In a letter to John Taylor, his publisher, Charles Lamb insisted that the friendly and discriminating reader of his works has no need of an explanatory preface. The Essays themselves, he contended, were all preface, since introductions generally, being "nothing but a talk with the reader," add little to what his own writings reveal of the author. Especially in Lamb are confidences, sometimes thinly disguised, entrusted to the reader, by means of which a complete biography can be constructed. His Essays, blending fact with fiction, tell of his family, his boyhood and youth, the tragedy that befell his sister Mary and continued for thirty-eight years of Lamb's life, his servitude as a clerk, his friends, his literary and critical encounters and achievements, the outward characteristics and the inner meanings of a life quite as illustrious as it was deliberately and by circumstance obscure. One of the Essays even provides a thumb-nail autobiography in which the main dates and facts are recorded, the physical peculiarities described and the habits of a lifetime confessed. It even directs, in the bantering humor by which he is commonly known, curious bibliophiles to his "true works" in the ledger archives safeguarded by the East India Company. And if the Essays alone do not lay bare the facts, the Letters leave little unrevealed of the events of his life and their emotional consequences. Together, they constitute a self-portrait as well as an autobiography, the story of a spirit as saintly and a judgment as penetrative as ever adorned English literature.
Averse as Charles Lamb was to a biographical preface, as always mere talk, elaborating unnecessarily upon what the text itself undertakes to reveal, an introduction to his complete works is essential for the guidance of those readers who would have facts separated from the Lambian chaff. Besides, it was impossible, with all his self-revealing candor, to provide the estimate that his contemporaries and his successors placed upon his unique contribution to letters. Nor could he, even with his supreme critical perception, pass the objective judgment on his own work that the reader with a hundred-year historical perspective can afford it. The facts of his life, gleaned from the Essays and Letters, as well as from numerous biographers and commentators, have taken on the qualities of a legend to the English-speaking world.
On the 10th of February, 1775, Charles Lamb was born in Crown Office Row, Inner Temple. At the time, his father, John Lamb, was a clerk and general servant to Samuel Salt, a member of Parliament. His mother, born Elizabeth Field, was the daughter of a housekeeper who served in Blakesware, in Hertfordshire, disguised as Blakesmoor in . . .