A humble clerk with the East India Company for much of his life, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) came into his own writing essays "under the phantom cloud of Elia". This assumed name, borrowed from another clerk, enabled him to put the full resources of his wit at the service of a form to which he was temperamentally suited, and made his own.
Tragic domestic circumstances bound Charles to his sister Mary, with whom he lived "in a sort of double singleness", after she stabbed their mother to death in a fit of madness. Contrasting his tastes in reading with those of his sister, who "must have a story – well, ill, or indifferently told", Lamb confides that "out-of-the-way humours and opinion – heads with some diverting twist in them – the oddities of authorship please me most". Montaigne, whose presence hovers over the Essays of Elia (1823), would have approved.
Lamb's nimble, cadenced prose, with its occasional antiquated turn of phrase, exhibits the same curious mixture of erudition and colloquialism, of seriousness and jest, as that of his French predecessor. For his unruly "little sketches", Lamb, like Montaigne, quarries his own experience, his circle of acquaintances and relatives thinly disguised beneath initials and pseudonyms, just like Elia himself.
Evoked with rare sensuality, the minutiae of everyday life – a card game in "Mrs Battle's Opinions on Whist", the ritual of saying "Grace Before Meat", the perils of lending books in "The Two Races of Men" – are all grist to his mill. Essays of Elia certainly lends itself to repeated reading, and when Lamb's popularity was at its height, his Victorian and Edwardian readers could recite entire passages. Thanks to this elegant new Hesperus edition, Charles Lamb's forgotten masterpiece is ripe for rediscovery.
Summary of the Essay THE SOUTH-SEA HOUSE by Charles Lamb [ from ESSAYS OF ELIA]
The South-Sea House stands on the north side of Thread Needle Street, not far away from the Bank of England, and is a melancholy-looking, handsome, brick and stone edifice. It has magnificent portals revealing a grave courtyard, with cloisters and pillars. It was once a house of trade. Merchants used to assemble here and business was transacted. Now importance is gone, and it is no more than a magnificent relic. The South-Sea House is of interest to Lamb because it is so rich in past associations, now fallen into neglect, though situated as it is in the very centre of business life. Its coolness, its silence and repose, and its indolence are now welcome to Lamb. Lamb was a clerk here for a short time before he went to India House, and remembers things of past, in which all his interest lies. Lamb is speaking of the South Sea House forty years back.
The cashier was one Evans, a Welshman. He wore his hair powdered and frizzed out, the fashion known as Maccaronies. His melancholy face bent over the cash, he ever fumbled with it, fearing that everyone about him was a defaulter including himself. His face seemed to brighten when he sat over his roast veal at Anderton’s at two. It was not till evening that he really came into life. Just on the stroke of six he would tap at the door. Over a muffin he would melt into talk, ranging over old and new London, and he seemed to have such a lot of information.
Thomas Tame was his deputy. He had the air and stoop of a gentleman. He seemed to look down condescendingly on anyone to whom he talked, and the latter felt, as soon as his talk ended, what a shallow intellect the man had. Thomas Tame had, however, no riches to support his pretensions. His wife traced her relationship obliquely to an illustrious but unfortunate house of Darwentwaten. It cheered the couples as the bright solitary star of their lives.
The accountant, John Tip, was of a different sort. He had no high pretensions. He had a hobby of his own. It was his fiddle. He had a fine suit of rooms in Thread Needle Street, which resounded every fortnight to the notes of a concert of “sweet breasts”. Tip presided over it. But at desk he appeared quite a prosaic and unromantic man, attending exclusively to the business of writing off dividend warrants and striking the annual balance which was a very serious affair, occupying days and nights a month before it was due. He was a stickler for form. He was the best executer in the world, taking very seriously the duty of protecting the rights of orphans. He was well endowed with the principle of self-preservation, and never took any risk in life.
Lamb recalls Henry Man, the wit, the polished man of letters, the author. He was best known for his gibes and jokes, some of which are recorded in his volumes which Lamb had the good fortune to procure from a stall in Barbican. His wit might have grown little stale in these days of ‘new-born gauds’, but it was highly relished in his life time, and radiates from his chronicles upon Chatham and Shebume, and Rockigham, and Howe, Burgoyne and Clinton.
Maynard could sing exquisitely, and sang the song sung by Amiens to the banished Duke. His father was unapproachable churchwarden of Bishopsgate. Lamb laments the tragic death of Maynard. Lamb could have called up other shadowy figures from the past, but they are now no more than shadows and the living have little interest in them.