Her education in youth was not much attended to, and she happily missed all the train of female garniture which passeth by the name of accomplishments. She was tumbled early, by accident or providence, into a spacious closet of good old English reading, without much selection or prohibition, and browsed at will upon that fair and wholesome pasturage. Had I twenty girls they should be brought up exactly in this fashion. I know not whether their chance in wedlock might not be diminished by it, but I can answer for it that it maketh (if worse comes to worst) most incomparable old maids.
—Essays of Elia
I sing the love of brother and sister. For he who tells the tale of Charles and Mary Lamb's life must tell of a love that was an uplift to this brother and sister in childhood, that sustained them in the desolation of disaster, and was a saving solace even when every hope seemed gone and reason veiled her face.
This love caused the flowers of springtime to bloom for them again and again, and attracted such a circle of admirers that, as we read the records of their lives, set forth in the letters they received and wrote, we forget poverty, forget calamity, and behold only the radiant, smiling faces of loving, trusting, trustful friends.
The mother of Charles and Mary Lamb was a woman of fine natural endowment, of spirit and of aspiration. She married a man much older than herself. We know but little about John Lamb; we know nothing of his ancestry. Neither do we care to. He was not good enough to attract, nor bad enough to be interesting. He called himself a scrivener, but in fact he was a valet. He was neutral salts; and I say this just after having read his son's amiable mention of him under the guise of "Lovel," and with the full knowledge also that "he danced well, was a good judge of vintage, played the harpsichord, and recited poetry on occasion."
When a woman of spirit stands up before a priest and makes solemn promise to live with a man who plays the harpsichord and is a good judge of vintage, and to love until either he or she dies, she sows the seeds of death and disorder. Of course, I know that men and women who make promises before priests know not at the time what they do; they find out afterwards.
And so they were married, were John Lamb and Elizabeth Field; and probably very soon thereafter Elizabeth had a premonition that this union only held in store a glittering blade of steel for her heart. For she grew ill and dispirited, and John found companionship at the alehouse, and came stumbling home asking what the devil was the reason his wife couldn't meet him with a smile and a kiss and a' that, as a dutiful wife should!
Elizabeth began to live more and more within herself. We often hear foolish men taunt women with inability to keep secrets. But women who talk much often do keep secrets—there are nooks in their hearts where the sun never enters, and where those nearest them are never allowed to look. More lives are blasted by secrecy than by frankness—ay! a thousand times. Why should such a thing as a secret ever exist? 'Tis preposterous, and is proof positive of depravity. If you and I are to live together, my life must be open as the ether and all my thoughts be yours. If I keep back this and that, you will find it out some day and suspect, with reason, that I also keep back the other. Ananias and Sapphira met death, not so much for simple untruthfulness as for keeping something back.
Elizabeth Lamb sought to protect herself against an unappreciative mate by secrecy (perhaps she had to), and the habit grew until she kept secrets as a business—she kept foolish little secrets. Did she get a letter from her aunt, she read it in suggestive silence and then put it in her pocket. If visitors called she never mentioned it, and when the children heard of it weeks afterward they marveled.
And so shy little Mary Lamb wondered what it was her mother kept locked up in the bottom drawer of the bureau, and Mary was told that children must not ask questions—little girls should be seen and not heard.
At night, Mary would dream of the things that were in that drawer, and sometimes great, big, black things would creep out through the keyhole and grow bigger and bigger until they filled the room so full that you couldn't breathe, and then little Mary would cry aloud and scream, and her father would come with a strap that was kept on a nail behind the kitchen-door and teach her better than to wake everybody up in the middle of the night.
Yet Mary loved her mother, and sought in many ways to meet her wishes, and all the time her mother kept the bureau-drawer locked, and away somewhere on a high shelf was hidden all tenderness—all the gentle, loving words and the caresses which children crave.
And little Mary's life seemed full of troubles, and the world a grievous place where everybody misunderstands everybody else; and at nighttime she would often hide her face in the pillow and cry herself to sleep.
But when she was ten years of age a great joy came into her life—a baby brother came! And all the love in the little girl's heart was poured out for the puny baby boy. Babies are troublesome things, anyway, where folks are awful poor and where there are no servants and the mother is not so very strong. And so Mary became the baby's own little foster-mother, and she carried him about, and long before he could lisp a word she had told him all the hopes and secrets of her heart, and he cooed and laughed, and lying on the floor, kicked his heels in the air and treated hope and love and ambition alike.
I can not find that Mary ever went to school. She stayed at home and sewed, did housework, and took care of the baby. All her learning came by absorption. When the boy was three years old she taught him his letters, and did it so deftly and well that he used to declare he could always read—and this is as it should be. When seven years of age the boy was sent to the Blue-Coat School. This was brought about through the influence of Mr. Salt, for whom John Lamb worked. Mr. Salt was a Bencher, and be it known a Bencher in England is not exactly the same thing as a Bencher in America. Mr. Salt took quite a notion to little Mary Lamb, and once when she came to his office with her father's dinner, the honorable Bencher chucked her under the chin, said she was a fine little girl, and asked her if she liked to read. And when she answered, "Oh, yes, sir!" and then added, "If you please!" the Bencher laughed, and told her she was welcome to take any book in his library. And so we find she spent many happy hours in the great man's library; and it was through her importunities that Mr. Salt got banty Charles the scholarship in Christ's Hospital School.
Now the Blue-Coat boys are a curiosity to every sight-seer in London—and have been for these hundred years and more. Their long-tailed blue coats, buckle-shoes, and absence of either hats or caps bring the Yankee up with a halt. To conduct an American around to the vicinity of Christ's Hospital and let him discover a "Blue-Coat" for himself is a sensation. The costume is exactly the same as that worn by Edward, "the Boy King," who founded the school; and these youngsters, like the birds, never grow old. You lean against the high iron fence, and looking through the bars watch the boys frolic and play, just as visitors looked in the Eighteenth Century; and I've never been by Christ's Hospital yet when curious people did not stand and stare. And one thing the Blue-Coats seem to prove, and that is that hats are quite superfluous.
One worthy man from Jamestown, New York, was so impressed by these hatless boys that he wrote a book proving that the wearing of hats was what has kept the race in bondage to ignorance all down the ages. By statistics he proved that the Blue-Coats had attained distinction quite out of ratio to their number, and cited Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb and many others as proof. This man returned to Jamestown hatless, and had he not caught cold and been carried off by pneumonia, would have spread his hatless gospel, rendering the name of Knox the Hatter infamous, and causing the word "Derby" to be henceforth a byword and a hissing.
When little Charles Lamb tucked the tails of his long blue coat under his belt and played leap-frog in the school-yard every morning at ten minutes after 'leven, his sister, wan, yellow and dreamy, used to come and watch him through these selfsame iron bars. She would wave the corner of her rusty shawl in loving token, and he would answer back and would have lifted his hat if he had had one. When the bell rang and the boys went pellmell into the entry-way, Charles would linger and hold one hand above his head as the stone wall swallowed him, and the sister knowing that all was well would hasten back to her work in Little Queen Street, hard by, to wait for the morrow when she could come again.
"Who is that girl always hanging 'round after you?" asked a tall, handsome boy, called Ajax, of little Charles Lamb.
"Wh' why, don't you know—that, wh' why that's my sister Mary!"
"How should I know when you have never introduced me!" loftily replied Ajax.
And so the next day, at ten minutes after 'leven, Charles and the mighty Ajax came down to the fence, and Charles had to call to Mary not to run away, and Charles introduced Ajax to Mary and they shook hands through the fence. And the next week Ajax, who was known in private life as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, called at the house in Little Queen Street where the Lambs lived, and they all had gin and water, and the elder Lamb played the harpsichord, a secondhand one that had been presented by Mr. Salt, and recited poetry, and Coleridge talked the elder Lamb under the table and argued the entire party into silence. Coleridge was only seventeen then, but a man grown, and already took snuff like a courtier, tapping the lid of the box meditatively and flashing a conundrum the while on the admiring company.
Mary kept about as close run of the Blue-Coat School as if she had been a Blue-Coat herself. Still, she felt it her duty to keep one lesson in advance of her brother, just to know that he was progressing well.
He continued to go to school until he was fourteen, when he was set to work in the South Sea Company's office, because his income was needed to keep the family. Mary was educating the boy with the help of Mr. Salt's library, for a boy as fine as Charles must be educated, you know. By and by the bubble burst, and young Lamb was transferred to the East India Company's office, and being promoted was making nearly a hundred pounds a year.
And Mary sewed and borrowed books and toiled incessantly, but was ill at times. People said her head was not just right—she was overworked and nervous or something! The father had lost his place on account of too much gin and water, especially gin; the mother was almost helpless from paralysis, and in the family was an aged maiden aunt to be cared for. The only regular income was the salary of Charles.
There they lived in their poverty and lowliness, hoping for better things!
Charles was working away over the ledgers, and used to come home fagged and weary, and Coleridge was far away, and there was no boy to educate now, and only sick and foolish and quibbling people on whom to strike fire. The demnition grind did its work for Mary Lamb as surely as it is today doing it for countless farmers' wives in Iowa and Illinois.
Thus ran the years away.
Mary Lamb, aged thirty-two, gentle, intelligent and wondrous kind, in sudden frenzy seized a knife from the table and with one thrust sank the blade into her mother's heart. Charles Lamb, in an adjoining room, hearing the commotion, entered quickly and taking the knife from his sister's hand, put his arm about her and tenderly led her away.
Returning in a few moments, the mother was dead.
Women often make a shrill outcry at sight of a mouse; men curse roundly when large, buzzing, blue-bottle flies disturb their after-dinner nap; but let occasion come and the stuff of which heroes are made is in us all. I think well of my kind.
Charles Lamb made no outcry, he shed no tears, he spoke no word of reproach. He met each detail of that terrible issue as coolly, calmly and surely as if he had been making entries in his journal. No man ever loved his mother more, but she was dead now—she was dead. He closed the staring eyes, composed the stiffening limbs, kept curious sightseers at bay, and all the time thought of what he could do to protect the living—she who had wrought this ruin.
Charles was twenty-one—a boy in feeling and temperament, a frolicsome, heedless boy. In an hour he had become a man.
It requires a subtler pen than mine to trace the psychology of this tragedy; but let me say this much, it had its birth in love, in unrequited love; and the outcome of it was an increase in love.
O God! how wonderful are Thy works! Thou makest the rotting log to nourish banks of violets, and from the stagnant pool at Thy word springs forth the lotus that covers all with fragrance and beauty!
Coleridge in his youth was brilliant—no one disputes that. He dazzled Charles and Mary Lamb from the very first. Even when a Blue-Coat he could turn a pretty quatrain, and when he went away to Cambridge and once in a long while wrote a letter down to "My Own C.L.," it was a feast for the sister, too. Mary was different from other girls: she didn't "have company," she was too honest and serious and earnest for society—her ideals too high. Coleridge—handsome, witty, philosophic Coleridge—was her ideal. She loved him from afar.
How vain it is to ponder in our minds the what-might-have-been! Yet how can we help wondering what would have been the result had Coleridge wedded Mary Lamb! In many ways it seems it would have been an ideal mating, for Mary Lamb's mental dowry made good Coleridge's every deficiency, and his merits equalized all that she lacked. He was sprightly, headstrong, erratic, emotional; she was equally keen-witted, but a conservative in her cast of mind. That she was capable of a great and passionate love there is no doubt, and he might have been. Mary Lamb would have been his anchor to win'ard, but as it was he drifted straight on to the rocks. Her mental troubles came from a lack of responsibility—a rusting away of unused powers in a dull, monotonous round of commonplace. Had her heart found its home I can not conceive of her in any other light than as a splendid, earnest woman—sane, well-poised, and doing a work that only the strong can do. Coleridge has left on record the statement that she was the only woman he ever met who had a "logical mind"—that is to say, the only woman who ever understood him when he talked his best.
Coleridge made progress at the Blue-Coat School: he became "Deputy Grecian," or head scholar. This secured him a scholarship at Cambridge, and thither he went in search of honors. But his revolutionary and Unitarian principles did not serve him in good stead, and he was placed under the ban.
At the same time a youth by the name of Robert Southey was having a like experience at Oxford. Other youths had tried in days agone to shake Cambridge and Oxford out of their conservatism, and the result was that the embryo revolutionists speedily found themselves warned off the campus. So through sympathy Coleridge and Southey met. Coleridge also brought along a young philosopher and poet, who had also been a Blue-Coat, by the name of Lovell.
These three young men talked philosophy, and came to the conclusion that the world was wrong. They said society was founded on a false hypothesis—they would better things. And so they planned packing up and away to America to found an Ideal Community on the banks of the Susquehanna. But hold! a society without women is founded on a false hypothesis—that's so—what to do? Now in America there are no women but Indian squaws.
But resource did not fail them—Southey thought of the Fricker family, a mile out on the Bristol road. There were three fine, strong, intelligent girls—what better than to marry 'em? The world should be peopled from the best. The girls were consulted and found willing to reorganize society on the communal basis, and so the three poets married the three sisters—more properly, each of the three poets married a sister. "Thank God," said Lamb, "that there were not four of those Fricker girls, or I, too, would have been bagged, and the world peopled from the best!"
Southey got the only prize out of the hazard; Lovell's wife was so-so, and Coleridge drew a blank, or thought he did, which was the same thing; for as a man thinketh so is she. The thought of a lifetime on the banks of the Susquehanna with a woman who was simply pink and good, and who was never roused into animation even by his wildest poetic bursts, took all ambition out of him.
Funds were low and the emigration scheme was temporarily pigeonholed. After a short time Coleridge declared his mind was getting mildewed and packed off to London for mental oxygen and a little visit, leaving his wife in Southey's charge.
He was gone two years.
Lovell soon followed suit, and Southey had three sisters in his household, all with babies.
In the meantime we find Southey installed at "Greta," just outside of the interesting town of Keswick, where the water comes down at Lodore. Southey was a general: he knew that knowledge consists in having a clerk who can find the thing. He laid out research work and literary schemes enough for several lifetimes, and the three sisters were hard at it. It was a little community of their own—all working for Southey, and glad of it. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Grasmere, thirteen miles away, and they used to visit back and forth. When you go to Keswick you should tramp that thirteen miles—the man who hasn't tramped from Keswick to Grasmere has dropped something out of his life. In merry jest, tipped with acid, some one called them "The Lake Poets," as if there were poets and lake poets. And Lamb was spoken of as "a Lake Poet by grace." Literary London grinned, as we do when some one speaks of the Sweet Singer of Michigan or the Chicago Muse. But the term of contempt stuck and, like the words Methodist, Quaker and Philistine, soon ceased to be a term of reproach and became something of which to be proud.
There is a lead-pencil factory at Keswick, established in the year Eighteen Hundred. Pencils are made there today exactly as they were made then, and when you see the factory you are willing to believe it. All visitors at Keswick go to the pencil-factory and buy pencils, such as Southey used, and get their names stamped on each pencil while they wait, without extra charge. On the wall is a silhouette picture of Southey, showing a needlessly large nose, and the gentlemanly old proprietor will tell you that Dorothy Wordsworth made the picture; and then he will show you a letter written by Charles Lamb, framed under glass, wherein C.L. says all pencils are fairish good, but no pencils are so good as Keswick pencils.
For a while, when times were hard, Coleridge's wife worked here making pencils, while her archangel husband (a little damaged) went with Wordsworth to study metaphysics at Gottingen. When Coleridge came back and heard what his wife had done, he reproved her—gently but firmly. Mrs. Ajax in a pencil-factory wearing a check apron with a bib!—huh!!
Southey had concluded that if Coleridge and Lovell were good samples of socialism he would stick to individualism. So he joined the Church of England, became a Monarchist, sang the praises of royalty, got a pension, became Poet Laureate, and rich—passing rich.
"Wh-wh-when he secured for himself the services of three good women he made a wise move," said C.L.
And all the time Coleridge and Lamb were in correspondence: and when Coleridge was in London he kept close run of the Lambs. The father and old aunt had passed out, and Charles and Mary lived together in rooms. They seemed to have moved very often—their record followed them. When the other tenants heard that "she's the one that killed her mother," they ceased to let their children play in the hallways, and the landlord apologized, coughed, and raised the rent. Poor Charles saw the point and did not argue it. He looked for other lodgings and having found 'em went home and said to Mary, "It's too noisy here. Sister—I can't stand it—we'll have to go!"
Charles was a literary man now: a bookkeeper by day and a literary man by night. He wrote to please his sister, and all his jokes were for her. There is a genuine vein of pathos in all true humor, but think of the fear and the love and the tenderness that are concealed in Charles Lamb's work that was designed only to fight off dread calamity! And Mary copied and read and revised for her brother, and he told it all to her before he wrote it, and together they discussed it in detail. Charles studied mathematics, just to keep his genius under, he declared. Mary smiled and said it wasn't necessary.
Coleridge used to drop in, and the Stoddarts, Hazlitts, Godwin and Lovell, too. Then Southey was up in London and he called, and so did Wordsworth and Dorothy, for Coleridge had spread Lamb's fame. And Dorothy and Mary kissed each other and held hands under the table, and when Dorothy went back to Grasmere she wrote many beautiful letters to Mary and urged her to come and visit her—yes, come to Grasmere and live. The one point they held in common was a love for Coleridge; and as he belonged to neither there was no room for jealousy. The Fricker girls were all safely married, but Charles and Mary could not think of going—they needs must hide in a big city. "I hate your damned throstles and larks and bobolinks," said C.L., in feigned contempt. "I sing the praises of the 'Salutation and the Cat' and a snug fourth-floor back."
They could not leave London, for over them ever hung that black cloud of a mind diseased.
"I can do nothing—think nothing. Mary has another of her bad spells—we saw it coming, and I took her away to a place of safety," writes Charles to Coleridge.
One writer tells of seeing Charles and Mary walking across Hampstead Heath, hand in hand, both crying. They were on the way to the asylum.
Fortunately these "illnesses" gave warning and Charles would ask his employer leave for a "holiday," and stay at home trying by gentle mirth and work to divert the dread visitor of unreason.
After each illness, in a few weeks the sister would be restored to her own, very weak and her mind a blank as to what had gone before. And so she never remembered that supreme calamity. She knew the deed had been done, but Heaven had absolved her gentle spirit from all participation in it. She often talked of her mother, wrote of her, quoted her, and that they should sometime be again united was her firm faith.
The "Tales from Shakespeare" was written at the suggestion of Godwin, seconded by Charles. The idea that she herself could write seemed never to have occurred to Mary, until Charles swore with a needless oath that all the ideas he ever had she supplied.
"Charles, dear, you've been drinking again!" said Mary. But the "Tales" sold and sold well; fame came that way and more money than the simple, plain, homekeeping bodies needed. So they started a pension-roll for sundry old ladies, and to themselves played high and mighty patron, and figured and talked and joked over the blue teacups as to what they should do with their money—five hundred pounds a year! Goodness gracious, if the Bank of England gets in a pinch advise C.L., at Thirty-four Southampton Buildings, third floor, second turning to the left but one.
A Mrs. Reynolds was one of the pensioners, but no one knew it but Mrs. Reynolds, and she never told. She was a Lady of the Old School, and used often to dine with the Lambs and get her snuffbox filled. Her husband had been a ship-captain or something, and when the tea was strong she would take snuff and tell the visitors about him and swear she had ever been true to his memory, though God knows all good-looking and clever widows are sorely tried in this scurvy world!
Mrs. Reynolds met Thomas Hood at a "Saturday Evening" at the Lambs', and he was so taken with her that he has told us "she looked like an elderly wax doll in half-mourning, and when she spoke it was as if by an artificial process; she always kept up the gurgle and buzz until run down."
Mrs. Reynolds' sole claim to literary distinction was the fact that she had known Goldsmith and he had presented her with an inscribed copy of "The Deserted Village."
But we all have a tender place in our hearts for the elderly wax doll because the Lambs were so gentle and patient with her, and once a year went to Highgate and put a shilling vase of flowers over the grave of the Captain to whose memory she was ever true.
These friendless old souls used to meet and mix at the Lambs' with those whose names are now deathless. You can not write the history of English Letters and leave the Lambs out. They were the loved and loving friends of Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, De Quincey, Jeffrey and Godwin. They won the recognition of all who prize the far-reaching intellect—the subtle imagination. The pathos and tenderness of their lives entwine us with tendrils that hold our hearts in thrall.
They adopted a little girl, a beautiful little girl by the name of Emma Isola. And never was there child that was a greater joy to parents than was Emma Isola to Charles and Mary. The wonder is they did not spoil her with admiration, and by laughing at all her foolish little pranks. Mary set herself the task of educating this little girl, and formed a class the better to do it—a class of three: Emma Isola, William Hazlitt's son and Mary Victoria Novello. I met Mary Victoria once; she's over eighty years of age now. Her form is a little bent, but her eye is bright and her smile is the smile of youth. Folks call her Mary Cowden-Clarke.
And I want you to remember, dearie, that it was Mary Lamb who introduced the other Mary to Shakespeare, by reading to her the manuscript of the "Tales." And further, that it was the success of the "Tales" that fired Mary Cowden-Clarke with an ambition also to do a great Shakespearian work. There may be a question about the propriety of calling the "Tales" a great work—their simplicity seems to forbid it—but the term is all right when applied to that splendid life-achievement, the "Concordance," of which Mary Lamb was the grandmother.
Emma Isola married Edward Moxon, and the Moxon home was the home of Mary Lamb whenever she wished to make it so, to the day of her death. The Moxons did good by stealth, and were glad they never awoke and found it fame.
"What shall I do when Mary leaves me, never to return?" once said Charles to Manning. But Mary lived for full twenty years after Charles had gone, and lived only in loving memory of him who had devoted his life to her. She seemed to exist just to talk of him and to garland the grave in the little old churchyard at Edmonton, where he sleeps. Wordsworth says, "A grave is a tranquillizing object: resignation in time springs up from it as naturally as wild flowers bespread the turf." Her work was to look after the "pensioners" and carry out the wishes of "my brother Charles."
But the pensioners were laid away to rest, one after the other, and the gentle Mary, grown old and feeble, became a pensioner, too, but thanks to that divine humanity that is found in English hearts, she never knew it. To the last, she looked after "the worthy poor," and carried flowers once a year to the grave of the gallant Captain Reynolds at Highgate, and never tired of sounding the praises of Charles and excusing the foibles of Coleridge. She lived only in the past, and its loving memories were more than a ballast 'gainst the ills of the present.
And so she went down into the valley and entered the great shadow, telling in cheerful, broken musings of a brother's love.
And then she was carried to the churchyard at Edmonton. There she rests in the grave with her brother. In life they were never separated, and in death they are not divided.