The Essays of Elia
London: Macmillan, 1921. A little sunned.. Small octavo, all edges gilt, a crisp copy; full polished calf, spine with raised bands, gilt. A very good copy of the well-known English essayist Charles Lamb's best known work. First appearing between 1820 and 1823 in the London Magazine, the content is known to be largely autobiographical. "Lamb adopted the name Elia, which was that of a former Italian clerk at the South Sea House, ostensibly to save the embarrassment of his brother John, who worked at that same place, but also, one must suppose, for literary reasons…They present with exquisite humour and pathos and in a brilliant and inimitable style characters that the author has known the productions of a playful or melancholy fancy and general comments and criticism." (OCEL)With an introduction and notes by Alfred Ainger (1837-1904) the English biographer, well known for his biography of Lamb published first in 1882.
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.