Charles Lamb's Elia: Essays Which Have Appeared Under that Signature in the London Magazine was published in 1823. Ten years later came the Last Essays of Elia. Being a Sequel to Essays Published Under that Title. Since the revision of the Elia essays and their transition from periodical to monograph, scholars have chiefly focused on the collected versions of the essays while largely neglecting their original periodical context. For this reason, Simon Hull's book is an especially welcome reevaluation of Lamb's essay writing. A new installment of Pickering & Chatto's History of the Book Series, edited by Ann R. Hawkins, Hull's work complements two of the series' previous books on the nineteenth-century periodical press: Jonathan Cutmore's Contributors to the Quarterly Review: A History, 1809-1825 (2008) and the essays collected in Conservatism and the Quarterly Review: A Critical Analysis (2007), also edited by Cutmore.
Hull's impressive contribution arises from his examination of the Elia essays in the context of the London Magazine, which allows one to recognize what he calls the dialogic "extra-essayistic ontology of Elia" (11). By returning to the pages of the London Magazine, Hull untangles the political contexts of Lamb's essays as well as explaining their intertextual parody. In this way, Hull prompts us to reconsider Lamb's work and the periodical magazine itself as vehicles for an alternative Romanticism centered on ephemeral print and the metropolis. Though ostensibly about Lamb, Hull's work also helps define the role of industrialization and urbanization in Romantic literature. Indeed, one of Hull's most interesting arguments is that the work of famous essayists of the period--Lamb, Hunt, Hazlitt, De Quincey--actually constitutes a genre not necessarily defined by the essay form itself but by an ethos of Romantic metropolitanism. Hull explores the formal manifestations of dialogic metropolitanism in essays by Lamb and his contemporaries, whom he treats as "an urban counterpart to the Lake School" (5). Aligning Lamb's essays with famous Romantic fragments, Hull finds Lamb's metropolitanism exemplified by his ability to appropriate the fragmentary, anonymous, and commodified status of the periodical text. Rather than lamenting the fragmentizing effects of urban life, as Wordsworth does in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads or in Book VII of The Prelude, Lamb's essays embody and embrace the anonymous and commercial nature of the city and periodical writing.
Divided into five chapters with an introduction and conclusion, Hull's book traces related tropes in Lamb's Elia essays and other periodical works of the period. The first chapter, "Consuming the Periodical Text: Hunt, Hazlitt and the Anxiety of Cockneyism" links Lamb's periodical contributions (and periodical publication in general) to larger cultural anxieties about commercial authorship and fears that the popularity of ephemeral publications threatened more conventional literary genres. In essays such as "Oxford in the Vacation," "Mrs Battle's Opinions on Whist," and "Popular Fallacies," Hull sees a willingness to mock preoccupations with competitiveness and the venomous possibilities of periodical culture demonstrated so acutely by the Cockney School debates. By deemphasizing political themes, Hull argues, Lamb offers an alternative mode of periodical authorship and political engagement that is self-effacing, urban, and collective. The seemingly apolitical content and passive tone of Lamb's essays separate them sharply from both the competitive ethos of the London Magazine specifically and periodical publication in general. Yet here and in later chapters, Hull insists that the very act of contributing them to periodicals makes Lamb's essays political.
"Domesticating the Flâneur: Coleridge, De Quincey and the Forms of Metropolitanism" examines Lamb's work in the context of flânerie. Though Lamb's essayistic perspective is not so peripatetic as those of De Quincey and Hunt, Hull finds the Elia essays strongly informed by the trope of wandering. Lamb distinguishes his work, we learn, by domesticating and feminizing the flâneur. By means of form, content, and periodical context rather than by the narrator's movement, Lamb creates what Hull terms "essayistic flânerie" (82). Indeed, in essays such as "Witches and Other Night-Fears," "Confessions of a Drunkard," "Dream Children," and "The Decay of Beggars," the recurrence of physical and emotional lameness checks peripateticism and thus shifts the focus from physical wandering to imaginative and formal, generic wandering. In many of the Elian essays, Hull writes, "the point of departure and return for the wandering imagination [
] is typically and appropriately the domestic enclosure" (80). In Lamb's essays, feelings of attachment and community spring not from the rural retreats of the Lake School but from the city and its domestic, enclosed spaces.
Yet Lamb does not always cherish enclosure. In chapter three, "The Great Wen and the Rural Gothic," we learn that wherever he is--Oxford, Christ's Hospital, Mackery End, or Blakesmor--Elia resists the enclosing effect of both physical place and textual locus, as well as identity itself. Unlike previous scholars such as John Nabholtz, Hull draws heavily on the extra-essayistic material that informs both these individual essays and the slippery, dialogic project of Lamb's Elian identity in general. Particularly interesting is the examination of Elia's paratextual discourses, specifically the footnotes attached to "Oxford in Vacation," which were edited for the monograph versions of the essays and in some cases were removed altogether. Letters that appeared in the London Magazine after the publication of "Oxford in Vacation" only intensified the dubious connections between fact and fiction, especially the connection between the essay's "G.D." and George Dyer. In signing his replies to the letters "Elia," Lamb playfully undermined both authorial stability and the stability of print itself. Hull writes: "Because Lamb remains in the guise of his persona for paratextual discourse, thus leaving his correspondent in futile dispute with an unaccountable ghost, Elia achieves the ultimate act of emancipation, by ironically transcending the enclosure' of the Oxford essay itself" (96).
Elia plays several variations on the theme of enclosure. Turning to "Blakesmoor, in H--shire," "Dream-Children: A Reverie," and "Mackey End in Hertfordshire," Hull shows how these essays invert assumed, hierarchical dichotomies between the monstrous oppressiveness of urban life and the open freedom of rural life. For Lamb in these essays, Hull suggests, escape from the city tends to become a process of gothic decay. In "Mackery End," for instance, the startling disjunction between the remembered Mackery End and the actual building exemplifies the distortion of the familiar--a Gothic trope. Again and again in these essays, rural and urban change their places. While rural life and imagined domestic retreat eventually become disturbing, the return to normal, conscious urban life offers comfort and relief. In effect, Hull shows Lamb turning traditional rural/urban imagery on its head. In "Dream-Children" the return to consciousness and to urban life provides a relief from his disturbing visions. Similarly, in "Mackery End" the awkwardness of Elia's rural excursion marks an uncomfortable deviation from his urban life with Bridget.
The final two chapters, "Utility and Pity: Wordsworth, Blake and Eagan, and the Act of Charity" and "Lamb, Theatricality and the Fool" are the most historicist in the book. Hull places "The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers" and "A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis" in the context of the Poor Law debates. As in previous chapters, Hull finds political strands in essays typically considered passive, apolitical, or indifferent to politics. Hull argues, for instance, that the almost startling detachment of the opening to "The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers" is actually parodic and in the same lineage as Swift's A Modest Proposal. The Poor Law context of Lamb's essays sheds light on their political thrust, and Hull argues that by deciding not to involve himself in active labor reform projects "Lamb is not seeking to avoid the issue, but instead to engage with it as a fundamentally metropolitan issue on his own, appropriate terms" (131). Elia becomes a sort of urban everyman, arguing not for the moral relevance of beggars and charity but for their cultural importance.
The final chapters engagingly contrast Lamb's earlier essay writing with the more balanced though consciously slippery essays of Elia. Comparing earlier essays such as "Play-house Memoranda," with later essays such as "My First Play," Hull argues not so much that Lamb refines his writing techniques in the Elia essays but rather, and perhaps more importantly, that he deploys distinctive strategies in them. What we get from Hull's analysis, then, is not simply a more nuanced vision of their relation to Lamb's other work but also an understanding of the implications, especially political, of Elia's rhetorical techniques. Understanding the Elian essay technique in turn informs and supports the political arguments Hull makes. But Hull sometimes overstates the political import of the Elia essays. Indeed, to argue that Lamb's conscious political passivity signifies his engagement with contentious issues of his time strikes me as overly generous.
Reading Lamb in his periodical context, however, Hull illuminates his celebration and appropriation of a mass urban readership. In contrast to other Romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, who famously disparaged the "multitudinous PUBLIC" (Biographia Literaria, Chapter 3), Lamb's Elia essays celebrate the urban life and the printed forms that represent and cater to an urban audience. In glossing the London Magazine versions of these essays, Hull likewise salutes the urban mass audience of the Romantic era. In doing so, he demonstrates what we can gain by closely examining the original, periodical versions of essays known hitherto--for the most part--only in their final, monographic form.
Lindsey Eckert is a candidate for the PhD in English and Book History at the University of Toronto. Elsewhere on this site she reviews the Dickson-Douglass edition of The Works of Lady Caroline Lamb.