Charles Lamb, the Clerk of the India House

by Edwin Watts Chubb

The author of the Essays of Elia and Tales Founded on the Plays of Shakspere worked for the greater part of his life in the employ of the Honorable East India Company. He received his appointment in 1792, the year of the birth of Shelley. He had been trained at Christ's Hospital for a university career; this gave him a good classical education but not especially good preparation for his new work. Had he been obliged to pass a civil service examination he would hardly have received the appointment. Of geography and arithmetic he knew little. The schoolboy of to-day will be surprised to learn that a boy a hundred and more years ago might reach the age of fifteen in a good grammar school of that period and yet not be able to use the multiplication table. As late as 1823 Lamb writes: "I think I lose a hundred pounds a year owing solely to my want of neatness in making up accounts: how I puzzle 'em out at last is the wonder!" There is no evidence, however, to show that Lamb did not overcome his lack of preparation. The contrary impression sometimes prevails, due, perhaps, to his supposed apology for his late arrival by his representation that he made up for it by a correspondingly early departure. His industry must have been appreciated, for his salary rose from nothing to a fair figure.

The modern young man, desirous of earning a good salary at once, will be surprised at the statement that Lamb worked for nothing at first. He will be still more surprised to learn that in those days a clerk in the employ of the great India Company worked three years for nothing. This period evidently was considered as the apprenticeship. It is true a gratuity of 30 pounds was given, and by extra work one might earn small sums. In April, 1795, three years having ended, he received a salary of 40 pounds a year. The next year it rose to 70. By 1799 it had advanced to 90, and from then on to 1814 he received an increment of ten pounds every two years. He also received a gratuity each year. The gratuity by 1814 had amounted to 80 pounds. After a reorganization of the company in 1815 Lamb seems to have progressed in salary, for he then received 480 pounds, and in 1821 it was 700; and at the time of his retirement it was 730.

On the whole, one can say that Lamb's lot was not a hard one. No doubt, many of his fellow-authors had reason to envy him his assured income. His work was hard and not always pleasant, but he knew, with all his half-pretended grumbling, that it would not be wise to rely on his pen for a livelihood. He once remonstrated with the poetical Quaker, Bernard Barton, who proposed to give up a bank-clerkship, in this wise: "Trust not the public; I bless every star that Providence, not seeing good to make me independent, has seen it next good to settle me down on the stable foundation of Leadenhall.... Henceforth I retract all my fond complaints of mercantile employments; look upon them as lovers' quarrels. I was but half in earnest. Welcome, dead timber of a desk that makes me live! a little grumbling is a wholesome medicine for the spleen; but in my inner heart do I improve and embrace this our close but unharassing way of life."

That his work was no sinecure can be gathered from this letter of about 1815: "On Friday I was at office from ten in the morning (two hours dinner excepted) to eleven at night; last night till nine. My business and office business in general have increased so; I don't mean I am there every night, but I must expect a great deal of it. I never leave till four, and do not keep a holiday now once in ten times, where I used to keep all red-letter days and some five days besides, which I used to dub nature's holidays.... I had formerly little to do.... Hard work and thinking about it taints even the leisure hours—stains Sunday with workday contemplations."

After thirty-three years of service he was granted by his company a pension of 450 pounds. On the minutes of the Court of Directors can be found the following resolution: "that the resignation of Mr. Charles Lamb, of the accountant-general's office, on account of certified ill-health be accepted, and it appearing that he has served the company faithfully for thirty-three years ... he be allowed a pension of 450 pounds annually."

When the resolution was communicated to him he went home to enjoy one long holiday of leisure and literary study and authorship. "I am Retired Leisure.... I have worked task work, and have the rest of the day to myself." But his day did not last many years. "Lamb was but fifty when he quitted the service of the company; yet less than ten years of life were left to him. Not only so, but the happiness he had expected to find proved more and more elusive. The increasing frequency of his sister's aberration was a heavy burden for a back which grew daily less able to bear the strain. The leisure to which he had looked forward so eagerly was spent in listening to incoherent babblings, that rambling chat which was to him 'better than the sense and sanity of this world.' In her lucid intervals they played picquet together, or talked gravely but firmly of the inevitable separation looming nearer and nearer. In 1830 Hazlitt died. Four years later that 'great and dear spirit,' Coleridge, passed away after long suffering. The blow to Lamb was stunning in its severity; and the loss of this earliest and best-loved friend possibly accelerated his own decease. Towards the close of the year a fall while walking caused a trifling wound. No harm was expected to result; but the general feebleness of his health brought on erysipelas, and upon Saturday, January 3, 1835, he was borne to his rest in a quiet corner of Edmonton Church-yard, there to await the coming, twelve years later, of the sister who had been throughout his life at once his greatest joy and his chiefest care."