In This Article Charles and Mary Lamb

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Editions
  • Letters
  • Biographies and Biographical Writing
  • Guides to Criticism and Bibliography
  • Tales from Shakespeare
  • Writing for, and about, Children
  • The Lambs’ Afterlives

British and Irish Literature Charles and Mary Lamb
by
Felicity James
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0035

Introduction

From the beginning of his literary career, Charles Lamb’s writing has proved hard to categorize and to critique. His writing, and the writing of his sister, spans period and genre, from the 1790s to the 1830s: it reflects 18th-century literature, responding to Cowper and to earlier essayists, but it is also in dialogue with Romantic contemporaries and was also important for Victorian writers and even modernist authors. The Lambs’ writing cuts across different categories: essays, children’s writing, poetry, and drama. If the Lambs are tricky to categorize in literary terms, their politics, similarly, are hard to define. An Anti-Jacobin cartoon of 1798 by Gillray, accompanying a poem entitled “New Morality,” famously places Lamb and his poetic collaborator Charles Lloyd at the center of a bestiary of radical thinkers and writers: Lamb and Lloyd are transmuted into a small frog and toad, clutching a copy of their volume Blank Verse while Jacobin sympathizers caper around them. Yet Robert Southey, also featured in the cartoon, expressed amazement at finding his friend Lamb in such company and wondered what he was doing to be “croaking” there. This confusion over where and how to place Lamb has resonated through criticism ever since, and has, to some extent, also affected his sister Mary’s writing. Lamb is of the same generation as the Lake School, a Christ’s Hospital boy alongside Samuel Taylor Coleridge, early reader of Lyrical Ballads, as well as visitor and critic of Wordsworth and Southey. Yet he also has allegiances to the second generation of Romantics: Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Keats in particular. While he occasionally makes trenchant political statements and is responsible for some fierce satirical verse, his politics are always evasive. The genre which made his name, the familiar essay, is similarly difficult to categorize and has endured a long period of neglect, little-known to general readers and rarely taught. The Lambs’ cultural and social position, as the well-educated children of servants, is equally difficult to read. Victorian readers tended to deal with the critical difficulties Lamb posed by turning him into a secular saint and reading his work through the lens of his self-sacrifice. Some 20th-century readers turned against him for the same reason (notably, the Leavisite Denys Thompson in a chapter in Determinations: Critical Essays [1934]) seeing him as shrinking away from real engagement with political and social issues. More recently, however, the Lambs have attracted a new wave of critical attention that has grown steadily stronger in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This emphasizes their interactions with contemporaries and shaping influence over Romanticism, asking how we might profitably re-read the Lambs’ writing in a broader 18th-century and Romantic context. Mary Lamb has been the subject of rediscovery alongside other women writers, while Charles Lamb has been recontextualized as a periodical writer, politicized and metropolitan, engaging both with the local urban scene and its wider global repercussions. The time is right for a reevaluation of the Lambs’ critical heritage.

General Overviews

This is a selective article, and so focuses on groundbreaking late-20th- and early-21st- century work in Lamb studies rather than giving an overview of critical developments. Riehl 1998 provides a comprehensive guide to the different phases in Lamb criticism. Also important for Lamb scholarship is the Charles Lamb Bulletin, now with a website reproducing Bulletin issues from 1935–1977.

  • Charles Lamb Bulletin.

    E-mail Citation »

    An invaluable source of Lamb scholarship from its inception in 1935. The online edition features a wide range of articles on Lamb and his circle by leading scholars from journal issues pre-1977; post-1977 editions are not yet digitized.

  • Riehl, Joseph E. That Dangerous Figure: Charles Lamb and the Critics. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Essential reading for those seeking to understand the longer critical history of writing on the Lambs.

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