Charles Lamb

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Inner Temple, London
Birth Sign
Inner Temple, London

Charles Lamb was a Romantic-era English essayist, poet, fiction writer, and critic who remains one of the most beloved and widely read English essayists of all time. He was a prominent member of the Lake Poets, and close friends with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although he did not achieve the same level of popularity for his poetry as his friends Wordsworth and Coleridge, he later channeled his energies into writing prose and emerged as one of the greatest essayists of his generation in the process. Two of his collections, ‘Essays of Elia’ and ‘Tales from Shakespeare,’ are widely regarded as his finest essays. ‘Essays of Elia,’ a collection of autobiographical experiences and essays by Elia, the author’s fictitious character, is regarded as one of the finest examples of the English essay and composition style. His other notable work, ‘Tales from Shakespeare,’ which he co-authored with his sister Mary Lamb, is a collection of Shakespeare plays adapted for children. Among his other notable works are ‘John Woodvil’, ‘Ulysses’, ‘On Shakespeare’s Tragedies’, and ‘Witches and Other Night Fears’.

Childhood & Adolescence

He was born in London on February 10, 1775, as the youngest child of John Lamb and Elizabeth Field. His father was a law clerk. His brothers John and Mary were many years his senior. He was particularly close to his maternal grandmother Mrs. Field and paternal aunt Hetty.

Mary taught him to read, and he later came under the tutelage of Mrs. Reynolds, with whom he remained in contact for the remainder of his life.

At the age of seven, he enrolled in ‘Christ’s Hospital. It was at this free boarding school that he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge and formed a lifelong friendship. He remained a student at the school until 1789.

Career of Lamb

He had a life-long stuttering problem, which precluded him from pursuing a clerical career. Following a brief stint in the office of a London merchant, Joseph Paice, he joined the South Sea House’s Examiner’s Office, where he held a small post until February 8, 1792.

On April 5, 1792, he joined the ‘East India House,’ the ‘East India Company’s’ headquarters, as a clerk in the Accounts Office. He worked for the company for more than three decades, retiring in 1825.

Charles developed a severe alcoholism. In 1795, he was forced to spend six weeks in an asylum. On September 22, 1796, his elder sister Mary stabbed and killed their mother Elizabeth in a fit of rage. Following an investigation, it was determined that Mary was suffering from a temporary mental illness. Charles Lamb was entrusted with Mary’s custody.

Lamb and his sister maintained an active social life with a number of notable literary and theatrical figures. Coleridge was a close childhood friend, and later in life, Lamb met William Wordsworth; both remained lifelong friends.

He met a number of young writers in London who advocated for political reform, including Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

On April 16, 1796, his first literary work appeared in Coleridge’s first volume of ‘Poems on Various Subjects,’ which included four Lamb poems.

In 1798, he published his romantic prose ‘A Tale of Rosamund’. His works were published alongside those of Charles Lloyd in the book ‘Black Verse’ the following year.

Mary permanently relocated with Charles following his father’s death in 1799. However, her insanity was recurrent, and she was admitted to the asylum numerous times.

From around 1801 on, he began writing short articles for London newspapers in order to support himself and his sister Mary.

In 1802, he published the poetic tragedy ‘John Woodvil,’ which was not a success. When ‘Mr. H’, his two-act farce, was performed at the ‘Drury Lane Theatre’ in 1807, it was booed.

One of his most notable works, ‘Tales from Shakespeare,’ was published in 1807 alongside his sister Mary Lamb. It is a children’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays, with he working on the tragedies and Mary on the comedies.

He retold Shakespeare’s works while interspersing his own critical commentary on the plays. Numerous his critical essays on Shakespeare, as well as William Hogarth, were published in Hunt’s quarterly magazine ‘Reflector.’

In 1808, Charles Lamb published ‘The Adventures of Ulysses,’ a children’s adaptation of ‘Odyssey. The same year, he published ‘Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived Around the Time of Shakespeare,’ a collection of excerpts from Elizabethan dramas.

Following that, in 1809, Charles and Mary published ‘Mrs. Leicester’s School. In 1823, Lamb published ‘Essays of Elia,’ a collection of essays that contains an autobiographical account of the experiences of Elia, an invented character created by Lamb. Previously, the essays were serialized in the ‘London Magazine,’ the UK’s oldest literary journal.

However, in the January 1823 issue of the ‘Quarterly review,’ Robert Southey published a critical review of ‘Essays of Elia’ in which he painted Lamb as irreligious. Lamb retaliated by writing a letter to Southey and publishing it in the ‘London Magazine’ in October 1823, expressing his belief that being a dissenter from the Church does not imply being an irreligious man.

‘The Young Catechist’, ‘On The Lord’s Prayer’, ‘Composed at Midnight’, and ‘A Vision Of Repentance’ are just a few of his numerous poems that reflect his faith, while ‘Living Without God In The World’ expresses his dissent for atheism.
Among his other notable works are ‘On Shakespeare’s Tragedies’ (1811), ‘Witches and Other Night Fears’ (1821), ‘The Pawnbroker’s Daughter’ (1825), and ‘Elia’s Final Essays’ (1825). (1833).

Significant Works of Lamb

Lamb’s collaboration with his sister Mary, ‘Tales from Shakespeare,’ became a bestseller in William Godwin’s ‘Children’s Library.

His collection of essays, ‘Essays of Elia,’ is widely regarded as one of the most significant works on the English essay and composition styles.

Personal History and Legacies

His first alleged love interest was Ann Simmons in 1792, who appears under the pseudonym ‘Alice M’ in a number of his Elia essays. After a failed love affair, Simmons married a silversmith.

He fell in love with actress Fanny Kelly once more, but was rejected when Kelly declined his marriage proposal. In 1823, he and his sister adopted an orphan girl named Emma Isola.

As his sister’s episodes of insanity increased in frequency, he relocated to Edmonton in 1833 to ensure Mary had constant care from her nurse. Emma married Edward Moxon, a friend of Lamb, the same year, and Lamb became increasingly lonely and depressed.

On December 27, 1834, he died of erysipelas caused by a fall in the street. He was laid to rest in the ‘All Saints’ Churchyard’ in Edmonton. Mary was buried alongside him following her death in 1847.

Estimated Net Worth

The net worth of Lamb is $7million.


He is commemorated by one of the six houses at Edmonton’s ‘The Latymer School.’ With his epitaph poem ‘Written After The Death Of Charles Lamb,’ William Wordsworth paid tribute to his friend (1835; 1836).