Sunday, August 20, 2017

`Both Incite a Chuckle'

“I was at church as the grave Father, and behaved tolerably well, except at first entrance when Emma in a whisper repressed a nascent giggle. I am not fit for weddings or burials. Both incite a chuckle.”

Who comes to mind as the likely author of this confession? Hardy? Hardly. Carlyle? Don’t be ridiculous. No, this admission has “Charles Lamb” stamped all over it. He is writing on this date, Aug. 20, in 1833, to Louisa Badams, née Holcroft (whom Lamb addresses elsewhere as “Badman”). Her husband, John Badams, was a friend of Carlyle (who two years earlier had written that Lamb was “in some considerable degree insane. A more pitiful, ricketty, gasping, staggering, stammering Tom fool I do not know.”) The editor of Lamb’s letters, E.V. Lucas, tells us in a footnote that John Badams was “a manufacturer and scientific experimentalist of Birmingham, with whom the philosopher [Carlyle] spent some weeks in 1827 in attempting a cure for dyspepsia.” It didn’t work, at least on Carlyle.

 “Emma” is Emma Lamb Moxon, née Isola, the orphaned daughter of Charles Isola, who was adopted by Charles and his sister Mary Lamb. On July 30, Emma had married Lamb’s friend Edward Moxon. Lamb continues in his letter to Louisa Badams:

“Emma looked as pretty as Pamela, and made her responses delicately and firmly. I tripped a little at the altar, was engaged in admiring the altar-piece, but, recalled seasonably by a Parsonic rebuke, `Who gives this woman?’ was in time resolutely to reply `I do.’ Upon the whole the thing went off decently and devoutly.”

Devoted readers of Lamb may recall something comparable had happened twenty-five years earlier, at another wedding -- William Hazlitt’s. Lamb’s chuckles were encouraged by the conspicuous fact that Hazlitt’s bride, Sarah Stoddart, was pregnant. Seven years after that ceremony, Lamb wrote in a letter to Robert Southey:

“. . . I am going to stand godfather; I don’t like the business; I cannot muster up decorum for these occasions; I shall certainly disgrace the font. I was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.”

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