Wednesday, December 08, 2021

'A Merciless Humorist'

“The class of books which he bought were just such as we are permitted from a few stray survivals to conclude that his father had bought before him—volumes, even odd ones, which struck him, as he passed along a thoroughfare, as curious or interesting, and within his resources.” 

Isn’t that the usual M.O. of any serious reader or collector entering a bookshop? “Curious or interesting” – and affordable? In the March 1905 issue of The Harper’s Weekly, W. Carew Hazlitt (1834-1913), the great essayist’s grandson, is ostensibly writing about “Charles and Mary Lamb: A Few Unpublished Letters.” But Hazlitt’s article is more than that -- a happy grab bag of “Elian” anecdotes, critical and bibliographical observations, complaints about earlier editors, and gossip, often composed in a slightly moldy-fig-ian style reminiscent of Lamb’s. For instance, Hazlitt writes: “[I]t enabled him to treat his literary efforts as purely optional and succedaneous.” The OED defines that last word as “taking, or serving in, the place of something else; acting as a succedaneum or substitute,” and cites uses by Sir Thomas Browne and Dr. Johnson. Lamb reveled in such word-fossils. Now read this paean to London in a letter he wrote to his friend Thomas Manning on Nov. 28, 1800, keeping in mind Lamb’s bookish tastes:


“Streets, streets, streets, markets, theatres, churches, Covent Gardens, shops sparkling with pretty faces of industrious milliners, neat sempstresses, ladies cheapening, gentlemen behind counters lying, authors in the street with spectacles, George Dyers (you may know them by their gait), lamps lit at night, pastry-cooks’ and silversmiths’ shops, beautiful Quakers of Pentonville, noise of coaches, drowsy cry of mechanic watchman at night, with bucks reeling home drunk; if you happen to wake at midnight, cries of ‘Fire!’ and ‘Stop, thief!’ inns of court, with their learned air, and halls, and butteries, just like Cambridge colleges; old book-stalls, ‘Jeremy Taylors,’ ‘Burtons on Melancholy,’ and ‘Religio Medicis’ on every stall. These are thy pleasures, O London with-the-many-sins! O City abounding in--, for these may Keswick and her giant brood go hang!”


Hazlitt briefly rereminds us that Lamb’s sister Mary, on September 22, 1796, fatally stabbed their mother with a kitchen knife and attacked their father. Lamb became Mary’s lifelong caretaker, escorting her periodically to the mental asylum during her psychotic spells. Lamb had an unrequited crush on the actress and singer Frances Maria Kelly, and once rather obliquely proposed marriage to her. Kelly gracefully declined. Hazlitt tactfully writes:


“Than a visit to the Lambs few things can have been more pleasant; but a domestication with them was an experience to be declined. A nobler spectacle and example could not be beheld than the generous devotion of the brother to his sister; but the ever-recurring episodes, all the more terrible from the uncertainty of their recurrence, owing to Miss Lamb’s mental constitution, must have rendered the place unbearable as a permanent home to a stranger.”


Lamb worked as a clerk for the East India Company for thirty-three years. Hazlitt tells us he regularly used the company’s stationery for personal letters, even after retiring – something we’ve all done. His description of some of the physical state of the surviving letters is memorable: “rough, soiled, or discolored foolscap or odd wastrel, unmathematically folded.”


Hazlitt notes that “a class of Eliana which has naturally gained considerable if not exaggerated prominence is the pleasantry or jest.” And cites as an example this: “He was dining at a friend's, and in an adjoining room were some noisy children. Lamb filled his glass, and lifting it, said, ‘Here’s to the health of good King Herod!’”


Unlike some critics and readers, Hazlitt appreciates Lamb’s gift for pure silliness coupled with a deeper seriousness – not a combination universally understood. In this, Hazlitt likens Lamb to one of his English contemporaries:


“Not the least if not one of the foremost points for a biographer of Lamb to understand, and to bring with perfect clearness before his readers, is that, albeit he was, like Sydney Smith, a merciless humorist, he could become, like Sydney Smith, as grave and earnest on occasion and at need as any man ever born.”

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