Charles Lamb was an English essayist, poet, and children’s book writer most closely associated with the Romantic era that saw expanded expressionism and nationalist pride introduced to all aspects of the arts, from literature to music to painting. Lamb himself took as his subjects memory, kinship, and mischief, while taking issue with many of the social and religious mores of his modernizing and industrializing England. His biographer Barry Cornwall remarked, “Lamb pitied all objects which had been neglected or despised,” and a sense of sympathy pervades his work, whether those pitiful “objects” are items or people.
Lamb was born in London, the middle child of Elizabeth Field and John Lamb. He had a significantly older brother also named John, and a younger sister named Mary. While he was raised with modest means in London, the parts of his childhood that he wrote about concerned his time with his grandmother at a mansion she maintained for a rich person that did not live there. During his youth, Lamb fell in love with a woman named Ann Simmons, who became his great unrequited love after she married a silversmith. She appears in Lamb’s sonnets and essays under the moniker “Alice M.”
Lamb wrote in specific genres during distinct periods of his life. He launched his literary career with sonnets published by fellow English Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and spent much of his early career writing poetry. His love of Shakespeare lead to him collaborate with his sister Mary on a book of adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays called Tales from Shakespeare, which would become the most successful of his writings. It wasn’t until 1820, when Lamb was 45 years old, that he would publish the first of his Elia essays, but this form ultimately became his main outlet for the rest of his writing career.
Professionally, Lamb never relied on his writing as his main source of income, instead choosing to work as a clerk at a number of London banks, most notably at the South Sea House, which perpetuated an infamous hoax and was the subject of Lamb’s first Elia essay, “The South-Sea House.”
In addition to writing Tales of Shakespeare with his sister, Lamb enjoyed a profoundly close relationship with her. Partially, this was through a kind of mutual dependence, as they relied on each other while remaining unmarried. But predominately, Lamb was his sister’s caretaker. One of the best known stories about Mary is a grim one: in an impulsive fit, Mary stabbed their mother to death with a kitchen knife, and Charles was the first to discover what happened. Mary was declared insane by the courts and spared punishment on the stipulation that she be put in Charles’ care. Charles grew estranged from his older brother John, but incredibly close to Mary.
The story of Lamb and his sister, though, is not exactly a tragic one. In fact, their literary careers blossomed in the period of years after the murder. Tales from Shakespeare was published nearly a decade after the incident, and the siblings were the center of a robust literary circle which included prominent Romanticists of the time, including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Lamb’s final books were the Essays of Elia and Last Essays of Elia collections, which would define his literary legacy. He died at age 59, after falling in the street and subsequently succumbing to an infection caused by a large cut on his face.