Wednesday, January 20, 2021

'But He Was Clearly a Man Apart'

“Poor Norris has been lying dying for now almost a week, such is the penalty we pay for having enjoyed a strong constitution!” 

Even as he awaits the death of a friend, Charles Lamb makes a joke and no one seems offended. The friend is Randal Norris (1751-1827), whom we remember only because Lamb befriended him. Norris was the sub-treasurer and librarian of the Inner Temple in London’s legal district. Lamb’s father had clerked for Samuel Salt, a barrister in the Inner Temple. In the letter he writes to Henry Crabb Robinson on this date, January 20, in 1827, Lamb describes the visit he made to his dying friend:


“Whether he knew me or not, I know not, or whether he saw me through his poor glazed eyes; but the group I saw about him I shall not forget. Upon the bed, or about it, were assembled his wife and two daughters, and poor deaf Richard, his son, looking doubly stupified. There they were, and seemed to have been sitting all the week.”


Lamb couldn’t speak. All he could do is take Mrs. Norris’ hand. If you have visited a person who is dying, at home or in the hospital, circled by family, you know words can seem indecent. One feels tearful, fearful, awkward, helpless and privileged. A life – a world -- is ending and you are a witness. Lamb continues:


“He was my friend and my father’s friend all the life I can remember. I seem to have made foolish friendships ever since. Those are friendships which outlive a second generation. Old as I am waxing [Lamb was fifty-two], in his eyes I was still the child he first knew me. To the last he called me Charley. I have none to call me Charley now.”


We dishonor the dead and dying when we fictionalize them and erase their vanities and misdemeanors. This too is evidence of Lamb’s essential decency:His jokes, for he had his jokes, are now ended, but they were old trusty perennials, staples that pleased after decies repetita, and were always as good as new. . . . I cry while I enumerate these trifles.”


Lamb has written to Robinson hoping he could help raise funds for the family: “[I]f you can oblige me and my poor friend, who is now insensible to any favours, pray exert yourself. You cannot say too much good of poor Norris and his poor wife.”


Someone has posted a pdf of the March 1932 issue of Life and Letters, the English journal edited by Desmond MacCarthy. In it is an essay by E.V. Lucas, Lamb’s biographer and editor, titled “The Last to Call Him Charley,” about the friendship between Lamb and Norris, and Norris’ family. He quotes a passage from Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke’s Recollections of Writers (1878):


“He always brought a book with him, sometimes several, and he would read or write a great deal. His clothes were rusty and shabby, like a poor Dissenting minister’s. He was very thin and looked half-starved, partly the effect of high cheek-bones. He wore kneebreeches and gaiters and a high stock. He carried a walking stick with which he used to strike at pebbles. He smoked a black clay pipe. No one would have taken him for what he was, but he was clearly a man apart. He took pleasure in looking eccentric. He was proud of being the Mr. Lamb.”

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