Empire, Coleridge, and Charles Lamb's Consumer Imagination

Article excerpt

Scholarship on Charles Lamb typically presents his essays as responses to personal tragedy or as idealistic fancies detached from history, and perpetuates romantic conventions by unfavorably comparing the minor writer to Coleridge. This article intervenes in this trend by reading Lamb's "Elia" essays as emulations of his East India House employment, which adopt its modes of mechanical reproduction and professional promotion in order to elevate Lamb's literary output to that of Coleridge. Porcelain is the key industrial commodity upon which Lamb's analogy hinges. Consequently, this reading centers upon the essay, "Old China," to unveil the triumphal imperialism in Lamb's writing.


The ambitions of empire and the pleasure of commodity culture romantically coalesce in Charles Lamb's beloved essay "Old China" (1823), a deceptively modest essay that presents the delights of a Chinese porcelain teacup. (1) The essay belongs to an essay series for the London Magazine, in which Lamb developed Elia, a fictional persona. In the series, Elia, who is an employee of a large trading house, discourses with whimsy and irony on the various objects and experiences that provoke his interest. "Old China," for example, opens by according an extraordinary importance to the foreign commodity and minor art: "I have an almost feminine partiality for old china. When I go to see any great house, I enquire for the china-closet, and next for the picture gallery. I cannot defend the order of preference, but by saying, that we have all some taste or other, of too ancient a date to admit of our remembering distinctly it was an acquired one. I can call to mind the first play, and the first exhibition, that I was taken to; but I am not conscious of a time when china jars and saucers were introduced into my imagination" (p. 269).

Elia presents porcelain as a visually beguiling item that induces in him an "almost feminine" desire. Such gendered description of longing suggests Elia's near participation in a distinctively female consumer culture, and hence his representativeness for the set of social and economic attributes historically associated with it. (2) Interestingly, however, his admiration for china also universalizes porcelain: although he can neither recall when his "introduc[tion]" to porcelain took place, nor defend his preference, Elia nevertheless insists his predilection is socially widespread ("we have all"). By thus stressing the taste for porcelain as nearly primordial (a "taste ... of too ancient a date"), and privileging it over traditional aesthetic experiences (such as the paintings, plays, and exhibitions to which he contrasts it), "Old China" figures porcelain as a stimulus to "imagination," and thereby conflates commodity culture with aesthetic inspiration to suggest an inclusive, consumer version of the romantic tradition. (3)

In previous critical examinations of Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is usually cited as the archetypal representative of romantic imagination that Lamb knew. The celebrated philosopher and poet was Lamb's childhood friend, and hence anchors the predominantly biographical criticism on Lamb that accounts for his distinctively precious tone as an evasive expression of his sense of literary inferiority. Similarly, Lamb's sister Mary, who murdered their mother in 1796, has been suggested as another source of Charles's supposed romantic agony. Gerald Monsman, for example, argues that the Elia essays are products of Lamb's exteriorization of his creative longing or personal anguish, and Jane Aaron suggests that his love for and grief associated with Mary are commemorated in "Bridget," a recurring female character in the essay series. (4) A professional rather than psychobiographical paradigm can also be posited, however, for Lamb's literary production, that both more closely acknowledges the source of Elia's imperial identity and shows Lamb actually laying claim to the genius he associated with Coleridge. …