I could never have enough of the author of this passage, Bertram Dobell (1842-1914), an exceedingly interesting person and a serviceable writer. He was born the year Charles Dickens toured the United States and died four months after the start of World War I. A journeyman tailor’s son, we know nothing of his early education but with certainty know he never attended university. He opened his first bookshop at 62 Queen’s Crescent, Haverstock Hill, London, at age twenty-nine. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us:
“From these humble beginnings, aided by a love of literature and a flair for recognizing a rare book when he saw one, and by dint of much hard work, he rose to become the proprietor of two bookshops in Charing Cross Road, held in high esteem by the leading bibliophiles of his day.”
Dobell published editions of William Strode, Goldsmith and Shelley, among others. He befriended the unfortunate James Thomson (“The City of Dreadful Night”) and helped publish the first collection of his poems. Most impressively, it was Dobell who correctly identified Thomas Traherne as the author of the anonymous manuscript volumes discovered in 1896-97 in a London bookstall and wrongly attributed to Henry Vaughan. Traherne died in 1674, and Poetical Works and Centuries of Meditation were published for the first time in 1903 and 1908, respectively. In a letter to Arthur Greeves in 1941, C.S. Lewis called Centuries of Meditation “almost the most beautiful book (in prose, I mean, excluding poets) in English.”
The Dobell volume I’m reading is an ungainly and charming grab bag titled Sidelights on Charles Lamb, the source of the passage quoted at the top. Dobell published it himself (“77 Charing Cross Road, W.C.”) in 1903. Only devoted Lambians are likely to find the book of interest. For all his enthusiasm, Dobell is constitutionally incapable of organizing a linear narrative. The book opens with a lengthy digression on the history of the London Magazine, where Lamb began publishing his Elia essays in 1820, followed by a Lamb pastiche by Horace Smith, newly discovered poems and prose by Lamb, poetic tributes to same, and a final section titled “Gleanings from Various Sources.” In it, Dobell reproduces an anonymous poem, “Charles Lamb,” published in the Temple Bar in 1886, fifty-two years after Lamb’s death. Dobell confesses that few writers on Lamb “have escaped the Scylla of commonplace or the Charybdis of false sentiment.” (Dobell’s prose is seldom less than plummy.) The poem begins:
“A small, spare man, close gaitered to the knee,
In suit of rusty black whose folds betray
The last-loved dusty folio, bought to-day,
And carried proudly to the sanctuary
Of home (and Mary’s) keeping.”
The copy of Sidelights on Charles Lamb I’m reading I borrowed from the Fondren Library, where there’s no record of it having ever circulated. Tucked between pages 82 and 83 are two chess problems clipped from a newspaper. On the back of one is an ad for A Guy Named Joe, a film starring Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne and Van Johnson, released in 1943. On the back of the other is an ad for the film version of Shaw’s Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, released in 1938. Inside the front cover, in a fine, spidery script, is written:
“Edward J. O’Brien,
April 23, 1926.
Secretum meum mihi.
The Latin: “My secret is mine.”