Charles Lamb

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Charles Lamb (1775-1834)
Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

Charles Lamb (London, 10 February 1775 – Edmonton, 27 December 1834) was an English essayist with Welsh heritage, best known for his Essays of Elia and for the children's book Tales from Shakespeare, which he produced along with his sister, Mary Lamb (1764–1847).

Lamb was the youngest child of John Lamb, a lawyer's clerk. He was born in Crown Office Row, Inner Temple, London, and spent his youth there, later going away to school at Christ's Hospital. There he formed a close friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge which would last for many years. After leaving school in 1789 at age 14, "an inconquerable impediment" in his speech disqualified him for a clerical career. For a short time he worked in the office of Joseph Paice, a London merchant, and then for twenty-three weeks, until 8 February 1792, he held a small post in the Examiner's Office of the South Sea House. Its subsequent downfall in a pyramid scheme after Lamb left would be contrasted to the company's prosperity in the first Elia essay. On April 5, 1792 he went to work in the Accountant's Office for British East India Company, the death of his father's employer having ruined the family's fortunes.

Charles and his sister Mary both suffered periods of mental illness, and Charles spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital during 1795. He was, however, already making his name as a poet. On September 22, 1796, a terrible event occurred: Mary, "worn down to a state of extreme nervous misery by attention to needlework by day and to her mother at night," was seized with acute mania and stabbed her mother to the heart with a table knife. With the help of friends Lamb succeeded in obtaining his sister's release from what would otherwise have been lifelong imprisonment, on the condition that he take personal responsibility for her safekeeping. In 1799, John Lamb died, leaving Charles, aged 24, to carry on as best he could. Mary came to live again with him in Pentonville, and in 1800 they set up a shared home at Mitre Court Buildings in the Temple, where they lived until 1809.

Charles Lamb Memorial on Watch House Gilspur Street, London
Charles Lamb Memorial on Watch House Gilspur Street, London

Despite Lamb's bouts of melancholia, both he and his sister enjoyed an active and rich social life. Their London quarters became a kind of weekly salon for many of the most outstanding theatrical and literary figures of the day. Charles Lamb, having been to school with Samuel Coleridge, counted Coleridge as perhaps his closest, and certainly his oldest, friend. On his deathbed, Coleridge had a mourning ring sent to Lamb and his sister. Fortuitously, Lamb's first publication was in 1796, when four sonnets by "Mr. Charles Lamb of the India House" appeared in Coleridge's Poems on Various Subjects. In 1797 he contributed additional blank verse to the second edition, and met the Wordsworths, William and Dorothy, on his short summer holiday with Coleridge at Nether Stowey, thereby also striking up a lifelong friendship with William. In London, Lamb became familiar with a group of young writers who favored political reform, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt.

Lamb continued to clerk for the East India Company and doubled as a writer in various genres, his tragedy, John Woodvil, being published in 1802. His farce, Mr H, was performed at Drury Lane in 1807, where it was roundly booed. In the same year, Tales from Shakespeare (Charles handled the tragedies; his sister Mary, the comedies) was published, and became a best seller for William Godwin's "Children's Library."

In 1819, at age 44, Lamb, who, because of family commitments, had never married, fell in love with an actress, Fanny Kelly, of Covent Garden, and proposed marriage. She refused him, and he died a bachelor. His collected essays, under the title Essays of Elia, were published in 1823 ("Elia" being the pen name Lamb used as a contributor to The London Magazine). A further collection was published ten years or so later, shortly before Lamb's death. He died of an infection, erysipelas, contracted from a cut on his face, on December 29, 1834, just a few months after Coleridge. From about 1828 Charles and Mary lived in Church Street, Edmonton, north of London (now in the borough of Enfield. Lamb is buried in All Saints' Churchyard, Edmonton. His sister, who was ten years his senior, survived him for more than a dozen years. She is buried beside him.


  • "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once." - featured in the To Kill a Mockingbird preface.
  • "Man is a gaming animal. He must always be trying to get the better in something or other." - features in the Essays of Elia, 1823.

Selected works

  • Blank Verse, poetry, 1798
  • Pride's Cure, poetry, 1802
  • Tales from Shakespeare, 1807
  • The Adventures Of Ulysses, 1808
  • Specimens of English Dramatic poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare, 1808
  • On The Tragedies Of Shakepeare, 1811
  • Essays Of Elia, 1823
  • The Last Essays Of Elia, 1833
  • Walter Jerrold, Charles Lamb, available at Project Gutenberg.
  • Essays by Charles Lamb at
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