Essays of Elia

I first placed Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia on my TBR list because I read about him in Anne Fadiman’s wonderful book of personal essays, At Large and At Small. (Let me just put in a plug here: I would read Anne Fadiman’s rewrite of the telephone book, A-D. I would read her careful chemical analysis of rocket fuel. I adore Anne Fadiman. I only wish she were more prolific.) In her essay on Lamb, she wrote so enthusiastically about his prose, his style, his inimitable invention of the personal essay, that I was eager to read more. 

Charles Lamb lived about the turn of the 19th century, from 1775 to 1834. (He lived just before Dickens and was great friends with Coleridge, if that helps you place him.) He was always a man of modest means, and he worked for many years as a clerk in a financial firm, even as he wrote essays and poetry in his own time. He lived with his sister, Mary (that’s a turbulent story of its own), and died a bachelor. He doesn’t sound particularly interesting. But having read 500 pages of his essays, I must say that he is the most lovable, charming author I’ve ever encountered, and if I could have him over to dinner tonight, I’d do it without hesitation.

These essays are that form neglected by modern authors, the personal essay: they begin with generalities and move to personal reminiscences, or they begin with an anecdote and move to greater thoughts. Lamb uses this form brilliantly. He is shy, modest, self-deprecating; then, just as you’ve given up hope, he turns around and makes you laugh aloud with his biting wit, his insight, his irreverence. He is generous and severe by turns. He loves children, women, and the poor, but not indiscriminately. The only things I can see that he loves unconditionally are books and roast pig. I’ll start with the books, for this audience:

At the hazard of losing some credit, I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people’s thoughts. I dream away my life in others’ speculations. I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.

And his “Dissertation on Roast Pig,” an almost equal passion (vegetarians, avert your eyes):

There is no flavor comparable, I will contend, 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 at this banquet in overcoming their share of 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 — in the first innocence — the cream and quintessence of the child-pig’s yet pure food — the lean, no lean, but a kind of animal manna — or, rather, fat and lean (if it must be so) so blended and running into each other, that both together make up one ambrosian result, or common substance.

If that doesn’t convince you to read these amazing essays, I don’t know what will. Except maybe the fact that I laughed so loudly at the very last essay of all (on the pleasures of sulkiness — “Happy is he who suspects his friend of an injustice; but supremely blest, who thinks all his friends in a conspiracy to depress and undervalue him.”) that people came from all over the house to see what was going on. 

Get to know Charles Lamb. He may be shy at first, but by the end, you’ll have an inseparable friend.

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5 Responses to Essays of Elia

  1. Sandra says:

    It’s been a long time but I certainly enjoyed Lamb’s essays whenever I read them. I still have an old copy I brought back from England as my souvenir book from a trip there twenty years ago. And I got it on Charing Cross Road so it holds good memories for me. But I had found them in the library when I was seventeen and even then I thought they were astute and often very funny.
    Have you heard of The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd? It’s a recent fiction with Charles and Mary as the main characters. I enjoyed it.

  2. Sarah says:

    I’ve been meaning to read the Essays of Elia since I read Anne Fadiman singing Lamb’s praises. Your review’s reminded me and made them sound like a lot of fun!

  3. Dorothy W. says:

    I just bought a copy of the Essays of Elia! I’ve read one or two Lamb essays but need to read more. I’m glad you enjoyed the book so much, and I’m looking forward to getting to read it myself.

  4. Jenny says:

    Sandra – I haven’t heard of The Lambs of London. Thanks for the heads-up — I’ll take a look!

    Sarah — They *are* a lot of fun. Of course, Anne Fadiman’s book made me want to read an awful lot of stuff, but this was the first I got to…

    Dorothy — I know how much you read, so I expect you’ll get to it sooner rather than later. I hope you absolutely love it.

  5. DKS says:

    Re. And his “Dissertation on Roast Pig,” an almost equal passion …

    I read the Essays in a Lamb compendium that incorporated his poetry and other miscellania, and every now and then as I was reading his letters, I’d come across one that had to do with pigs — thank you for sending us a pig, he’d write to his friend — such dear little edible feet — such succulence, such deliciousness — and then rhapsodies about the crackling.

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