Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 31.djvu/430

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a friendship destined to endure, and to be the main living influence upon his mind and character till the latest year of his life. Coleridge was two years Lamb's senior, and remained at the school till 1792, when he went to Cambridge.

At the date of Lamb's leaving school his elder brother John was a clerk in the South Sea House, and a humbler post in the same office was soon found for Charles through the good offices of Samuel Salt, who was a deputy-governor of the company. But early in 1792 he was appointed to a clerkship in the accountant's office of the India House, and remained a member of the staff for the next thirty years. The court minutes of the old India House record that on 5 April 1792 ‘William Savory, Charles Lamb, and Hutcher Trower’ were appointed clerks in the accountant's office on the usual terms. Another entry of three weeks later tells that the sureties required by the office were in Lamb's case Peter Peirson, esq., of the Inner Temple, and John Lamb ‘of the Inner Temple, gentleman.’ The name of Peter Peirson recalls one of the most touching passages in the essay on the ‘Old Benchers.’

Samuel Salt died in this same year, leaving various legacies and other benefactions to his faithful clerk and housekeeper. The Lamb family had accordingly to leave the Temple, and there is no record of their place of residence until 1796, when we hear of them as lodging in Little Queen Street, Holborn. The family were poor, Charles's salary, and what his sister could earn by needlework, in addition to the interest on Salt's legacies, forming their sole means of subsistence, for John Lamb the younger, a fairly prosperous gentleman, was living an independent life elsewhere. John Lamb the elder was old and sinking into dotage. The mother was an invalid, with apparently a strain of insanity. Mary Lamb was overworked, and the continued strain and anxiety began to tell upon her mind. On 22 Sept. 1796 a terrible blow fell upon the family. Mary Lamb, irritated with a little apprentice-girl who was working in the family sitting-room, snatched a knife from the table, pursued the child round the room, and finally stabbed her mother, who had interposed in the girl's behalf. The wound was instantly fatal, Charles being at hand only in time to wrest the knife from his sister and prevent further mischief. An inquest was held and a verdict found of temporary insanity. Mary Lamb would have been in the ordinary course transferred to a public lunatic asylum, but interest was made with the authorities, and she was given into the custody of her brother, then only just of age, who undertook to be her guardian, an office which he discharged under the gravest difficulties and discouragements for the remainder of his life. Mrs. Lamb was buried in the graveyard of St. Andrew's, Holborn, on 26 Sept. 1796, and Charles Lamb, with his imbecile father and an old Aunt Hetty, who formed one of the household, left Little Queen Street. (The house no longer stands, having been removed with others to make room for a church, which now stands on its site.) The family removed to 45 Chapel Street, Pentonville, with the exception of Mary, who was placed under suitable care at Hackney, where Charles could frequently visit her. In February 1797 old Aunt Hetty died, and Charles was left as the solitary guardian of his father until the latter's death in 1799.

The letters of Charles Lamb, through which his life may be henceforth studied, open with a correspondence with Coleridge, beginning in May 1796. The earliest of these letters records how Charles Lamb himself had been for six weeks in the winter of 1795–6 in an asylum for some form of mental derangement, which, however, seems never to have recurred. It is likely that this tendency was inherited from the mother, and that moreover the immediate cause, in this case, may have been a love disappointment. This at least is certain, that already Charles Lamb had lost his heart to a girl living not far from Blakesware, his grandmother's home in Hertfordshire. The earliest intimation of the fact is afforded by the existence of two sonnets which Lamb submits to Coleridge in 1796 as having been written by him in the summer of 1795 (see Lamb's Letters, i. 4). Both poems refer to Hertfordshire, and the second distinctly reveals an attachment to a ‘gentle maid’ named Anna, who had lived in a ‘cottage,’ and with whom ‘in happier days’ he had held free converse, days which, however, ‘ne'er must come again.’ At that early date, therefore, it is clear that the course of love had not run smooth, and it is reasonable to connect Lamb's mental breakdown in the following winter with this cause. A year later, in writing to Coleridge after his mother's death, he speaks of his attachment as a folly that has left him for ever. All that is certain of this episode in Lamb's life is that the girl's name was Ann Simmons, that she lived with her mother in a cottage called Blenheims, within a mile of Blakesware House, and that she ultimately married a Mr. Bartram, a silversmith, of Princes Street, Leicester Square (she is mentioned under that name in