*Speakers: Alison Dellit (A), Gillian Russell (G)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 12 July 2018
A: Welcome to the National Library of Australia, I’m Alison Dellit, I’m the Assistant Director General of National Collections Access which means that I am in charge of the digitisation program in Trove. And it’s my great pleasure to introduce you to our guest speaker this evening, Professor Gillian Russell.
As we begin I want to acknowledge that we are meeting tonight on Aboriginal land and pay my respects to elders past and present. I want to offer a special welcome to all first nations people who are present tonight which is of course a meeting in the middle of NAIDOC Week which is asking us to remember Because of her, we can.
Gillian actually completed her National Library Fellowship residency in early May and has since enjoyed one of those enviable peripatetic itineraries of the modern academic even if somewhat exhausting. In June she undertook a four-week fellowship of the Huntington Library in California which is of course highly admired by librarians because it boasts a Chaucer manuscript, a Guttenberg Bible and a Shakespeare first folio amongst its treasures. Last week she returned from a conference on the prolific Anglo-Irish novelist, Maria Edgeworth, which was held at the University of York and Elizabeth – and Gillian will be taking up a professorship in 18th century studies there in September.
Gillian was born in Northern Ireland and is a graduate of Queens University, Belfast and the University of Cambridge where she completed her PhD in English literature in 1987. Since arriving in Australia in 1989 Gillian’s main field of scholarship has been British and Irish culture of the 18th and 19th century, an interdisciplinary mix focusing on theatre, military history, print culture, sociability and gender. Her posts have included Professor of English at ANU from 2009 to 2014 and the Gerry Higgins Professor of Irish Studies at University of Melbourne from 2014 to 2016. She has also been published by both Oxford and Cambridge University Presses and is possibly best known for her much cited 1995 book, The Theatres of War, Performance, Politics and Society, 1793 to 1815.
Despite this somewhat overachieving bio Gillian is very self-effacing and one of the many achievements she doesn’t talk about but is very dear to the National Library’s heart is that she is the leading expert on the oldest surviving document printed in Australia which is the 1796 Playbill. This historic piece of Australiana, which you can see downstairs in our Treasures Gallery, was presented to the Library by the Canadian Government in 2007 so relatively recently, after being found in a box of Canadian ephemera by a rare books bibliographer.
Gillian was awarded the 2018 Fellowship for Research into Australian Literature and she has used this to investigate the readership and popularity of writer, Charles Lamb in 19th century Australia. The fellowship is sponsored by the Ray Matthew and Eva Kollsman Trust which is a generous bequest made by Eva Kollsman to support and promote Australian writing in memory of Australian poet and playwright, Ray Matthew. Gillian’s 12-week research in pursuit of Lamb and his Australian readership is somewhat apt given that at the time that we’re writing the ways that we consume books, both across cultural and geographic boundaries, are changing. Obviously this is dear to my heart, working on Trove, that the relationship of eBooks, online booksellers, tablets and interactive books are mixing up the space in which readers engage with books that are written.
Throughout this whole element, though what we see is an enduring of the love of a reader to a book and the process of change that can go around the format and the engagement that carries us through. Gillian’s topic has at its heart this love that finds expression in books and in reading and as we are about to hear Lamb was a lover of books. He and his books were both loved by readers. Charles Prance loved collecting Lamb’s books and Prance’s collection now resides in our Library for booklovers present and future.
So we’re very fortunate tonight to hear how Gillian approached researching the love of Lamb’s books through the lens of Prance’s love of books and what she might have learned more generally about the nature of booklove. Please welcome Professor Gillian Russell.
G: Thank you very much, Alison, for that very generous introduction. On my very first visit to the NLA in the late 1980s I was given a book by the then Rare Books librarian, Margaret Dent, a bibliography of the Library’s wonderful collection of French plays from the 18th and 19th centuries. And I remember being astonished by this gesture, a library that gave books away for free. I’ve been the grateful recipient of another gift from the NLA in 2018, three months of immersing myself in the Library’s collection of material on the British romantic writer, Charles Lamb. The core of this collection consists of books and manuscripts collected by Claude Prance, an English-born banker who was resident in Canberra for the last years of his life for about 20 years. Prance was a dedicated scholar and collector of the works of Lamb and his circles.
Now Charles Lamb’s particularly relevant to the ideal of fellowship because of firstly his own dedication to conversation, friendship, the sharing of time and ideas and secondly, his cultivation of books themselves as good companions. Lamb loved books, not just for their content but for their often – as often precious material objects. In the essay, New Year’s Eve, he writes of his old books as his midnight darlings, something to pore over in the dead of night or simply admire on his shelves as a sight that comforted him.
Lamb carried his personal library with him to the many places he lived in London and was generous in sharing his books with his friends such as the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When Lamb asked for the return of one of his most precious volumes, a 1679 folio edition of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, Coleridge gave it back but not before writing in it in a characteristically self-dramatising way you know Coleridge thought he was going to die – I will not be wrong here, Charles, I’m gone, you will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a relic.
The annotation of books was a widespread practice in the 18th and 19th century. Annotating was not only a means of interpreting and recording one’s reading of a book, it could also be a way of marking ownership, tracking a book circulated in time and place as well as commemorating relationships. Books were signs of ownership and transmission, especially by famous people, are known as association copies. Lamb’s, Beaumont and Fletcher, for example, is now in the British Library and it’s extremely valuable because of the association of documents between Coleridge and Lamb. So Coleridge was right about making it a relic.
But it’s not just well-known people who leave their marks in books. It was this widespread practice by ordinary people that initially led to my interest in Lamb’s connections with Australia. Over the years I kept coming across old editions of his works or books about him that were marked as once belonging to an individual. Dawn Rumble of New Merca for example in the flyleaf of a 1972 edition of Lamb’s essays. The NLA has a copy of Lamb’s Essays of Elia published by Coles of Melbourne that not only has a name, J B Cooper, but also pasted in newspaper cuttings with the inscription, Christmas 1941.
The identities of these previous owners of books by Lamb are difficult to trace but in one case I know more about the person with whom it’s associated. This book belongs to Anise Seriba, my partner’s grandfather, and when it was given to him in 1919 Anise was 17 years old. His family who were orthodox Christians from Syria migrated to Victoria in the 1880s. Anise Seriba would go on to become a highly respected GP in Essendon. I’m not sure if he read Lamb’s essays in detail if at all but the volume endured as part of his library of books, eventually being passed on to his daughter, my mother-in-law, Glynn Rose.
The book is signed by the teacher who gave it to him so it’s possible that this was a personal gift and not simply a school prize. I’m intrigued by what this gesture might have meant to a second-generation migrant boy of Middle Eastern heritage in post-world war one Melbourne. What life lessons would the Essays of Elia have communicated? So I hope to answer this question in due course but to begin I want to begin a sketch of Lamb’s career and his importance.
He was born in London in 1775, the son of John Lamb who was a servant to Samuel Salt, a senior bencher so a senior barrister in the Inner Temple, one of the [inns] 10:32 of court. In 1782 at the age of seven Lamb was sent to Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street in London, a venerable charity school dating from the 16th century and there he met Coleridge who was two years older than him. Their friendship was to last for over 50 years.
Lamb is exceptional for a romantic writer of this period in having what we would recognise as a regular salary day job. This was partly because he suffered from a stammer and as a result could not seek a career in the law or the church, both of which would have required skills in public speaking. Unlike his peers, Wordsworth and Coleridge, he did not go to university. In 1792 he joined the East India Company which monopolised trade with India, China and southeast Asia as a clerk in the accountant’s office where he worked for 33 years. His writing and socialising fitted around his working day at the East India House. He worked in many branches of literature as poet, novelist, dramatist, editor, journalist and children’s writer with varying degrees of success.
He became best known for The Tales from Shakespeare from 1807, retellings and prose of Shakespeare’s plays designed for younger readers, written in collaboration with his sister, Mary. And also for The Essays of Elia, first published in 1823. The Elia Essays mostly appeared in The London Magazine, the most exciting journal in regency England with a roster of outstanding writers including in addition to Lamb William Hasluck, Thomas Dequincy and the poet, John Clare. The name, Elia, was appropriated, Lamb claimed, from that of an Italian colleague at East India House. He also said that it was a play on a liar and a name without meaning.
Lamb both is and is not Elia. The essays are highly crafted and richly elusive dealing with a wide range of topics such as his school days, old relatives, the ancient benches, relics of his father’s day of the Inner Temple, the beggars and chimney sweepers of London, actors and playgoing, books and reading, newspapers, Quakers. In many of the essays there’s a sense of melancholy and loss as in one of my favourites, Old China, which takes the form of a conversation between Elia and his cousin, Bridget, that is, Mary Lamb, in which they compare their relative material comfort. And Lamb was actually very well paid for his London Magazine essays. And they compared this with the [pleasures] 13:30 of their poverty and companionship when they were younger. Bridget reminds Elia of his struggles to buy the Beaumont and Fletcher volume and of how they used to go to the cheapest seats in the theatre, in the one shilling gallery. She says you cannot see, you say, in the galleries now I am sure we saw and heard too well enough then but sight and all I think is gone with our poverty.
I haven’t time to discuss this particular essay in detail but it’s a masterful evocation of the gains and losses in becoming middle-aged and to some extent the self-delusion of nostalgia. It’s also about social change more broadly, what it means to move up the social ladder while still being aware of the people and the experiences we’ve left behind.
Lamb, the writer, is indistinguishable from Lamb, the friend and companion beginning with his conversations with Coleridge at the Salutation and Cat Tavern in the 1790s and continuing with his visiting, dining, cardplaying, playgoing, love of punning, tobacco and beer, all of which he wrote about in his letters and essays. And one of my favourite books is this one, Charles Lamb in Pipefuls, produced by a Liverpool tobacco company in the 1890s and it’s an anthology of Lamb’s writings on tobacco that was printed to promote smoking. And it’s from the Prance collection. RBPRA refers to what's in the Prance collection.
Lamb’s circles in London were extensive and diverse. He seemed to know everyone who was anyone in the romantic period literary sphere. And while literary romanticism is often associated with the solitary poet communing with nature among mountains, Lamb epitomises an alternative romanticism that’s much more urban and sociable, concerned with the prosaic rhythms of ordinary experience. And he famously challenged the veneration of nature by great poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge by defending the kaleidoscopic vitality of London.
In this letter to Wordsworth in 1801 he wrote I’ve passed all my days in London and until I’ve formed as many and intense local attachments as many of you mountaineers can have done with dead nature. The lighted shops of The Strand and Fleet Street, the innumerable trades, tradesmen and customers, coaches, wagons, playhouses, all the bustle and wickedness about Covent Garden, life awake if you’re awake at all hours of the night, the impossibility of being dull on Fleet Street, the crimes, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining up houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls. This is a kind of sketch of Lamb’s London which actually shows that – it refers to a number of places that were important to him but actually his London in the early part of his life was quite small and he could kind of walk everywhere so just – yeah, there’s the theatres of Soho, there’s Christ’s Hospital so like it was a walking London basically that he was familiar with.
After Lamb’s death in 1835 at the age of 59 many of his friends and contemporaries sought to commemorate him as a writer and as a friend. In 1837 – that’s like just three years after his death – Thomas Noon Talfourd published an edition of Lamb’s letters, supplementing this volume 11 years later with what he called The Final Memorials of Charles Lamb. Now the publication of Final Memorials occurred a year after the death in 1847 of Lamb’s sister, Mary, making the tragic history of the Lamb family more widely known for the first time.
On September 22nd, 1796 Mary Lamb had stabbed and killed her mother at the Lamb house in Little Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. She was suffering from severe mental illness, probably manic depression. Mary was not executed or imprisoned for her matricide on the grounds of lunacy but would normally have been confined for life in Bethlem Hospital, that is, Bedlam. Against the wishes of his elder brother, John, Charles agreed to look after Mary in order to keep her out of permanent incarceration in a mad house. She did however continue to suffer from periods of mental illness throughout her life leading to confinement in various private asylums. And her illness is one of the reasons why the Lambs moved so much in London and its environs.
Between 1799 and 1834 they lived in 10 different places. And this is a detail from – a map from one of the Prince volumes and this is really the area where he grew up but what happened was that he gradually moved you know this is obviously – for those who know London – this is part of greater London now but – and that’s – Edmonton is where he died but he also lived at Enfield up here and Dalston which I think is down there. Oh there’s Highbury, that’s where Coleridge lived.
Okay, the relationship between brother and sister was complicated but mutually rewarding and close. They collaborated as fellows on a number of writing projects and you know most famously The Tales from Shakespeare and Mary Lamb was a substantial contributor to the content of a lot of Lamb’s writing, making her an important figure in the development of British children’s literature. And she also shared in Lamb’s networks of correspondence. Lamb was a great letter-writer and so was she and she maintained ties with the Wordworths, for example, Dorothy Wordsworth, she was very close to her. And she was also very much a part of the domestic entertaining that was so important to Lamb, particularly their famous monthly dinners.
Wider public knowledge of Lamb’s personal history stimulated a cult of Lamb in the Victorian period. Charles’ sacrifice for the sake of Mary accentuated the view of him as a secular saint, kindly and virtuous, a more cuddly romantic, we might say, in contrast to the monumental austerity of someone like Wordsworth. Terms that recur in writing about Lamb are sweetness, charm, benevolence, good humour, quaintness. And this view of Lamb gained currency even earlier. In Coleridge’s poem, This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison, first published in 1800, in which Coleridge refers to Lamb three times as gentlehearted. And Lamb responded angrily to his friend in a letter, writing, quote, for God’s sake, I never was more serious, don’t make me more ridiculous by terming me gentlehearted in print. And Lamb was lucky to have been censored into caste connotations of gentle. As the son of a servant he was definitely not a gentleman.
Gentle also has feminine connotations. A persistent theme in writing about Lamb has been a debate, more or less explicit, about the gender dimensions of both his writing and his character. And typical of this comment is the interaction to a popular anthology of writings, Everybody’s Lamb from 1934. And it says, Lamb has been so much vaporised and feminised in retrospect that it is serviceable to his memory to recall his robust masculinity. If it would be an exaggeration to speak of him in the modern idiom as a he man – he was neither strong or silent – he was nevertheless a man’s man and essentially male in mind and spirit. So this is really an example protesting way too much.
The label of gentle stuck to Lamb as has the idea of his writings as primarily whimsical, prone to humorous flights of fancy, quirky and lacking in seriousness. But the Oxford English Dictionary defines whimsy as quote, characterised by deviation from the ordinary, as if determined by mere caprice, fantastic, fanciful, freakish, odd and comical.
So there’s a lot of kind of both positive and negatives to whimsy. Whimsy’s also often associated with the English national character, the cultivation of a gently ironic reserve, sometimes nostalgic, tinged with but ultimately resisting sentimentality, refusing to take itself and others deeply seriously. So in this latter respect whimsy can be sometimes a frustrating tool of condescension and an expression of passive superiority.
So far I’ve been trying to give you a flavour of what’s distinctive about Charles Lamb, the man and the writer. In this second part of the talk I want to explore more fully his connections with Australia. Lamb would have been aware of the Austral antipodes from an early age as William Wales, who had travelled with Captain James Cook on the second voyage of The Resolution, taught mathematics at Christ’s Hospital. The poet and journalist, Lee Hunt, who was also at Christ’s Hospital and another friend of Lamb, claimed that Wales told the schoolboys tales of Tahiti, or Otaheite as they called it, as undoubtedly Lamb’s good friend, James Burney, also did. The brother of the novelist, Frances Burney, James Burney sailed with Cook on The Resolution and on Cook’s third voyage between 1776 and 1780, witnessing Cook’s death in Hawaii in 1779. Lamb got to know Burney in the early 1800s long after the latter had retired from the navy. He and Mary socialised frequently with Burney and his wife, sharing a passion for the card game of whist, the subject of one of Lamb’s essays, Mrs Battle’s Opinion on Whist.
However Lamb’s most important connection with Australia was via another friend, the judge and writer, Barron Field. His dates are 1786 to 1846. Field was the son of an apothecary at Lamb’s old school, Christ’s Hospital, and was probably introduced to Lamb by his brother who also worked at East India House. An enthusiast for the romantic poets from an early age Field had literary ambitions himself. He worked as a drama critic for The Times for a number of years before he followed the path of many an arts student by taking up the law. He sought to fast-track his career by becoming a judge in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, arriving in Sydney with a hastily procured wife in February 1817.
Field was not the only one of Lamb’s connections to live in England. His close friend, Thomas Manning, learnt Chinese in France before travelling to Canton to work for the East India Company. Manning was adventurous, he was the first Briton to visit Tibet, for example. Samuel Taylor Coleridge spent a period in the early 1800s working for the British High Commissioner in Malta while another friend, John Rickman, advanced his career in the British administration in Ireland and was influential in developing the first census of the population of Britain in 1801.
Such careers reflected an increasingly globalising British empire, then engaged in a world war with France. Compelled as he was to stay in London because of his job and his ties to Mary Lamb, Lamb was intensely curious about his far-flung friends, particularly Field in New South Wales. He wrote to him soon after his arrival in Sydney and Field undoubtedly replied to him ‘though unfortunately that correspondence has been lost – Lamb burned all letters sent to him, unfortunately. In addition to his legal career which ended in failure when he was effectively sacked in 1824 Field was active in the cultural and associational life of Sydney. He was a founding member of the Philosophical Society of Australasia, the Agricultural Society and the Sydney Institution. He engaged in literary pursuits with an eye to publicity back in Britain, publishing occasional poetry in newspapers and in 1819 ensured the London publication of the memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, a convict notorious for being transported to New South Wales on three occasions.
Field’s main claim to literary fame is the first book of poetry published in Australia, The First Fruits of Australian Poetry, privately printed in Sydney by George Howe in 1819. Now the holy grail of Australian rare book collectors this slim quarto pamphlet consisted of 12 pages and four poems including The Kangaroo. I’m going to spare you The Kangaroo, you might kind of find it somewhere. Field probably sent a copy of First Fruits to Charles Lamb who reviewed it anonymously in The Examiner magazine in January 1820 and passed on copies of The Kangaroo to Coleridge and Wordsworth.
While neither Lamb nor Field are identified as authors in the review it’s nonetheless couched in familiar intimate terms. Lamb addresses Field as quote, that valued friend who out of duty went to quote, administer tedious justice in inauspicious, unliterary thief land. We reclaim thee for our own and gladly would transport thee back to thy native fields and studies congenial to thy habits.
Lamb associates Field with his friend, James Burney, by mentioning a merry captain – that’s Burney – who quote, prides himself upon having planted the first pun in Otaheite, that is a joke he made in the local language. On getting the joke the Tahitians quote, all at once burst out into a genial laugh. It was a stranger and as a stranger they gave it welcome. Where puns flourish, writes, there must be no inconsiderable advance in civilisation.
Lamb’s digressions were probably designed to avoid having to actually criticise his friend’s poems but they also have the effect of familiarising the possible exoticism of Field’s new world by rendering it in the universal terms of a sociable encounter. One could say that there’s a denial of the violence of colonial history in Lamb’s whimsical emphasis on planting puns in Tahiti. On the other hand as so often is the case humour portrays of sublimates deeper truths or anxieties about in this case the meaning and viability of communicative exchanges between people. The laugh that James Burney and the Tahitians shared is perhaps a fragile, outlandish or whimsical thing on which to base an empire but still it is the kind of ephemeral micro-communication without which relations of power, friendly or otherwise, are impossible.
An emphasis on communication also characterises Lamb’s most significant invocation of Barron Field. The essay, Distant Correspondence, first published in The London Magazine in March 1822. Subtitled, A Letter to BF, Esquire, at Sydney, New South Wales, Distant Correspondents was based on Lamb’s 1817 letter to Field in which he contemplated when his friend would actually be reading his missive. Lamb wrote in it in ’17, quote, your now is not my now and again your then is not my then but my now may be your then and vice versa. Whose head is competent to these things?
Lamb it seems needed something like the meeting planner whereby people today check time differences in order to arrange Skype or conference calls. In spite of the instantaneousness of 21st century communication time difference caused by the diurnal turning of the world cannot be eliminated. We still wake and go to sleep at different times if we want to stay sane. Lamb is historically significant for drawing attention to this aspect of a modern globalised world. Time consciousness as a feature of relations between people linked with media of communication, in this case letters, ships and human carriers. It was the very fact of the possibility of communication with New South Wales that made Lamb conscious of the wondrousness of all forms of communication including the kind of one to one connection that he celebrated elsewhere in his essays. Rather than being polar opposites Lamb in London and Field in Sydney are brought together in an act of imagination that through affirming the absoluteness of difference in time and space sustains ties of relationship. Lamb brings Field close by imagining him as far away.
Charles Lamb was the only major imaginative writer of the romantic period to write about the relations with the colony in this way and Australians remembered him for this and also for his connection with Barron Field. In 1875 the Melbourne weekly paper, The Australasian, devoted a long article to Distant Correspondents, musing quote, what would Lamb have said if somebody had told him 60 years later friends in Sydney would be conversing with friends in London at the rate of Puck’s proposed expedition around the globe. This is a reference to Puck’s scheme in Midsummer Night’s Dream of putting a girdle ‘round the world in 40 minutes.
The date of the publication of this article, 1875, is relevant as the 1870s was the decade when telegraph communication between Australia and England was first established. In 1888 the stationers, Marcus and Andrew of Sydney, reprinted Distant Correspondents in a pamphlet to commemorate the beginning of the second century of a most marvellous history. Lamb’s essay was a measure of the fairytale story of the colonies of how far they’d come. The image of Lamb on the cover of the pamphlet punning on the relationship between the writer and one of the colonies’ major exports suggests the affection in which Lamb was held.
Lamb – Australians’ love of Lamb was reaffirmed in 1935, again in relation to Distant Correspondents and Barron Field. In an article in The Tweed Daily newspaper from Murwillumbah it begins by declaring every Australian knows and loves Charles Lamb and The Essays of Elia in which he unfolded his whimsical personality to the world and Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb will be found on the bookshelf of every Australian schoolroom. The article goes on to note that Distant Correspondents and the 1817 letter on which it was based made quote, odd reading in these days of three-day aeroplane flights across the world, of wireless photograph transmission and empire broadcasts. Rather than suggesting that the distance between Britain and Australia was an unbridgeable gulf Distant Correspondents enabled the imagination of the transcendence of distance and time, making Lamb a kind of patron saint of Telstra if not perhaps the NBN.
Why as The Tweed Daily stated in 1935 did Australians love Charles Lamb? Firstly as I’ve been suggesting there was the appreciation that Lamb had a connection and an interest in Australia via Barron Field specifically in terms of what it meant to experience the distance, real and emotional, between Britain and Australia. Lamb’s biography, well-known after the 1840s on the things of nostalgia, memory and loss that recur in his essays, made him a touchstone for many migrants to Australia in the 19th century. A notable example is James Smith, 1820 to 1910, born in Kent who migrated to Melbourne in 1854 and established a career as one of Victoria’s leading journalists, working on The Age and later The Australasian where he wrote extensively on literary topics and the drama.
Smith was a mover and shaker in Melbourne’s associational culture, being a founding member of various clubs. He was Victorian Parliamentary librarian for a period and a patron of the visual arts, proposing the foundation of the National Gallery in Melbourne. Before his death in 1910 Smith outed himself in an article as a lover of the works of Lamb. Quote, others we admire and extoll, him we love. One of the last things I did before quitting England for Australia 50 years ago was to go to Edmonton churchyard and pluck a few daisies and blades of grass from the grave which held the remains of Charles and Mary Lamb. I mention this incident in order to illustrate the hold which he lays upon the hearts of his fellow countrymen.
The son of an excise officer Smith came from a humble background. His first encounter with Lamb occurred at the age of six in the pages of an anthology, The Everyday Book, published in cheap weekly numbers by William Holme in the 1820s. Lamb was a friend of Holme and published a lot of his later work with him partly in order to support Holme financially. Holme’s daughter eventually moved to Victoria and when she became destitute James Smith organised a campaign in support of her, partly I suspect because of the link with Lamb. Smith’s literary work was not published in book form but exists dispersed in his journalism. Lamb’s career and writing was a kind of an informal template for him. Smith’s interest in autobiography, in the theatre and literary sociability, in old books and book collecting, including old playbills, was shaped by the precedent of Lamb. He even named his son Charles Lamb Smith after him.
Smith can be said to have brought Lamb’s metropolitan sensibility with him to Melbourne and insofar as Smith was a kind of founding father of the city Lamb’s influence can be discerned there too, specifically in literary culture in the very broadest sense of the term, journalistic, essayistic, occasional, even ephemeral, writing, friendly rather than didactic, familiar rather than official or public.
Lamb’s equivocal gender status and collaborations with his sister also made his writing particularly accessible to women. In the late 1870s Martha Turner – her dates are 1839 to 1915 – lectured on Charles Lamb in Melbourne, Hobart and Launceston. Born in London Turner moved to Melbourne in 1870 to visit her brother, a Unitarian Minister and later made a sensation by becoming the first woman preacher in the city. In her lectures on Lamb reported in the newspapers she stressed Lamb’s identity as a Londoner and his writing as belonging to quote, a prescientific age, when literature was, she said, cultivated for love, before essayists became moralists and novelists public teachers. As in the case of Smith you sense that Lamb was the springboard for a kind of subject formation, in Martha Turner’s case offering an opening for her to extend her voice.
You didn’t necessarily require qualifications of class, money or gender to join the Lamb fan club especially as in the late 19th century and early 20th century his works became more accessible than ever before in cheap editions such as The Everyman or Wells Classics or in this case the Rutledge Tuppenny editions. This one’s owned by Hilda H Jones and I bought this at the Lifeline book fair. Cheaper editions of Lamb made it easier for him to be taught in schools and universities, the Essays of Elia and Tales from Shakespeare being key texts in the school curriculum until the 1960s.
Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General controversial for his role in the Whitlam dismissal in 1975, recalled failing to prepare for a class on Lamb at school. This is most likely in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s. Kerr hadn’t done his homework, thinking he wouldn’t be picked on and only when going into class had he asked a schoolfellow who Lamb was. He was told quote, all I know is that he was a bit mad and his sister was a bit mad too which Kerr then proceeded to repeat in front of the class. ‘Though Kerr wasn’t familiar with Lamb – maybe it would have been better for history if he had been – schoolboy knowledge, however imperfect, is a sign of how deeply Lamb and Mary Lamb’s story have penetrated Australian culture in this period.
I found Martha Turner, James Smith and other followers of Lamb in the pages of Australian newspapers digitised in the NLA’s Trove database. Literary history tends to focus on the evidence of books, that is, editions of primary works, critical reception and so on but in the case of Lamb in the 19th and 20th century newspapers were the main medium in which he was discussed, mediated and where Australians expressed their love for him.
Newspapers not only contained news and advertisements but also a great deal of literary material, serialisations of fiction, poetry, reviews, commentaries, essays. The frequency of references to Charles and Mary Lamb in Australian newspapers exceeding that of other romantic writers such as Wordsworth shows how familiar a figure he was to the ordinary Australian reader, by ordinary meaning anyone who could afford the price of a newspaper or could share one.
Lamb’s gentle persona and the fact that he was mainly known for his prose writing made him more accessible, less intimidating than other writers in the English literary canon. As FWB writing in The Age in 1950 commented, Charles Lamb is a member of our own domestic circle. He is one of our intimate cronies. If we find ourselves at a dinner at which Dr Johnson, Thomas Carlisle, Alfred Tennyson and a number of similar celebrities were among the guests, we should be terrified lest sitting near one of them we should be expected to talk up to their exalted level. But if a kindly fate seated us next to Charles Lamb we should be perfectly at our ease from that first handshake.
It’s worth noting that the style of writing, it’s invocation of a collective we you know our domestic circle, our intimate cronies and it’s concept of writers not as distant, lofty monuments but as possible friends or dinner guests is itself profoundly influenced by Lamb himself.
It’s clear that the Australian reading public knew their Lamb as a household name, if not a writer whose work they’d read extensively. New editions of his work were given extensive reviews, he’s the subject of public talks, his jokes and puns are quoted by a Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin. Lamb and also Mary Lamb were part of Australian consciousness, not in a reflexive post-colonial way, the gesture to the literature of the motherland, but as writers with whom Australians felt comfortable, whom they simply liked and regarded as one of them.
An example of this is an article from the Melbourne Herald from 1934. It’s written by Clarence Irving Benson, his dates are 1897 to 1980. Born in Hull, England Benson migrated to Australia in 1916 where he was ordained as a Methodist Minister. Benson became well-known for his journalism, his column, Church and People in The Herald began in 1923 and lasted until 1979, and also for his weekly radio broadcast, Present Sunday Afternoons. His column was published on the centenary of Lamb’s death in 1934 but what is even more significant is the context of the publication of this article as part of a woman’s page. Benson – here’s the – there’s the article and there’s like everything else surrounding it.
Benson’s discussion of Lamb circulates in close proximity with the stuff of ordinary daily life, particularly for women in 1934, knitting patterns, frocks at Buckley’s, underwears, dusters. I’m not suggesting that Edna Everage would have turned from her ironing to her copy of Essays of Elia, ‘though she might have. Not reading the essays doesn’t necessarily mean though that Australians weren’t familiar with Lamb. What is remarkable about the newspapers is how commentary on him was pervasive as a simple point of reference. There are frequent mentions of Lamb’s sayings, jokes, bon [meau] 46:56 or quips and also reference to his views on a variety of issues, making him an unofficial sage.
An example is of – is this article from the pioneering on Australian style, The Home, from 1939. It’s about the new fashion for the barbeque, how to build one, how to cook one, where to cook on one. What does the article begin with? A reference to Charles Lamb’s essay, A Dissertation upon roast pig. It begins, Charles Lamb shows plainly that cooking on a grid iron is not the most primitive form of the culinary art, it came a good second to arson. Lamb’s essay is based – A Dissertation upon a roast pig which is incredibly popular in Australia – is based on a story told to him by his friend, Thomas Manning, about how the Chinese learnt to roast meat. A pig was accidentally roasted in a house fire and the Chinese liked the taste so much that they started setting houses on fire deliberately until advised by a wise man that it would just be easier to cook the animal on a domestic fire. The writer of this article expected his or her stylish readers to be familiar with Lamb’s essay and for it to be part of their cultural consciousness. Now I mentioned before that Lamb, you could see Lamb as a kind of patron saint of Telstra but maybe he also deserves a plaque in Bunnings’ barbeque section.
Final kind of link here is on June the 15th 1951, two days after the death of Ben Chifley, an item in The Sydney Morning Herald’s column 8 used Lamb to note the politician’s passing. I hate so-and-so, said that lovely essayist, Charles Lamb, but, said a friend, do you know him? Of course I don’t know him, said Lamb, you can’t hate a man if you know him. And you couldn’t hate Chifley if you knew him, even if you abhorred his politics. He was a man who knew no boss except his conscience.
Now obviously if Bill Shorten were to die tomorrow it’s highly unlikely that The Australian would use a reference to Charles Lamb in order to make grudging acknowledgment of him. Charles and Mary Lamb have lost their place in Australian cultural consciousness, the reading public didn’t fall out of love with Lamb but merely moved on and forgot about him due to a number of factors such as the rise of cultural nationalism in the ‘60s and ‘70s which focused attention on Australian authors and texts both for general reading and in school and university curricula. While Lamb featured in the teachings of English literature in universities until the 1950s trends such as the new criticism focusing on poetry and the influence in Australia of the English critic, F R Leavis, who privileged the novel meant that the study of non-fiction prose, particularly the essay, became marginalised and eventually disappeared altogether.
Within period focused some fields of English literature such as romantic studies, lyric poetry by Lamb’s friends, Wordsworth and Coleridge, tended to dominate both literary history and critical theory. Lamb’s skills and literary multitasking and general elusiveness made it difficult for him to fit into what’s known as high romanticism. It was also difficult for Lamb’s writing to be adapted to the media of film or television like Jane Austen, for example, and the tragedy of his life is too sad and mundane unlike the stories of Byron or Keats to make a dramatic film or TV biography.
The medium to which the fusion of his life and work was best suited was that of the newspaper and The Australian newspaper in particular between the 1870s and the 1950s, one of our very greatest cultural and dare I say literary achievements. In the resource that’s Trove it’s possible to recover writing about books and writers that is thoughtful, engaged and often erudite recognising the value of writing of all kinds to the mystery of daily living and to how people communicate and share that living with each other in Australia.
Charles Lamb in his own life and writings was a model of that kind of sociable literary culture which is why I think Australian writers and readers turn to him so often. When Broom gave Anise Seriba The Essays of Elia in 1919 he wasn’t simply enrolling him as a compliant subject of the British empire but in a sense welcoming him as part of a literate Australian public in which reading the companionship of books under the sign of Charles Lamb was to belong to a democracy of print.
While Lamb’s writing isn’t adaptable to the medium of film and television his working style may actually be more suitable to the internet, to blogging, the micro-sociability of social media and communication theory in general. There seems to be a revival of interest in the essay form and Lamb’s love of books and reading is chiming with both academic book history and the general interest in book cultures, how books are not just for reading but also for sharing, for passing on, for creating communities.
While Charles Lamb will never be as prominent again in Australian culture every time we go to a bookshop or the Lifeline book fair, talk about books or lend our most precious volume to the Coleridge in our life we are unconsciously following his example and his influence in shaping what it means to be an Australian reader. Thank you.
A: Thank you so much, Gillian, for such a fascinating presentation on Charles Lamb and what he might tell us about who Australia is. We have a few minutes left for questions. If you would like to ask a question just raise your hand. We’ve got a couple of microphones around and because again we are online I will ask you to wait for a microphone.
Au: Gillian, I’m wondering whether – thinking about the circulation of Lamb in public culture have you been able to find anything about the extent to which his works were shared through Mechanics’ Institutes and other early public library formations?
G: Yes, he – yeah, he’s there. I’ve got to the kind of catalogues of Mechanics’ Institutes Library. The crucial thing is like up until about the late 19th century his volumes – like they’re quite expensive so there’s a real change in kind of the later period but he’s there like I’ve looked in a quite variety of catalogues and he’s cert – whether that means that he was being read a lot in the Mechanics’ Institutes is another problem because as you know the whole question of like the history of reading is you know very difficult to kind of work out whether this actually means the books were read. But he’s certainly there in the catalogues, yeah.
Au: Gillian, I was wondering about the influences that Lamb had either in England or in Australia on subsequent writers. As you were speaking I was thinking particularly if somebody like Danny Katz in the Fairfax press and similar writers in England. Is there a genealogy along those lines?
G: I would think – one writer I think is very influenced by him is Alan Bennett and also like – especially that cultivation of whimsicality, you know? So – and Bennett’s work you know which is autobiographical, that he’s very involved in theatre, he’s like – he cultivates a public persona, people love him you know like he said – like there was a quote from – recently he said that like if he took a pitchfork to Judy Dench they’d still love him, you know? So – and I think like – I think he would have - he could have related to – like I don’t know if he’s ever commented on Lamb but I think that that literary tradition in England and Britain is a distinctive kind of Englishness. ‘Though like in Lamb’s case it’s very – he doesn’t kind of represent himself as English that much like there isn’t that sense of – like he’s a Londoner, it’s London that defines him, yeah. And it’s very rare that he actually identifies himself in national terms.
Au: Gillian, this is by way of a thought, really, thought bubble with perhaps a question at the end. I’m thinking about this whole culture that you’ve been talking about in the 19th century reading and thinking in terms of my discipline which is music that there’s a very similar kind of response to the importing of particular stylistic qualities, let’s say in music so I’m thinking about the things that became really popular and spread and talked about and things like Henry Bishop you know these sort of – say 19th century more populist equivalents if you like to – or by analogy to the equivalents of the essayist so that you get much less distinction between genres you know high art, a literary art and a – sort of a more conversationally equivalent music you know socially alive kind of music. And so I’m wondering if that’s truly characteristic of the 19th century in England as well as in Australia or whether it’s more characteristic of an Australian culture where this sort of sociability if you like of the medium and the genre is quite distinctive.
G: Yeah, that’s a very good point and it’s something that – I think that – like what’s really striking, I think, what I found in research was the importance of newspaper culture and that like – and whether – obviously like newspapers in Britain were also very, very significant but whether there’s something about like Australian geography and the – and like internal distance as it were and so on that made the newspaper like in a sense more important. Like one of the newspapers that has a lot about Lamb comes from Kalgoorlie, you know? Sorry, my Rs, I cannot tend to pronounce my Rs and trip on them, I can’t get rid of that, it’s my Irish thing. Yeah, Kalgoorlie and yeah, that – like there are fans of Lamb there, you know?
And it’s – like the fact that that newspaper’s from Murwillumbah and everything and like – so it’s not like entirely a metropolitan thing. Melbourne, Sydney, yes but it’s – but like – yeah, it’s something I’d need to kind of look at more but I mean I suppose like one of the advantages is that Trove is fairly discrete you know as a – it’s manageable as a database but if you go to 19th century newspapers in Britain it’s enormous, you know? So I might have to work – one thing I might do is to think about comparison with New Zealand, say and whether the same thing is happening there.
Au: It’s really interesting in the commentaries and reviews of music in the 19th century papers, it’s very similar, it’s very sophisticated conversation around that you know so for example we did a bit of a study on Chopin in the 19th century and the reception of Chopin in Australia. Such sophisticated articles with depth and thought and conversation.
G: Long, detailed and very well written articles you know it’s just – and I just think there’s you know there’s – we’ve kind of lost touch with that as a kind of cultural monument you know like in a way to what you know the importance of reading and writing like you know in the 19th century in that sense. And it was for Australians, it wasn’t just - like it wasn’t – it was for us that it was being done.
A: Please join me again in thanking Professor Gillian Russell.
A: I do of course have a couple of reminders –
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