By Katherine Monroe, student library assistant
Have you ever read one of those books that just makes you want to stop everything else you are doing and delve into its pages? I find this to be true even when I listen to audiobooks, an activity I have taken up in order to stay sane in the LA traffic on my way to work at the Clark Library. As I listened to Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society over a period of two weeks, I became enamored with all of the characters. This fictional book is set up as an exchange of letters between a London writer, Juliet Ashton, and people on Guernsey; through these letters, it tells the story of how the islanders dealt with the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands that lasted from 1940 to 1945 and how their creation of a book club helped save them and also created long-lasting friendships in a time of such uncertainty.
One of my favorite characters, Dawsey Adams, initiates contact with Juliet because it is her copy of Charles Lambs’ The Essays of Elia of which he is now the proud owner. Since I didn’t know who Charles Lamb was, and since I happen to work at a special collections library which specializes in works of 17th– and 18th-century British literature and history, I decided to search the catalog to see if I, too, could read Charles Lamb and find out what it was that had captured both Juliet and Dawsey. Well, I am happy to say that I now understand the appeal of this English essayist and poet who was born in 1775 and died in 1834. The Clark owns several works by the man, including a lovely little hand-colored children’s book, The King and Queen of Hearts, printed in 1805.
Another work that Lamb actually co-authored with his sister, Mary (who is herself an interesting, if not tragic, character) is Tales from Shakespear, Designed for the Use of Young Readers, published in 1807. The two-volume work contains twenty of Shakespeare’s plays, converted into prose for the education of children, along with twenty engraved plates by William Blake.
And then there is the humorously-titled Satan in Search of a Wife, published in 1831.
The Clark copy is a first edition with 6 lively woodcut engravings. The first part presents Satan moping while his mother asks what ails him, until it is revealed that he has fallen in love with the tailor’s daughter while he was escorting her father to his fiery domain. As Satan prepares to go off and bring her back, his mother asks: “But what will you do with your horns, my son? / And that tail – fair maids will mock it –” To which Satan replies: “My tail I will dock – and as for the horn, / Like husbands above I think no scorn / To carry it in my pocket.” The second part tells of how the maiden, already in love with Satan, resists at first (due to his too-human disguise) but then gives in; Satan carries her off where a grand feast attended by Medusa and overseen by “Bishop Judas” is held to mark the occasion.
While that poem was a lot of fun to read, especially in trying to figure out who was mentioned as being a resident of Hell, I still liked those Essays of Elia which had first inspired me to search the stacks at the Clark.
The beautiful red leather volume of Lamb’s witty recollections of his life, all published under the penname of Elia in the London Magazine and collected in 1823, bring to life early 19th-century London, along with scenes from his childhood. In “Five and Thirty Years Ago,” he recounts how he hated to be forced to spend days outside of his horrible school, Christ’s Hospital, yet has almost fond memories of those moments:
How merrily we would sally forth into the fields; and strip under the first warmth of the sun; and wanton like young dace in the streams; getting us appetites for noon, which those of us that were pennyless (our scanty morning crust long since exhausted) had not the means of allaying – while the cattle, and the birds, and the fishes, were at feed about us, and we had nothing to satisfy our cravings – the very beauty of the day, and the exercise of the pastime, and the sense of liberty, setting a keener edge upon them! – How faint and languid, finally, we would return, towards nightfall, to our desired morsel, half-rejoicing, half-reluctant, that the hours of our uneasy liberty had expired!
In both his poetry and his prose, Charles Lamb shows himself to be an entertaining and engaging writer of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is easy to see why characters as wonderful as those in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, as well as real people such as myself, would enjoy reading the works of such a man.
The King and Queen of Hearts: with the rogueries of the knave who stole the queen’s pies: illustrated in fifteen elegant engravings (London: printed for Thomas Hodgkins, 1806) *PR4862.K41
Elia. Essays which have appeared under that signature in the London Magazine (London: printed for Taylor and Hessey, 1823) *PR4861.A1
Tales from Shakespear. Designed for the use of young persons (London: printed for Thomas Hodgkins, 1807) *PR4862.T11
Satan in search of a wife: with the whole process of his courtship and marriage, and who danced at the wedding/by an eye witness (London: Edward Moxon, 1831) *PR4862.S21