July 2013

Mary Mann

An Attempt

Charles Lamb: The Original Neurotic

Long before Woody Allen made anxiety ubiquitous, Charles Lamb copped to all sorts of neuroses. "I am constitutionally susceptible to noises," he admitted in "A Chapter on Ears," and as a kid he was subject to night terrors: "I never laid my head on my pillow, I suppose, from the fourth to the seventh or eighth year of my life -- so far as memory serves in things so long ago -- without an assurance, which realized its own prophecy, of seeing some frightful spectre" ("Witches, and Other Night Fears"). Above all, he feared change: "I am naturally, beforehand, shy of novelties," he wrote in "New Year's Eve," "new books, new faces, new years, -- from some mental twist which makes it difficult for me to face the prospective."

Though Lamb wrote under the pen name of Elia, the anxious persona he created was not an exaggeration -- he was, if anything, playing down his psychological turbulence. Charles Lamb and his sister and close confidante, Mary, both suffered from mental illness, which surged and ebbed throughout their lives. Lamb's first stint in an asylum occurred when he was just twenty. Afterwards, he wrote to his friend, the poet Samuel Coleridge: "I am got (sic) somewhat rational now, and don't bite any one. But mad I was and many a vagary my imagination played with me, -- enough to make a volume, if all were told." But this was nothing compared to Mary's first known brush with madness: in 1796, thirty-two-year-old Mary -- who was caring for her bedridden mother, her senile father, her injured brother John and an elderly aunt, as well as supporting them all by working as a seamstress -- finally reached a breaking point. She stabbed their mother to death. To Coleridge, Lamb wrote: "I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp."

Contrary to expectations, this did not drive the siblings apart. Mary was sentenced to an asylum instead of jail or a hanging, and she eventually came to live with Lamb. "We house together, old bachelor and maid," wrote Lamb in "Mackery End, in Hertfordshire," "in a sort of double singleness."

For the rest of their lives they supported each other through their illnesses seemingly without resentment: she checked into a mental facility whenever she felt that her madness was returning, and he experienced regular bouts of depression and alcoholism all his life. Yet on the whole, they seemed to live together happily, and often entertained friends. "If she does not always divide your trouble," wrote Lamb of his sister, "upon the pleasanter occasions of life she is sure always to treble your satisfaction."

The phrasing is light enough for this to be humorous, but the allusion to an unnamed trouble left undivided (a day of depression? a night of drinking? another stint in the asylum?) adds a tinge of melancholy and a hint of adversity to the picturesque household scene. Lamb was not simply writing about a family member he's fond of -- there would be little in that theme to engage the disinterested reader -- the subtext is deeper: how two flawed people could hold each other up. In another essay, "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist," he seems to use card-playing strategy to illustrate how the Lambs joined forces against unfortunate circumstances and genes: "You glory in some surprising stroke of skill or fortune, not because a... by-stander witnesses it, but because your partner sympathises in the contingency. You win for two. You triumph for two. Two are exalted. Two again are mortified."

This is the struggle in which Lamb, as Elia, is forever engaged: the struggle to work, socialize, and enjoy life in the shadow of madness and tragedy. His struggle for changeless normalcy -- and the anxiety that its elusiveness provokes -- gives tension to his essays, and is almost always the source of the "lightning crack of genius" that Virginia Woolf praised in Lamb's work.

Lamb's neuroses not only give his essays the weight they need to move the reader, they also soften his character, thus taking the edge off any spitefulness that may be perceived in his humor.

More often than not, his friends and family were the substance of his essays -- though he never uses real names -- and many of them served at one time or another as the butt of a joke. In "That You Must Love Me and Love My Dog," for example, Lamb harrumphs over the fact that certain friends always come with companions -- whether it be a dog who bites or an insufferable spouse -- and it inevitably leads to a decline in the friendship. "What a delightful companion is ****," he wrote, "if he did not always bring his tall cousin with him." The tone of this essay is playful and open to interpretation -- perhaps this really is an annoying trait of ****, or maybe it was just one of Lamb's hang-ups. He was quick to poke fun, yet managed to come across as exceedingly gentle. "The good things of life are not to be had singly," he wrote in the same essay, touching a chord of youthful vulnerability, "but come to us with a mixture; like a schoolboy's holiday, with a task affixed to the tail of it."

This vulnerable, anxious, apologetic tone accomplishes for Lamb's essays what his lifelong stutter accomplished for him in mixed company: it "took the sting off his witticisms" as Philip Lopate wrote in the foreword to Essays of Elia. We are halfway towards forgiveness already when a barbed joke is told in a stutter.

His stutter was not always helpful. In his school days, this speech impediment had deprived him of the necessary academic status to attend university. Lamb had to continue his studies on his own terms, and he enjoyed both making fun of both his own scholarly pretensions and those of his more educated friends. He excelled at spoofing academic writing, gleefully using highfalutin language even when -- especially when -- a single, simple word would do quite easily. A cottage becomes "a sorry anti-diluvian makeshift of a building" and chickens are "those tame villatic fowl." This style is the only aspect of Lamb's essays that hasn't aged well; modern readers have to train their eyes to weed through thickets of prose barbed with thys and therefores and whences in order to get to the good stuff, but the good stuff -- from sparkling wit to emotional acuity -- is there in abundance.

While his friends went off to Cambridge, Lamb was forced into accounting, where he remained until retirement. He got some good comedic bits out of the experience, but it's clear that he did not enjoy it. "Besides my daylight servitude," he wrote in "The Superannuated Man," "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 my soul."

This job, however odious, may have helped Lamb latch onto such a distinctive tone -- because writing wasn't his sole source of income, he was able to take the time to find his voice. Early attempts at playwriting failed, and he dabbled in criticism and journalism, but he did not begin Essays of Elia until his mid-forties. It was a hit.

As one of the first neurotic essayists, Lamb's writing was especially fresh. Max Beerbohm was cranky, William Hazlitt fiery, Michel de Montaigne self-deprecating, but none had his particular psychological blend: depression, fear, anxiety, shyness, and, most of all, the humor that allowed him to use these flaws, not bury them. He found the most gigglingly absurd aspect to a depressing situation (such as the oppressed accountant who would "chirp, and expand, over a muffin!"), and made a caricature of his anxiety ("I encounter pell-mell with past disappointments. I am armour-proof against old discouragements. I forgive, or overcome in fancy, old adversaries.") These days this sounds like a familiar formula, but at the time it was novel; the word "neurosis" had only just been coined in 1769, six years before Lamb's birth, and it wouldn't really be put into use until Freud came along, decades after Lamb's death.

Part of the reason for his angst, he posited, was his bachelorhood. In "New Year's Eve" Lamb laments that "being without wife or family, I have not learned to project myself out of myself; and having no offspring of my own to dally with, I turn back upon memory..." Yet, though he never had any biological children, his literary progeny today are among the most successful practitioners of the form. From David Sedaris to Sloane Crosley, Augustine Burroughs to Geoff Dyer, our modern-day humorists carry on in the style of Lamb -- slightly nerdy, awkward neurotics, each humorous at their own expense and vulnerable in his or her own way.