A humble clerk with the East India Company for much of his life, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) came into his own writing essays "under the phantom cloud of Elia". This assumed name, borrowed from another clerk, enabled him to put the full resources of his wit at the service of a form to which he was temperamentally suited, and made his own.
Tragic domestic circumstances bound Charles to his sister Mary, with whom he lived "in a sort of double singleness", after she stabbed their mother to death in a fit of madness. Contrasting his tastes in reading with those of his sister, who "must have a story – well, ill, or indifferently told", Lamb confides that "out-of-the-way humours and opinion – heads with some diverting twist in them – the oddities of authorship please me most". Montaigne, whose presence hovers over the Essays of Elia (1823), would have approved.
Lamb's nimble, cadenced prose, with its occasional antiquated turn of phrase, exhibits the same curious mixture of erudition and colloquialism, of seriousness and jest, as that of his French predecessor. For his unruly "little sketches", Lamb, like Montaigne, quarries his own experience, his circle of acquaintances and relatives thinly disguised beneath initials and pseudonyms, just like Elia himself.
Evoked with rare sensuality, the minutiae of everyday life – a card game in "Mrs Battle's Opinions on Whist", the ritual of saying "Grace Before Meat", the perils of lending books in "The Two Races of Men" – are all grist to his mill. Essays of Elia certainly lends itself to repeated reading, and when Lamb's popularity was at its height, his Victorian and Edwardian readers could recite entire passages. Thanks to this elegant new Hesperus edition, Charles Lamb's forgotten masterpiece is ripe for rediscovery.
Essays of Elia is a collection of essays written by Charles Lamb; it was first published in book form in 1823, with a second volume, Last Essays of Elia, issued in 1833 by the publisher Edward Moxon.
The essays in the collection first began appearing in The London Magazinein 1820 and continued to 1825. Lamb's essays were very popular and were printed in many subsequent editions throughout the nineteenth century. The personal and conversational tone of the essays has charmed many readers; the essays "established Lamb in the title he now holds, that of the most delightful of English essayists." Lamb himself is the Elia of the collection, and his sister Mary is "Cousin Bridget." Charles first used the pseudonym Elia for an essay on the South Sea House, where he had worked decades earlier; Elia was the last name of an Italian man who worked there at the same time as Charles, and after that essay the name stuck.
American editions of both the Essays and the Last Essays were published in Philadelphia in 1828. At the time, American publishers were unconstrained by copyright law, and often reprinted materials from English books and periodicals; so the American collection of the Last Essays preceded its British counterpart by five years.
Critics have traced the influence of earlier writers in Lamb's style, notably Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton – writers who also influenced Lamb's contemporary and acquaintance, Thomas De Quincey.
Some of Lamb's later pieces in the same style and spirit were collected into a body called Eliana.
The following essays are included in the collection:
- "The South-Sea House"
- "Oxford In The Vacation"
- "Christ's Hospital Five-And-Thirty Years Ago"
- "The Two Races Of Men"
- "New Year's Eve"
- "Mrs Battle's Opinions On Whist"
- "A Chapter On Ears"
- "All Fools' Day"
- "A Quakers' Meeting"
- "The Old and The New Schoolmaster"
- "Valentine's Day"
- "Imperfect Sympathies"
- "Witches And Other Night-Fears"
- "My Relations"
- "Mackery End, In Hertfordshire"
- "Modern Gallantry"
- "The Old Benchers Of The Inner Temple"
- "Grace Before Meat"
- "My First Play"
- "Dream-Children; A Reverie"
- "Distant Correspondents"
- "The Praise Of Chimney-Sweepers"
- "A Complaint Of The Decay Of Beggars In The Metropolis"
- "A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig"
- "A Bachelor's Complaint Of the Behaviour Of Married People"
- "On Some Of The Old Actors"
- "On The Artificial Comedy Of The Last Century"
- "On The Acting Of Munden".
And in Last Essays of Elia:
- "Blakesmoor in H——shire"
- "Poor Relations"
- "Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading"
- "Stage Illusion"
- "To the Shade of Elliston"
- "The Old Margate Hoy"
- "The Convalescent"
- "Sanity of True Genius"
- "Captain Jackson"
- "The Superannuated Man"
- "The Genteel Style of Writing"
- "Barbara S——
- "The Tombs in the Abbey"
- "Amicus Redivivus"
- "Some Sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney"
- "Newspapers Thirty-Five Years Ago"
- "Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty in the Productions of Modern Art"
- "The Wedding"
- "Rejoicings upon the New Year's Coming of Age"
- "Old China"
- "The Child Angel; a Dream"
- "Confessions of a Drunkard"
- "Popular Fallacies".
Among the individual essays, "Dream-Children" and "Old China" are perhaps the most highly and generally admired. A short musical work by Elgar was inspired by "Dream-Children". Lamb's fondness for stage drama provided the subjects of a number of the essays: "My First Play," "Stage Illusion," Ellistoniana," etc. "Blakesmoor in H——shire" was actually written about Blakesware in Hertfordshire, the great house where Lamb's maternal grandmother was housekeeper for many years.
- ^William Vaughan Moody and Charles Morss Lovett, A History of English Literature, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918; p. 330.
- ^Will D. Howe, Charles Lamb and His Friends, New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1944; p. 269.
- ^Moody and Lovett, p. 331.
- ^Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia and Eliana, Barry Cornwall, ed., London, George Bell & Sons, 1890.
- ^Howe, p. 291.
- ^Howe, p. 279.