Charles Lamb: Thanksgiving

“The most loveable figure in English literature,” Charles Lamb (1775 – 1834) was a member of the Lake poets group whose writings, however admired by the Regency-era public, were held in contempt by certain critics for their high-flown language.  He struggled with his personal life, having to care for a sister who murdered their mother and failing to win the heart of his beloved after years of courtship.

This blog has referenced him from time to time–on his adoration of Wordsworth‘s honesty, and his opinion that William Godwin’s new wife, the successor to Mary Wollenstonecraft, was a bitch.

Lawyers, he supposed, “were children once (!)” Charles Lamb by Hazlitt

With Thanksgiving upon us, his essay, “Grace Before Meat,” (1823)  seems an appropriate work to examine. One of several from his famed Essays of Elia, the piece attacks that long-lived ritual of saying grace before meals:

“Gluttony and surfeiting are no proper occasions for thanksgiving.”

Fustian, I say!

For Lamb, the matter was a serious one. He was preoccupied with the rising materialism of the age. He’d been known for remaining aloof of his countrymen’s increasing appetite for earthly pleasures. He read the New Testament and Psalms regularly. He despised organized religion.

Fellow Lake poet Robert Southey, he who “wooed Liberty as his mistress and married disreputable Legitimacy,” publicly condemned Lamb as irreligious.

But what is the point, Lamb asks?

I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem.

Such a  sentiment is completely inappropriate to the occasion…

When I have sate (a rarus hospes) at rich men’s tables, with the savoury soup and messes steaming up the nostrils…the ravenous orgasm upon you (!), it seems impertinent to interpose a religious sentiment.

…particularly as the occasion itself is rather hedonistic:

The heats of epicurism put out the gentle flame of devotion. The incense which rises round is pagan, and the belly-god intercepts it for his own.

..such that the one who has to say it is made to feel awkward:

I have observed this awkwardness felt, scarce consciously perhaps, by the good man who says the grace. I have seen it in clergymen and others — a sort of shame — a sense of the co-presence of circumstances which unhallow the blessing.

…and cannot be certain in knowing what to say:

A short form upon these occasions is felt to want reverence; a long one, I am afraid, cannot escape the charge of impertinence.

Borrowing an old joke from the playwright Sheridan*, Lamb suggests the following (tongue-in-cheek) for saying grace:

 “Is there no clergyman here?” — significantly adding, “thank G—.”

Blame it on the belly-god.

Even Charles Lamb could not quibble with this scene

*Lamb once said that the Irish playwright “ran through each mode of the lyre, and was master of all.”

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Regency Love: My Little Comet

It  has recently come to light that Sir John Lethbridge of Sandhill Park fathered an illegitimate daughter with Mary Jane Vial, who married her neighbor, the gothic novelist and anarchist (!), William Godwin. He was the widower of Mary Wollenstonecraft. Most of Godwin’s friends despised his new wife.

Charles Lamb called her a bitch.

Mary Jane’s daughter was then known as Jane. She was a hurly-burly, forward sort of girl who somehow managed to form a close relationship with her new stepsister, the reserved Mary Godwin.  No sort of adventure was beyond Jane. They say she promoted her stepsister’s elopement with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, if only to get away from home. Those six weeks they trekked across Europe are summed up in Jane’s observation of her prim stepsister:

From Rousseau's Confessions

From Rousseau’s Confessions

..we came to a clear running shallow stream, and Shelley entreated the Driver to stop while he from under a bank could bathe himself – and he wanted Mary to do the same as the Bank sheltered one from every eye – but Mary would not – first, she said it would be most indecent, and then also she had no towel and could not dry herself – He said he would gather leaves from the trees and she could dry herself with those but she refused and said how could he think of such a thing?

— from “Claire Clairmont and Mary Shelley: identification and rivalry within the ‘tribe of the Otaheite philosopher’s’ ” by Deidre Coleman

They were all reading entirely too much Rousseau, who liked to explore alternative domestic arrangements, particularly in his Confessions: La Nouvelle Heloise.  The female characters of Confessions seemed very like the two stepsisters. Julie was prim like Mary and naturally Jane saw herself as vivacious Clara. She began to call herself Claire, longing to act out Rousseau’s drama with her stepsister and husband, as a “household for three.”

But there was conflict, and instead it was a love triangle.

Shelley rather saw himself and his wife as a tranquil constellation upset by the importunities of his fair sister-in-law, disruptive as a comet:

“Comet beautiful and fierce/Who drew the heart of this frail Universe/ Towards thine own; till/ wrecked in that convulsion/Alternating attraction and repulsion/ Thine went astray and that was rent in twain.” — Epipsychidion

The trio eventually returned to England ignominiously and without funds. Much had been made of their relationship. Shelley’s friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, chortled that Shelley had two wives. Coleman offers another theory: that the love triangle was not seen by Claire with the male “on top.” Her position in the triangle was, predictably, at the apex point.

Scarlett - a comet, too

Scarlett – a comet, too

Restless, Claire set off an adventure of her own. She sought out Lord Byron to initiate an affair with him. He was later to protest to his disapproving half-sister:

“What could I do? — a foolish girl — in spite of all I could say or do — would come after me — or rather went before me — for I found her here … I could not exactly play the Stoic with a woman — who had scrambled eight hundred miles to unphilosophize me.”

Again, a triangular relationship reemerges at Claire’s instigation. Shelley absolutely worshipped Byron. Yet it was not he Claire brought to the Great One’s notice–it was her half-sister she would draw into his orbit, writing:

“[Y]ou will I dare say fall in love with her; she is very handsome & very amiable & you will no doubt be blest in your attachment.”

But what men may indulge, women may not dream of. Byron called her a “little fiend” and her unconventional ways served to isolate her from others. Her predilection for the love triangle may have faded by the time became a governess in Russia, for she spurned two men at once, joking:

“I must really take great care of my poor heart lest I should not only fall in love with one but perhaps with both at once.”