"Poor Percy Bishe!!" Charles Lamb's "A Dissertation on Roast Pig" in Context
Monsman, Gerald, Nineteenth-Century Prose
Lamb's "Dissertation on Roast Pig" is an anti-vegetarian satire targeting EB. Shelley's "Vindication of Natural Diet." The disclosure in 1821 of Shelley's authorship of the "Vindication," the appearance in July 1822 of a burlesque by Peacock or Hogg on his vegetarianism, and the unexpected news in August of Shelley's death the previous month, created a context for Lamb's essay as a satire on the vegetarian vogue. Both Charles and Mary Lamb's struggle with mental instability predisposed them to be acutely offended by Shelley's application of Godwinian perfectibility, his refusal to admit the irremediable imperfection of the human condition, and his proposal of a quixotic panacea. A revised date for Lamb's return from France, just before news of Shelley's drowning reached England, shows that he had a typical interval to compose his essay; moreover, hints on roast pig in earlier issues of the London Magazine (including an anti-vegetarian parody of a line from "Queen Mab") supported the currency of Lamb's topic. The tale of Chinese cookery came to Lamb, directly or indirectly, from Joseph Ritson's Abstinence from Animal Food (1802), a classic vegetarian work that was a source also for Shelley's essay. Ritson's tale allowed Lamb to turn the vegetarian's horror of cooked meat into his personals obsessive gluttony, thereby burlesquing Shelley's belief in an innocent and pure golden age of vegetable health.
Although Charles Lamb's "A Dissertation on Roast Pig" (September 1822) seems to display little more than the author's particular love of suckling pigs, it resembles those Ella essays that reach beyond personally-felt events (often bereavement) to confront the moral or social urgencies of Lamb's time and place. Apart from the whimsical tale of Chinese cookery ostensibly derived from Thomas Manning, and a letter to S.T. Coleridge in praise of roast pig, readers have not realized how this essay is contextualized by Charles and Mary's health, travel, and literary affinities. Essentially, "Roast Pig" is an anti-vegetarian satire, triggered by "poor Percy Bishe" Shelley's dreadful death, a burlesque targeting particularly his "Vindication of Natural Diet." Although Shelley's vegetarian tract had appeared some nine years previously--originally in pamphlet form and, a month or so later, annexed to the notes in "Queen Mab" (1813)--both tract and poem had a limited and nominally anonymous circulation until the pirated publication in 1821 when reviewers seized upon it as Shelley's work. (1)
The internal evidence in "Roast Pig" shows Lamb took offense at Shelley's utopian and reductive pronouncements that agonizing mental illness is both caused by and cured by diet. When Shelley's tract first appeared, Mary's mental health had been marked by periodically recurring attacks of manic depression; and Lamb's work had been characterized in The Quarterly Review as the "blasphemies of a poor maniac." Lamb, once incarcerated himself and now caring for his unstable sister, was labeled an "unfortunate creature" for whom "every feeling mind will find an apology in his calamitous situation." Then, as reviews of Shelley's pirated edition were appearing, William Gifford quoted extensively from Lamb's "Confessions of a Drunkard" and asserted that it was "a true tale." (2) But to maintain his personas amiability--Ella has not been publicly humiliated, nor has he experienced a tragedy belittled by a glib panacea--Lamb explicitly cites neither Shelley nor his cure-all of "natural diet" in "Roast Pig." Moreover, the Lambs were very fond of the poet's widow, Mary, and would not wish to offend her. (Although Mary Shelley herself was not a vegetarian, her most famous character, the creature of Victor Frankenstein, certainly began as one!)
In the months leading up to "Roast Pig," Lamb was fast approaching serious depression. After the death of his brother John, Lamb complained in a long letter to Wordsworth of "a certain deadness to every thing, which I think I may date from poor John's Loss. …