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Eric G. Wilson

‘Dream-Child: A Life of Charles Lamb'

Dream-Child: A Life of Charles Lamb by Eric G. Wilson
(Yale University Press)
By Mark Greenstock

Charles Lamb (1775-1834) was an English essayist, poet and co-author with his sister Mary Lamb of 'Tales from Shakespeare' which used to be popular as a young person’s introduction to our leading English dramatist. The last full-length biography of Lamb was by E.V. Lucas in 1905. This new contender by an American Professor of English Literature, weighing in at over 500 pages and half-a-kilogram in hardback, bids fair to reinvigorate interest in this half-forgotten character, who doesn’t quite fit into any conventional category but explores the borderland between genius and madness, faerie and reality, whimsy and pathos.
Lamb was a close friend of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Hazlitt and other writers of the Romantic
age; small physically, with a brown face, dragging gait, a stutter and a winning smile, he worked long and unrewarding hours as a clerk in the Inner Temple, while striving desperately to keep his home life together after his sister Mary knifed their paralysed mother to death in a fit of madness in 1796. His two collections of 'Essays of Elia' (1823 and 1833), printed month by month in 'The London Magazine', are probably his most solid achievements, and it is from these that Wilson draws throughout his book to help us grasp the essentially ironical personality that Lamb presented to the world. Quoting too from his poems and letters, and drawing on a wide selection of comments by his friends, the author gives us a consistently intimate and compelling picture of a man of whom Coleridge wrote: ‘Charles Lamb has more totality and individuality of character than any other man I know, or have ever known in all my life.’ This is no hagiography: Lamb’s faults, his tendency to melancholia, his addiction to tactless punning, his chronic and increasing drunkenness, his hopeless yet obstinate love affairs, his intemperate views on religion and politics, are all faithfully displayed, with a sympathetic insight that draws the reader into his inner and outer lives simultaneously.
Wilson’s professorial role permits him to interject his own running commentary and to make comparisons with modern (largely American) figures, occasionally tempting him into over-elaborate verdicts, e.g. when he claims that the hilarious essay ‘A Dissertation upon Roast-Pig’ makes Elia, ‘a cannibal in love with his victim, as unhinged as Hannibal Lecter,’ and ‘reveals the psychosexual roots of imperialism.’ Such sallies apart, the biography presents a masterly array of detail within the broad picture of the London scene during the later Georgian period. I thoroughly enjoyed this work, which will surely become accepted as the standard account of Lamb, as well as throwing fresh light on his more celebrated contemporaries. After Charles’ death in his 60th year from the skin disease known as erysipelas, Wordsworth lamented the vanishing of ‘the frolic and the gentle Lamb’; Wilson shows that he has never truly gone away – indeed, had he lived today, he might be welcomed as a shrewd, highly original and wittily provocative satirist of our modern fetishes and follies.

Mark Greenstock

Yale U.P.

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