Tuesday, November 18, 2014

`The Beautiful Obliquities'

“When you entered his little book-clad room, he welcomed you with an affectionate greeting, set you down to something, and made you at home at once.” 

Charles Lamb met John Foster (1812-1876), the author of these words, in 1831, when the former was fifty-six and the latter nineteen. Lamb was dead three years later but during their brief friendship he helped the aspiring writer by setting him up with friends at the Englishman’s Magazine and enabling him to become editor of the short-lived Reflector. 

“His richest feasts, however, were those he served up from his ragged-looking books, his ungainly and dirty folios, his cobbled-up Quartos, his squadrons of mean and squalid-looking duodecimos. `So much the rather thou, celestial Light, / Shine inward.’ [Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 51-52] How he would stutter forth their praises!” 

Forster went on to befriend Leigh Hunt, Bulwer-Lytton, Carlyle, Browning, Tennyson and, most importantly, Charles Dickens, who named Forster his literary executor. Forster published biographies of Swift and Landor, and made his reputation with a three-volume Life of Charles Dickens, published between 1871 and 1874. It remained the standard biography for some eighty years. Dickens based the pompous John Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend on Forster. 

“What fine things had he to say about the beautiful obliquities of the Religio Medici, about Burton, and Fuller, and Smollett, and Fielding, and Richardson, and Marvell, and Drayton, and fifty others, ending with the thrice noble, chaste, and virtuous, but again somewhat fantastical and original-brained Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle!” 

Not to mention Montaigne, Cervantes, Fulke Greville, Sterne, Cowper and at least fifty others. Lamb’s bookish tastes were not typical of his time or any other. The customary tag is “antiquarian,” and Lamb himself claimed “I write for antiquity,” but Lamb also read with enthusiasm the work of his friends – Coleridge, Hazlitt, Wordsworth and Clare, among others. Literature for Lamb was an intimate matter, not a scholarly pursuit, and closely resembled a species of friendship. 

“What delightful reminiscences he had of the actors, how he used to talk of them, and how he has written them down! How he would startle his friends by intruding on them lists of persons one would wish to have seen,--such odd alliances as Pontius Pilate and Doctor Faustus, Guy Faux and Judas Iscariot!” 

The passage quoted above is taken from articles Forster published in the New Monthly Magazine after Lamb’s death in 1834. A century later, Edmund Blunden included it in Charles Lamb: His Life Recorded by His Contemporaries (Hogarth Press). Forster later combined the two articles and used them as the introduction to a collection of Lamb’s prose published in Paris by the Librairie Galignani in 1835. Lamb would be pleased to know that the Galignani, founded in 1801, is the oldest English-language bookstore in Europe outside of England, and that it remains open for business.

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