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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 sometimes 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.”
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 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.”