Dream-Child: A Life of Charles Lamb 
by Eric G. Wilson.
Yale, 521 pp., £25, January 2022, 978 0 300 23080 2
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Even a smile​ could put Charles Lamb in mind of death. ‘The fine ladies, or fine gentlemen, who show me their teeth,’ he wrote, ‘show me bones.’ He cared not ‘to be carried with the tide that smoothly bears human life to eternity’.

I am in love with this green earth, – the face of town and country, – the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets … Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and Summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fireside conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself – do these things go out with life?

Faced with the ‘inevitable spoiler’, Lamb lived as many lives as he could. In the theatre: ‘the escape from life, the oblivion of consequences, the holiday … those Saturnalia of two or three brief hours, well won from the world’. In his reading: ‘I love to lose myself in other men’s minds.’ In his ability, as the character ‘Elia’, to enlarge himself without egotism: ‘to imply and twine with his own identity the griefs and affections of another – making himself many, or reducing many unto himself’. And by practising his Romantic ideal of the imagination, imposing unity and relation on disintegrating human experience: ‘the true poet dreams being awake. He is not possessed by his subject, but has dominion over it.’ Lamb made an art of recollection, describing and redescribing the personages and events of his childhood with a Proustian assiduousness. Writing as a friend of Elia, he said that ‘he did not conform to the march of time … The impressions of infancy had burnt into him, and he resented the impertinence of manhood.’ Yet he was also disgusted by the ‘impertinent … familiarities inscribed upon your ordinary tombstones. Every deadman must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that “Such as he now is I must shortly be.” Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the meantime I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters!’

He could not ‘digest’ death, but he gorged on life. Food, for Lamb, was a medium of thought, a master metaphor. The solitude of childhood was the ‘feeder of love, and silence, and admiration’. Hogarth’s paintings provided ‘matter to feed and fertilise the mind’. London sights could ‘feed me without a power of satiating me’. Of dreams, he said that ‘we love to chew the cud of a foregone vision; to collect the scattered rays of a brighter phantasm, or act over again, with firmer nerves, the sadder nocturnal tragedies.’ He savoured experience, and so perpetuated it. Writing to a ‘distant correspondent’ in Australia, he observed that, had his friend been in England, it would have been worthwhile to inform him by letter that he was going to a play that evening; even though ‘at the moment you received the intelligence my full feast of fun would be over … there would be for a day or two after, as you would well know, a smack, a relish left upon my mental palate.’

We must always imagine Lamb with something on his mental palate. Explaining why he was not a Quaker, he wrote that ‘I am all over sophisticated – with humours, fancies, craving hourly sympathy. I must have books, pictures, theatres, chit-chat, scandal, jokes, ambiguities, and a thousand whim-whams, which their simpler taste can do without. I should starve at their primitive banquet.’ When Lamb received a hamper, it was as though the giver were there by proxy: ‘we love … to taste him in grouse or woodcock: to feel him gliding down in the toast peculiar to the latter; to concorporate him in a slice of Canterbury brawn … such participation is perhaps unitive, as the old theologians phrase it.’ And when Lamb himself sent gifts of food: ‘I love to taste them, as it were, upon the tongue of my friend.’ This is what he asks of his readers: that we taste on our tongues all that he has fed on. Literally, in the case of ‘A Dissertation upon Roast Pig’:

There is no flavour comparable … to that of the crisp, tawny, well-watched, not over-roasted, crackling, as it is well-called. The very teeth are invited to their share of the pleasure … in overcoming the coy, brittle resistance – with the adhesive oleaginous – O call it not fat! but an indefinable sweetness growing up to it – the tender blossoming of fat – fat cropped in the bud – taken in the shoot.

When my mouth waters – I’ve always had a soft spot for crackling – Lamb and I are unitive, joined across the gulf of death by that most transient thing: a flavour.

The desire to dodge the plain facts of existence informed Lamb’s appreciation for the theatre, which he thought transformed painful ‘realities’ into enjoyable spectacle: ‘a likeness only is going on, and not the thing itself.’ He had an addictive interest in puns, which derive from this parallel, independent world of language – ‘random likenesses thrown out by our lexical cosmos’, in James Wood’s definition, part of ‘the delicious surplus of life’. Lamb’s own definition is that

a pun is not bound by the laws which limit nicer wit. It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect. It is an antic which does not stand upon manners, but comes bounding into the presence, and does not show the less comic for being dragged in sometimes by the head and shoulders.

He had a bad stammer, and his puns were delivered with effort, after a period of voiceless struggle. John Clare described him approaching ‘a joke or a pun with an inward sort of utterance ere he can give it speech till his tongue becomes a sort of Packmans strop turning it over and over till at last it comes out wetted as keen as a razor.’ De Quincey remembered that he ‘was often able to train the roll of stammers into settling upon the words immediately preceding the effective one; by which means the key-note of the jest or sarcasm, benefiting by the sudden liberation of his embargoed voice, was delivered with the force of a pistol shot’. Lamb was able to practise what he preached.

Lamb’s feel for what he called ‘the teeming, fruitful, suggestive meaning of words’ also manifested in a different kind of punning or play: the literalisation of a phrase or idea. So, of a condescending schoolmaster: ‘He comes like Gulliver from among his little people, and he cannot fit the stature of his understanding to yours.’ Of his friend the dotty scholar George Dyer: ‘With long poring, he is grown almost into a book. He stood as passive as one by the side of the old shelves. I longed to new coat him in russia, and assign him to his place.’ In a marvellous vignette, Lamb makes a ‘sentiment’ – an English lord’s wish to be buried at a ‘pretty green spot’ in Geneva – a tangible object and shows how idle notions lose their charm when carried into practice. It is ‘boarded up, freighted … hoisted into a ship’, ‘pawed about’ by sailors, bumped, held up and hassled, ‘till at length it arrives at its destination, tired out and jaded, from a brisk sentiment into a feature of silly pride or tawdry senseless affectation’. This stretching of everyday meaning for comic effect is a feature of Dickens’s work, as Craig Raine pointed out in a 1973 essay, and it seems likely that he learned the trick from Lamb, whom he admired. ‘In expressing slowness of apprehension, this actor surpassed all others … A glimmer of understanding would appear in a corner of his eye, and for lack of fuel go out again. A part of his forehead would catch a little intelligence, and be a long time in communicating it to the remainder’. That sounds like Dickens, but it’s Lamb.

Did Lamb​ scorn limits in his writing because his life was so full of confinement? His earliest surviving letter, written in May 1796 when he was 21, is addressed to an important friend and contains some surprising information: ‘Coleridge, I know not what suffering scenes you have gone through at Bristol, – my life has been somewhat diversified of late. The 6 weeks that finished last year & began this your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad house at Hoxton … I am got somewhat rational now, & don’t bite any one.’ Four months later, his older sister, Mary, murdered their mother in a moment of insanity, and might have murdered their demented father had Lamb not arrived home and snatched away the knife. He arranged to have Mary taken to a private asylum (being judged not of sound mind, she wasn’t charged with the crime) and insisted that when she recovered she should be released to his care. It was the beginning of nearly forty years together, ‘a sort of double singleness’. Their regular changes of lodgings were dictated by the distrust or unpleasantness of neighbours, and Mary often had to return to an asylum. Far from getting better, her health worsened as she got older, her stays becoming more frequent and longer in duration: Lamb was left alone for months in 1827, 1829, 1830, 1832 and 1833. Each time it was possible that she would not recover.

Both siblings suffered from depression. Mary reported them ‘looking at each other with long and rueful faces, & saying how do you do? & how do you do? & then we fall a crying & say we will be better on the morrow – [Charles] says we are like tooth ach & his friend gum bile, which though a kind of ease, is but an uneasy kind of ease, a comfort of rather an uncomfortable sort.’ Lamb, on whom most of the costs of their household and Mary’s illness fell, worked six days a week for 33 years as a clerk at the East India Company. He sat at a high sloping desk on a tall stool, enclosed in a kind of cage with his colleagues. He was also an alcoholic, prone to blackouts. In his starkest literalisation, he conjured himself as an empty vessel: ‘The drunkard is not a man with drink added. His very being is drink. Without it, he feels as if nothing.’ Though from his youth he wrote criticism and occasional pieces, poems, plays and a novel, it wasn’t until the 1820s, when he produced his autobiographical essays as Elia for the London Magazine, that he became famous. After his death, the details of his battling life became publicly known and he was sanctified. The image of poor self-sacrificing ‘St Charles’ has been a hindrance ever since.

‘We have waited a long time for the definitive full-scale scholarly biography of Charles Lamb,’ Jonathan Bate asserts on the back cover of Eric Wilson’s book, ‘but now it has arrived.’ In fact, there is more good sense in Bate’s short introduction to the 1987 Oxford edition of the Essays of Elia than in Wilson’s 521 pages. I thought it was impossible to add fresh horror to the story of Mary killing her mother, but that was before I read Wilson’s version:

Chairs, crockery, peas, beef, and bread on the floor; mother, bloody from chest to waist, lifeless; father, forehead gashed, bellowing; Aunt Sarah flinching in the corner. Mary towers over the riot, her eyes animal-wild. She has a knife.

Charles springs, rips the blade from her grasp.

His sister’s eyes humanise again. She shrinks, confused. And then it dawns: the darkness of grief and guilt that will never leave her.

She has stabbed her mother in the heart. She was hot to kill her father and aunt. Where’s the apprentice? She started it all with her incessant complaining. She might have been the first victim. But she got away.

Now, here is Charles.

At one point Wilson says that Lamb’s essays ‘if not drunk, are three gins into the evening: a bit woozy, loose-tongued, extra witty, somewhat outlandish, and flirting with falling apart’. Wilson himself gives the impression of writing three gins into the evening, but without any of the benefits. The Lambs’ tales ‘dive into the craters of the heart’; we learn of ‘the wonder of the crazed heart falling into euphonious rhythm’ and that ‘the crazed parataxis still flashes the voltage of the street.’ We are told that Robert Southey’s ‘over-long nose’ gave his face a ‘workmanlike quality, and his work ethic is what he is largely remembered for’. And this, of a representation of melancholy: ‘He wears only linens over his loins. If they are soiled, we don’t know, since this is a statue.’ ‘One is more than zero, and less than two. But zero is neither more nor less than anything.’ ‘People are no different than a crowd of fish and, like fish, are unable to revive a nearly drowned man.’ ‘These isn’t inconvenience; it is Kafka.’ And just try stopping Wilson from walking flat into an innuendo. ‘He was also dreaming of Dorothy’s region’; ‘The world required him back, however, and again he fit his parts into the machine.’ Or my favourite: ‘Coleridge ignited homoerotic energy in Wordsworth and Lloyd, too. His closest friends felt as if he were, during their most vital moments, inside them.’

Wilson gives us no reason to trust his critical judgments, either. It is possible that if you have no sympathy for Lamb, or for people who eat meat, you might find something sinister in his pirouetting around the subject of the suckling pig: ‘under a moon old, guiltless as yet of the sty … his voice as yet not broken, but something between a childish treble and a grumble – the mild forerunner, or praeludium, of a grunt’. But it’s inconceivable that anyone could follow Wilson into the baroque absurdity of his reading of ‘A Dissertation upon Roast Pig’ as ‘Elia’s sadistic fantasy’, ‘unsettling’, ‘monstrous’, ‘extravagantly creepy’, the case of ‘a cannibal in love with his victim, as unhinged as Hannibal Lecter’. And this is before Wilson arbitrarily decides that, because Lamb begins the essay with a knowingly silly fantasy about the Chinese discovery of roast pork, the essay ‘reveals the psychological roots of imperialism. The coloniser in this portrait lusts after those he subjugates but expresses this lust through cruelty. That the lust is directed towards an infant suggests paedophilia: the imperialist desires to violate innocent victims unable to defend themselves.’ It’s a piglet, Eric. For roasting. With sage and onions.

Perhaps it is difficult for today’s admirers of Lamb to accept that he spent three decades in the employ of the East India Company without a moral quibble. This seems, however, to have been the case, despite Wilson’s attempts to jackhammer imperial critique into unyielding texts. He is similarly off-beam when he states of Lamb that ‘it is unlikely that a man of such enthusiastic liberal views would be a racist.’ On the contrary, Lamb’s remarks, including on the staging of Othello, make it clear that, like most liberal men of his time, he could easily believe that black people were equal in human dignity, and still not want to have any intimacy with them, ‘because’, as he put it, ‘they are black.’

Wilson’s embarrassments pile up. A passage in ‘The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers’ is explained thus: ‘The scene is cinematic. Elia strolls westward. Medium shot of him walking right to left. Then a point of view shot: we see what he sees. Back to medium shot.’ This goes on for a while. He quotes Mary’s opening to her version of The Tempest in the siblings’ Tales from Shakespeare – ‘There was a certain island in the sea, the only inhabitants of which were an old man, whose name was Prospero, and his daughter Miranda, a very beautiful young lady’ – and calls it ‘proto-Hemingway’; he also claims for her prose ‘the lean authority of the Bible’. In the all too rare moments when Wilson is lost for inspiration, he resorts to dropping in big words: scesis onomaton, pleonasm, paratactic, asyndeton. As well as historical, conceptual and verbal imprecision, there are petty errors and misunderstandings. For instance, about life expectancy: ‘He is thirty-eight. When male life expectancy is about forty, this is decline.’ Or about the reason Leigh and John Hunt described the Prince of Wales as ‘a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country’: Wilson explains in square brackets that George III had been on the throne since 1760 although the date of the Hunts’ article (1812) tells us that the future George IV (born 1762) was turning fifty. Wilson lacks any real interest in connecting Lamb’s work with that of his acknowledged influences, his contemporaries or his successors (Dickens is quoted on the appearance of Fleet Street, and then mentioned twice in passing, first as a friend of Leigh Hunt and then as a friend of Walter Savage Landor), but cites instead David Lynch, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Marcel Duchamp, William Burroughs, Frank O’Hara, Hugo Ball, Geoff Dyer, Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis.

Lamb deserves​ much better than this. He deserves, most of all, an account that makes you want to read him. His prose only intermittently wears Thomas Browne and Robert Burton and Thomas Fuller and Tristram Shandy on its sleeve. At other times it has a tart poeticism: ‘He is boy-rid, sick of perpetual boy.’ Or exhibits that proto-Dickensian habit of comic extension: ‘We have been dull at Worthing one Summer, duller at Brighton another, dullest at Eastbourne a third, and are at this moment doing dreary penance at Hastings; and all because we were happy many years ago for a brief week at Margate.’ He can be abruptly funny, writing of a spectacularly plain woman: ‘The first time that you are indulged with a sight of her face, is an era in your existence ever after. You are glad to have seen it – like Stonehenge.’ He sometimes uses a succession of long dashes to create a telegraphic effect (the one Dickens used for Mr Jingle in The Pickwick Papers); he sometimes writes in long, multi-clause sentences; he sometimes writes tersely. In ‘A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis’, he makes wonderful, dazed use of paragraph breaks, after reporting the story of a bank clerk who received £500 on the death of a beggar to whom he had dropped coins over the years:

I sometimes wish I had been that Bank clerk.

I seem to remember a poor old grateful kind of creature, blinking, and looking up with his no eyes in the sun. –

Is it possible I could have steeled my purse against him?

Perhaps I had no small change.

He abounds in sharp, adroitly phrased insights. That the body’s ‘vanity has its innocent survival’ in the fussing formality of the undertaker; that ‘we are ashamed at the sight of a monkey – somehow as we are shy of poor relations’; that ‘Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras dire – stories of Celaeno and the Harpies – may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition; but they were there before. They are transcripts, types – the archetypes are in us, and eternal.’ He is an excellent, vivid critic, especially of Shakespeare and the playwrights of the 16th and 17th centuries, whose work he did much to promote and popularise. Walter Pater hailed him as ‘almost the discoverer of the old English drama’; he could also claim to have discovered Marvell as a lyric poet.

We talk of Lamb’s ‘essays’, but this masks their formal range. V.S. Naipaul said that Lamb was one of the four 19th-century writers – the others being William Cobbett, William Hazlitt and Richard Jefferies – who gave him the most ‘novelistic pleasure’. Many of Lamb’s contributions as Elia read like short stories. In ‘Dream Children’, Elia tells us a story as it was given to his two young children: ‘I told what a tall, upright, graceful person their great-grandmother Field once was; and how in her youth she was esteemed the best dancer (here Alice’s little right foot played an involuntary movement, till, upon my looking grave, it desisted).’ Then ‘I told how, though their great-grandmother Field loved all her grandchildren, yet in an especial manner she might be said to love their uncle, John L–.’ And then, how

he used to carry me upon his back when I was a lame-footed boy (for he was a good bit older than I) many a mile when I could not walk for pain; and how in after life he became lame-footed too, and I did not always, I fear, make allowances enough for him when he was impatient, and in pain … and how when he died, though he had not been dead an hour, it seemed as if he had died a great while ago, such a distance there is betwixt life and death; and how I bore his death as I thought pretty well at first, but afterwards it haunted and haunted me; and though I did not cry or take it to heart as some do, and as I think he would have done if I had died, yet I missed him all day long, and knew not till then how much I had loved him. I missed his kindness, and I missed his crossness, and wished him to be alive again, to be quarrelling with him (for we quarrelled sometimes), rather than not have him again.

This voice takes us to an adult’s grief without ever ceasing to sound as though it is being communicated to children. Because the piece ends by revealing itself to be a fiction – ‘the children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding, and still receding, till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in the uttermost distance’ – and because its many autobiographical elements (Field is Lamb’s grandmother; ‘John L–’ is his elder brother, no longer even disguised as ‘James Elia’; the dream-children’s mother is ‘Alice W–’, or Ann Simmons, Lamb’s first love) are so suggestive of Lamb’s regrets, it’s easy to lose sight of how well constructed it is as fiction. But it’s the evocation of the dead brother, and not the dissolving children, ghosts of what might have been, that haunts and haunts us.

If we consider​ Lamb’s reputation at the start of the 20th century, it is obvious that serious ground has been lost. Then, the critic George Saintsbury thought him ‘perhaps more nearly unique than any other English writer outside the great poets’ and Arnold Bennett made him the centrepiece of his Literary Taste (‘You cannot like Lamb without liking literature in general. And you cannot read Lamb without learning about literature in general’). Wilson points an accusing finger at Denys Thompson, whose influential essay ‘Our Debt to Lamb’ appeared in Scrutiny in 1934 and was collected the same year in Determinations, Leavis’s first selection from the periodical. (Donald Davie described it in the LRB of 21 March 1991 as ‘one of the Leavisite demolition-jobs that truly cleared a space, and let the air in, for a more than academic public’.)

Wilson doesn’t tell us in any detail what Thompson said, but ‘Our Debt to Lamb’ turns out to be a startling piece. Thompson was in his twenties when he wrote it, and it has the boorish high-mindedness characteristic both of youth and of the Leavisite at full pitch. Lamb has a ‘regressive mind, shrinking from full consciousness’; he makes ‘a virtue of indolence … is complacent about his ignorance of history and the desultoriness of his reading’. Thompson claims that Lamb ‘chanced upon a recipe peculiarly satisfying to the uneducated reader with vestigial pretensions to literacy. Elia offers him experiences acceptable because they are already in stock … Lamb gives no shock to self-satisfaction, flattering instead the man who does as he likes, reassuring him that he’s right to preserve his irrationalities, foibles and prejudices.’ He next sinks his teeth into Lamb’s style, ‘little literary touches which give the illiterate something predigested for toothless gums to mumble, and cheat him into believing that he is in contact with great thoughts. Thus the uneducated when they wish to be impressive in writing will resort to the affectation, archaisms, circumlocution, allusions, puns and other tokens of immaturity put into currency by Lamb.’ Thompson saw Lamb, ‘droll and sentimental’ with a ‘buttonholing manner’, as a Bad Influence (his capitals) on the commercial writing of the 1930s: ‘The essay [was] a lay-pulpit to improve the reader’s spiritual manners by disturbing his complacency: today it is a profitable channel for vulgarity, “low-brow” propaganda and a studied irresponsibility.’

What is worth engaging with, in this farrago of condescensions, is Thompson’s charge that Lamb’s ‘values’ were bad, since he is still generally regarded as a purveyor of charm, of quirkiness shading into whimsy, of metropolitan buzz, and as intricately self-involved, rather than concerned with ‘spiritual manners’. Lamb was in fact very capable of laying down moral statements with Johnsonian éclat:

A child’s nature is too serious a thing to admit of its being regarded as a mere appendage to another being, and to be loved or hated accordingly: they stand with me upon their own stock, as much as men and women do.

[Of beggars] Give, and ask no questions … When a poor creature (outwardly and visibly such) comes before thee, do not stay to inquire whether the ‘seven small children’ in whose name he implores thy assistance have a veritable existence. Rake not into the bowels of unwelcome truth to save a halfpenny. It is good to believe him.

It is the very little more that we allow ourselves beyond what the actual poor can get at, that makes what I call a treat … I see no harm in people making much of themselves in that sense of the word. It may give them a hint how to make much of others.

I am determined to lead a Merry Life in the midst of Sinners. I try to consider all men as such, and to pitch my expectations from human nature as low as possible. In this view, all unexpected Virtues are God-sends & beautiful exceptions.

Lamb was against hanging, and despaired of its cultural acceptance: ‘such excellent matter for jest as the suspending of a fellow-creature in mid-air has been ever esteemed to be by Englishmen’. The guillotine was ‘a cruel and disgusting exhibition’. And he wrote with more justice about the position of women than most men of his period, or long after it.

In comparing modern with ancient manners, we are pleased to compliment ourselves upon the point of gallantry; a certain obsequiousness, or deferential respect, which we are supposed to pay to females, as females … I shall begin to believe that there is some such principle influencing our conduct when more than one half of the drudgery and coarse servitude of the world shall cease to be performed by women. Until that day comes, I shall never believe this boasted point to be any thing more than a conventional fiction.

When,in recent decades, critics have sought to assert the existence of a radical or political Lamb, they have tended to point to the people he was friends with, or the places he published: what is evoked is the abstract, rights-of-man radicalism of the 1790s, the whiff of William Godwin and Joseph Priestley, of potshots at the ‘Prince of Whales’. But Lamb’s account of his violently industrialising, impoverishing capitalist society anticipates Dickens, Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris. He was the descendant of servants and labourers; he understood, and he saw around him, the brute reality of hunger. In his series of ‘Popular Fallacies’ he attacks the notion ‘That Home is Home Though it is Never So Homely’: ‘All interests, real or imaginary, all topics that should expand the mind of man, and connect him to a sympathy with general existence, are crushed in the absorbing consideration of food to be obtained for the family.’ He mourns that ‘the children of the very poor have no young times.’ And elsewhere he asks, ‘with what frame or composure, I wonder, can a City chaplain pronounce his benediction at some great Hall feast, when he knows that his last concluding pious word … is but the signal for so many harpies to commence their foul orgies.’ As for ‘Enough is as Good as a Feast’: it is a ‘vile cold-scrag-of-mutton sophism; a lie palmed upon the palate … Morally interpreted, it belongs to a class of proverbs which have a tendency to make us undervalue money.’

Of this cast are those notable observations, that money is not health; riches cannot purchase everything … the metaphor which makes gold to be mere muck, with the morality which traces fine clothing to the sheep’s back, and denounces pearl as the unhandsome excretion of an oyster … Translate any one of these sayings out of the artful metonymy which envelops it, and the trick is apparent. Goodly legs and shoulders of mutton, exhilarating cordials, books, pictures, the opportunities of seeing foreign countries, independence, heart’s ease, a man’s own time to himself, are not muck.

Poverty inhibits freedom, pleasure and human flourishing. Where Lamb was most original and prescient, though, was in seeing that it isn’t only poverty that does this, but the types and form of the labour that is demanded of us. His teacher was the 33 years he spent caged at his desk in East India House on Leadenhall Street, painstakingly entering the accounts. It was work that kept the wheels of the great machine turning, but De Quincey saw the mockery in the fact that Lamb ‘had written in vain’: ‘the opera omnia of Lamb, drawn up in a hideous battalion, at the cost of labour so enormous, would be known only to certain families of spiders in one generation, and of rats in the next.’ ‘I am very tired of clerking it,’ Lamb told his friend Bernard Barton in 1822, ‘but I have no remedy.’ When he unexpectedly obtained retirement with a generous pension in early 1825, his overpowering delight was expressed in letters to friends and then reworked in ‘The Superannuated Man’:

If peradventure, Reader, it has been thy lot to waste the golden years of thy life, thy shining youth, in the irksome confinement of an office; to have thy prison days prolonged through middle age down to decrepitude and silver hairs, without hope of release or respite; to have lived to forget that there are such things as holidays, or to remember them but as the prerogatives of childhood; then, and then only, will you be able to appreciate my deliverance.

He knows that the real cost of anonymous desk-work is the way it spreads into every corner of life, infecting every hour: ‘Besides my daylight servitude, I served over again all night in my sleep, and would awake with terrors of imaginary false entries, errors in my accounts, and the like … I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul.’ ‘Each day,’ he writes, ‘used to be individually felt by me in its reference to the foreign post days; in its distance from, or propinquity to, the next Sunday.’ Even Sunday was spoiled: ‘The phantom of the next day, with the dreary five to follow, sate as a load upon my poor Sabbath recreations.’

Lamb reached a logical, radical conclusion:

I have indeed lived nominally fifty years; but deduct out of them the hours which I have lived to other people, and not to myself, and you will find me still a young fellow: for that is the only true Time which a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself; the rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people’s Time, not his … My ten next years, if I stretch so far, will be as long as any preceding thirty.

‘I no longer hunt after pleasure,’ he says. ‘I let it come to me.’ But his view continues to enlarge, now that he is confronted with the ‘poor drudges, whom I have left behind in the world, carking and caring; like horses in a mill, drudging on in the same eternal round – and what is it all for?’ ‘A man can never have too much Time to himself, nor too little to do,’ he writes, sixty years before Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’. Man is ‘out of his element as long as he is operative. I am altogether for the life contemplative. Will no kindly earthquake come and swallow up these accursed cotton mills?’

Thompson’s sneer that Lamb makes a ‘virtue of indolence’ looks very different in this light. Indeed, Lamb’s whole project – celebrating the freedoms and curiosity of childhood, the fascination of dreams, the pleasures of reading, writing, wandering and wondering, of pictures, plays, memory and imagination, of lying in bed, holidays, home, good company, food, drink and tobacco – looks different. He was ‘regressive’ only in one sense: like Cobbett, he saw the future rushing darkly on, and balked at it. He saw the way his era was being reshaped, its wrongs justified, by the values of an ascendant evangelicalism: a priggish, coldly mechanical, Malthusian ethic which, the historian Boyd Hilton has shown, considered positive economic outcomes in terms of virtue, and bad ones in terms of vice. ‘A puritanical obtuseness of sentiment, a stupid infantile goodness, is creeping among us,’ Lamb warned. ‘We have not the courage to imagine a state of things for which there is neither reward nor punishment. We cling to the painful necessities of shame and blame.’ In 1834, a few months before his death, the New Poor Law was carried into effect, and the workhouse was born. In our own punitive era of bullshit jobs, inexorable automation, shame and blame, we should heed Lamb’s plea for ‘hours well-wasted’, for happiness in life.

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