Thursday, March 14, 2013

Essays of Elia

I first learned about Charles Lamb when I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. He plays a key role in the novel as it's one of his books that brings about the correspondence between two of the main characters. They write to each other about how much they love his work, which in turn made me want to try reading it (kind of like reading The Mysteries of Udolpho because you like Northanger Abbey). 

Lamb himself is a fascinating figure of the late 18th/ early 19th century. His life was a combination of the mundane with the literary, and was marked by a dramatic family tragedy. His writings brought him literary acclaim and his circle of friends included such heavyweights as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, yet he spent most of his adult life writing only in his spare time, holding down a day job as an accountant with the British East India Company. When he was about twenty, his elder sister Mary suffered a manic fit and stabbed their mother to death. Faced with life in prison, Mary was ultimately released into Lamb's care. He spent the rest of his life tending to her as he himself suffered with bouts of alcoholism and depression.

For as much hardship as Lamb dealt with in his life, his writing is surprisingly good natured, though occasionally melancholy. Essays of Elia is a collection of pieces originally written for London newspapers around the 1820's. In them, Lamb assumes the identity of Elia, a thinly veiled version of himself. Told in the voice of Elia, Lamb's essays tend to fall into two general categories: those that described situations and people from Lamb's own life, such as his accountancy work and his sister, who he presents as the character of Elia's cousin/ housekeeper, and those that gently poke fun at slices of everyday life, such as chimney sweeps, or the practice of saying grace before a meal.

 The foreword to the edition I read points out that Lamb's work can be viewed as a precursor to much of the nonfiction we read today, especially memoirs that are written in ways that verge on the fictional, like some of Dave Eggers's work. Reading the essays, I came across a lot that did feel current. Some of his more humorous essays reminded me of a nineteenth-century version of the kind of observational comedy that we're used to today (like Seinfeld's "Did you ever notice how..." monologues). And I couldn't help thinking that the phrase "smug marrieds", coined by Bridget Jones, may owe something to Lamb's essay "A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behavior of Married People". Yet along with these little gems, I encountered an equal amount of material that hasn't quite stood the test of time, particularly in essays in which Lamb paints highly detailed portraits of acquaintances or general public figures who, though widely known at the time, mean little to the modern reader. As I worked my way through the entire essay collection, I felt lulled into a skimming boredom as often as I felt entertained. In the end, I think I've come away from Lamb's work, not loving it, but simply appreciating what its value must have been for the time in which it was written.

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