Lamb is one of the great secrets of the nineteenth century. He's witty, spiky, elusive and puzzling. His essays lull you into a false sense of charm and nostalgia, but within them are sharp and penetrating comments on human behaviour. They run alongside great Romantic works like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' or William Wordsworth's 'The Prelude' as wonderful, moving pieces of autobiography and self-examination. Plus they are beautifully written, with their descriptions of forgotten places in London, the slowly decaying 'South Sea House', for instance, or the pastoral green of the Inner Temple Gardens, hidden away in the midst of the capital. And behind them, always, is a sense that these nostalgic descriptions are all the more enjoyable because they are hard-won; they come out of the tragedy and courage of Lamb's personal life, and his lifelong struggle with his own depression and with his sister's serious mental illness. They also have a sharply political edge to them - they were published in the 'London Magazine' alongside essays by Hazlitt and De Quincey, and while they seem at first glance simply charming, they often slyly comment on contemporary prejudice.
Lamb hasn't been popular through the 20th century - an attack on him by F. R. Leavis and his disciples in the 1930s was the start of the rot, and the gradual decline of the essay has meant he's been almost completely overlooked (though not by the Charles Lamb Society, who are still going in London and meet regularly for lectures - and for Lamb's birthday drinks). So a new edition of Lamb is really to be celebrated, especially one as beautifully produced as this.
But alas! This is a lovely edition, but it has one huge flaw for me. There are only 27 essays here and there should be 28: the edition claims to be a reprint of 'Essays of Elia', but it leaves out one of Lamb's most important essays, 'Imperfect Sympathies'. There's not even a note to explain this omission. Why is this important? Well, 'Imperfect Sympathies' is one of the most difficult, challenging, shocking of Lamb's essays - it starts off with a funny skit on why Elia doesn't like Scotchmen: 'I have been trying all my life to like Scotchmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair'. Scotchmen don't get jokes. They're terribly literal:
"I have a print of a graceful female after Leonardo da Vinci, which I was showing off to [a Scotchman]. After he had examined it minutely, I ventured to ask him how he liked MY BEAUTY (a foolish name it goes by among my friends) -- when he very gravely assured me, that "he had considerable respect for my character and talents" (so he was pleased to say), "but had not given himself much thought about the degree of my personal pretensions."
But then, terribly, the essay takes a darker turn, as Elia voices prejudices about Jewishness and black people. I've always read this essay as a reflection on the nature of prejudice. It's not LAMB who's voicing these opinions - it's Elia, and he's doing so (I think) to make us see how an innocent sounding joke (against Scotchmen), and a bit of 'harmless' prejudice can be the slippery slope to something much worse - as such, it's very timely.
But it's up to us, surely, to read this difficult essay and decide for ourselves. Simply leaving it out - without any word of acknowledgement - is bad editorial practice (though the notes to this edition, too, are pretty much non-existent). And it's also giving people a false sense of Lamb - a kind of misguided political correctness which actually amounts to admitting that these editors do think Lamb is a racist old bigot and there are some aspects of his writing which we'd just better not mention. Disrespectful to Lamb, and to his readers, I'd say...