Charles Lamb, Elia and the London Magazine: Metropolitan Muse

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CHARLES LAMB, ELIA AND THE LONDON MAGAZINE: METROPOLITAN MUSE. By Simon P. Hull. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010. Pp. 240. ISBN 978 1 85196 661 5. £60.00.

Contrary, antiquarian, deliberately marginal - Charles Lamb has always been difficult to place among Romantic authors. He is a hard figure to include even in our current, capacious view of Romanticism. His critical fortunes, riding high in the late nineteenth century, ran aground somewhere in the 1930s. Leavisite critics such as Denys Thompson, alarmed at the excess of Lamb's writing and the sentimentalism he provoked in readers, suggested that the Romanticism that emerged in Lamb's writing - sensuous, sociable, with its own brand of urban sensibility - was to be distrusted. That distrust has cast a long shadow. The most recent scholarly edition of the Lambs' collected works dates from 1912 and the last few decades have seen a sparse handful of monographs on Charles and Mary Lamb. Only in recent years, benefitting particularly from renewed interest in the periodical, the urban scene and Romantic sociability, have these two writers returned to something like mainstream critical regard. Even so, as Simon Hull points out, 'the alternative focus on the city and urban culture which has gathered momentum over the last ten years, through research into spectacle, theatrical culture and consumerism, as well as projects that more directly discuss the theme of literature and the city, is lacking in the figure especially of Lamb'. Hull's book, therefore, is a very useful contribution to the critical debate. His analysis of 'Elia' in the context of the London Magazine offers welcome and interesting insights, both into Lamb's periodical writing and authorial persona and into Romantic 'metropolitanism' more generally. Throughout, Hull builds on recent work on the periodical, by Mark Schoenfield and Mark Parker to cite two examples, who have paid particular attention to Lamb's contributions to the London Magazine. Where Hull differs, however, is in emphasising the importance of paying proper attention to the construction and development of the Elia figure, tracing it not only through the London Magazine, but also through Lamb's life and experiences within the city. We lose out, he argues, by reading Elia simply as the sum of the essays: instead, he argues, we should see him as 'an extra-essayistic figure of the periodical text' and a way to understand Romantic metropolitan culture.

Where does Elia come from? One teasing answer might be that the persona simply represents an anagram of 'a lie'. Yet there was also a real counterpart, F. Augustus Elia, an Italian clerk, whom Lamb knew from his work at the South Sea House in 1791-92. This Elia died the very month his 'usurping fictional counterpart came to life in the London, in, appropriately, "Recollections of the South-Sea House"'. …