Something over two years ago, my better half found The Works of Charles Lamb: Volume II on a shelf of a holiday market vendor who primarily sold old prints and maps, but kept a few old books on the shelves, mainly as decoration. I’m always drawn to them and have a couple from that year.
It took me over year before I really dived deeply into this collection, inspired by the way his name keeps coming up and a realization that he really was an important man of letters in the first half of the nineteenth century, but since beginning, it’s been something I’ve regularly picked up and read and re-read sections.
This book does not contain his essays nor poetry nor his renditions of Shakespeare’s plays as stories (something he worked on with his sister). These are his letters.
The first section is heartbreaking. He is a young man, but responsible for an aging and clearly senile father (probably suffering from dementia) on a meager income from a job as a clerk. His sister, overwhelmed, it seems, by the burden of caring for her father and a difficult, invalid mother, suddenly loses it. She kills her mother with a knife and injures her father and spends a good deal of the next couple of years in and out of asylums and the homes of informal caretakers.
His letters to friends, including his close friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, are filled with heartbreak. He tries to pay for this sister’s care and cannot even afford his beloved books. He writes almost fawningly to Coleridge (and writes, less often, to Wordsworth; to Coleridge he writes as friend, but to Wordsworth, at this juncture, more as a fan).
It is such a relief to find his situation improving as he becomes, by middle age, a respected part of England’s literary establishment and a sort of tastemaker. He wrote to Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Coleridge, and others as a fellow and more or less equal literary man. He is able to visit friends and go on small trips and afford his books and magazine subscriptions. This was a time of great proliferation of journals and reviews and Lamb was a frequent contributor to them, writing satires, parodies, reviews, and essays.
Oddly, I liked his earlier letters better. They were filled with more feeling, whereas the latter, while of greater interest insofar as they are a window into the literary life of London at the time, are less deeply felt and more lighthearted. Perhaps it is the deeply feltedness of youth – the long, emotional letters to good friends and the desire for connection (and with connection, identity).