, except the slight ones in brackets, are taken from Canon Ainger's edition of the Essays of Elia,
ESSAYS OF ELIA.
DREAM CHILDREN: A REVERIE.
CHILDREN love to listen to stories about their elders when they were children; to stretch their imagination to the conception of a traditionary great-uncle, or grandame, whom they never saw. It was in this spirit that my little ones crept about me the other evening to hear about their great-grandmother Field, who lived in a great house in Norfolk (a hundred times bigger than that in which they and papa lived) which had been the scene so at least it was generally believed in that part of the country - of the tragic incidents which they had lately become familiar with from the ballad of the Children in the Wood. Certain it is that the whole story of the children and their cruel
1 Lamb's grandmother, Mary Field, for more than fifty years housekeeper at Blakesware, a dower-house of the Hertfordshire family of Plumers, a few miles from Ware. William Plumer, who represented his county for so many years in Parliament, was still living, and Lamb may have disguised the whereabouts of the “great house” out of consideration for him. Why he substituted Norfolk is only matter for conjecture. Perhaps there were actually scenes from the old legend of the Children in the Wood carved upon a chimney-piece at Blakesware ; possibly there was some old story in the annals of the Plumer family touching the mysterious disappearance of two children, for which it pleased Lamb to substitute the story of the familiar ballad. His grandmother, as he has told us in his lines The Grandame, was deeply versed “in anecdote domestic.”
uncle was to be seen fairly carved out in wood upon the chimney-piece of the great hall, the whole story down to the Robin Redbreasts ; till a foolish rich
person pulled it down to set up a marble one of modern invention in its stead, with no story upon it. Here Alice put out one of her dear mother's looks, too tender to be called upbraiding. Then I went on to say, how religious and how good their great-grandmother Field was, how beloved and respected by everybody, though she was not indeed the mistress of this great house, but had only the charge of it (and yet in some respects she might be said to be the mistress of it, too) committed to her by the owner, who preferred living in a newer and more fashionable mansion which he had
purchased somewhere in the adjoining county; but still she lived in it in a manner as if it had been her own, and kept up the dignity of the great house in a sort while she lived, which afterwards came to decay, and was nearly pulled down, and all its old ornaments stripped and carried away to the owner's other house, where they were set up, and looked as awkward as if some one were to carry away the old tombs they had seen lately at the Abbey, and stick them up in Lady C.'s tawdry gilt drawing-room. Here John smiled, as much as to
" That would be foolish indeed.” And then I told how, when she came to die, her funeral was attended by a concourse of all the poor,
and some of the gentry too, of the neighborhood for many miles round, to show their respect for her memory, because she had been such a good and religious woman; so good, indeed, that she knew all the Psaltery by heart, ay, and a great part of the Testament besides. Here little Alice spread her hands. Then I told what a tall, upright, graceful person their great-grandmother Field once was; and how in her youth she was esteemed the best dancer — here Alice's little right foot played an involuntary movement, till, upon my looking grave, it desisted — the best dancer, I was saying, in the county, till a cruel disease, called a cancer, came, and bowed her down with pain; but it could never bend her good spirits, or make them stoop, but they were still upright, because she was so good and religious. Then I told how she was used to sleep by herself in a lone chamber of the great lone house ; and how she believed that an apparition of two infants was to be seen at midnight gliding up and down the great staircase near where she slept, but she said “ those innocents would do her no harm ;” and how frightened I used to be, though in those days I had my maid to sleep with me, because I was never half so good or religious as she — and yet I never saw the infants. Here John expanded all his eyebrows and tried to look courageous. Then I told how good she was to all her grandchildren, having us to the great house in the holydays, where I in particular used to spend many hours by myself in gazing upon the old busts of the twelve Cæsars that had been Emperors of Rome, till the old marble heads would seem to live again, or I to be turned into marble with them; how I never could be tired with roaming about that huge mansion, with its vast empty rooms, with their worn-out hangings, fluttering tapestry, and carved oaken panels, with the gilding almost rubbed out — sometimes in the spacious old-fashioned gardens, which I had almost to myself, unless when now and then a solitary gardening man would cross me - and how the nectarines and peaches hung upon the walls, without my ever offering to pluck them, because they were forbidden fruit, unless now and then, - and because I had more pleasure in strolling about among the old melancholy-looking yew-trees, or the firs, and picking up the red berries, and the fir-apples, which were good for nothing but to look at — or in lying about upon the fresh grass with all the fine garden smells around me - or basking in the orangery, till I could almost fancy myself ripening, too, along with the oranges and the limes in that grateful warmth — or in watching the dace that darted to and fro in the fish-pond at the bottom of the garden, with here and there a great sulky pike hanging midway down the water in silent state, as if it mocked at their impertinent friskings, — I had more pleasure in these busy-idle diversions than in all the sweet flavors of peaches, nectarines, oranges, and such-like common baits of children. Here John slyly deposited back upon the plate a bunch of grapes, which, not unobserved by Alice, he had meditated dividing with her, and both seemed willing to relinquish them for the present as irrelevant. Then, in somewhat a more heightened tone, I told how, though their great-grandmother Field loved all her grandchildren, yet in an especial manner she might be said to love their uncle, John L-, because he was so handsome and spirited a youth, and a king to the rest of us; and, in
1 Of course John Lamb, the brother [then lately dead]. Whether Charles was ever a lame-footed ” boy, through some temporary cause, we cannot say. We know that at the time of the mother's death John Lamb was suffering from an injury to his foot, and made it (after his custom) an excuse for not exerting himself unduly. See the letter of Charles to Coleridge written at the time. “My brother, little disposed (I speak not without tenderness for him) at any time to take care of old age and infirmities, had now, with his bad leg, an exemption from such duties.”