Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Spellbinding London: Charles Lamb's "Ella" and the Old Country House

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Spellbinding London: Charles Lamb's "Ella" and the Old Country House

Article excerpt

It should seem to me from my (trivial) observations, that noblemen and gentlemen have almost abandon'd the country ... and that dowagers have gone away ... and that as that encreasing Wen, the metropolis, must be fed the body will gradually decay.... Many landowners, especially among the politically active magnates, spent only a modest amount of time on their estates, and in this respect were much more urban in character ... than is commonly allowed. (1)

THE M.P. JOHN BYNG'S APPLICATION OF THE TERM "WEN" TO THE PLIGHT of the country house in 1789 occurs over thirty years before its use by William Cobbett, whose own concerns over London's socio-economic influence began appearing in the Political Register in 1821 (prior to their publication in Rural Rides in 1830). (2) Between them, these two texts and their chronology suggest a perhaps unlikely historical context for a reading of Charles Lamb's essayistic persona, "Elia." Appearing in the London Magazine in the early 1820S, however, the quintessentially metropolitan Elia is contemporary with Cobbett's Political Register, while the two Elia essays on which this paper focuses effect an ironic twist on Byng's lament for the traditional country house. Elia's self-reflexive metropolitanism as periodical text, I propose, creates a layered meaning, in which an apparent expression of "wen-anxiety" paradoxically encodes a cultural affirmation of the capital's omnipotence. This occurs through the two essays' collective conversion of Lamb's own childhood encounter with a decaying country house-an encounter that predates Byng's diaries by seven or eight years--into the literary commodity of Gothic fiction for the London's readership.

The theoretical issue behind this reading is that of the author's relation to the periodical text. In addressing the same question to explain his approach to reading Elia, Peter J. Manning acknowledges the great "gain in historical specificity and vitality" made from studies of the essays as periodical texts. (3) Such studies, notably by Mark Schoenfield and Mark Parker, counterbalance, suggests Manning, the bias toward formal and autobiographical readings in those (usually previous) studies that alternatively take the collected essays (from Essays [1823] and Last Essays [1833]) as their text. (4) However, Manning constructs his own reading from the opposite problem, created as it is, he proposes, by the above focus on historical specificity: that "resituating Lamb within the pages of the London Magazine risks circumscribing his effects in the exact proportion that one recovers their original richness" (137). Manning's solution to the problem of combining a sense of Lamb's effects with those of the periodical text resides within the "fraught but unspecifiable difference between Lamb and Elia that prevents the reduction of the essays to their context" (145). Manning sees Lamb's authorial presence as emerging essentially out of anxiety: the effect of Elia's habitual attempts at eluding an "historical embedding" (138) imposed by the periodical text. Still more recently, in recognizing the London's pivotal role in Lamb's metropolitanism, James Treadwell proposes that Lamb knowingly "plays ... games with Elia's merely pseudonymous being," which "all depend on the fact that he is literally bookish, a figure of writing (or of print) only." (5)

Yet it seems that even these readings, in which a significant degree of authorial self is retrieved, still fall short of acknowledging the full capacity of what might be termed an "Elian" mode of self to construct its own meaning within, or rather out of, the multifarious text around it. In their recognition of Elia's extra-essayistic presence--in the London's correspondence pages, editorial puffs and the odd skit--Manning's and Treadwell's readings together inform the basis of my argument: namely, that the Elian self-reflexively plays with its own fragmentary and phantasmal condition as periodical text. …

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