The profusion of “recovery memoirs” in the last ten years has been so abundant as to make a person ask where the genre has been all this time. The modern concept of addiction, as distinct from mere sinfulness or deficiency of willpower, has been around for two hundred years. For nine-tenths of that time the subject received almost no extended autobiographical treatment. Then, in the last few decades, alcoholic memoirs suddenly proliferated like weeds.
The obvious explanation is that, until recently, alcoholism was not considered a fit topic for public discussion. Undoubtedly this is true—as Betty Ford among others learned to her cost—but to allude generically to the reticence of past generations just doesn’t seem very precise. What exactly would have befallen an author who tried to publish such an account of his alcoholism in the nineteenth century? Under what circumstances would it have occurred to him to try?
The strikingly modern “Confessions of a Drunkard” (1813) was published four times during the lifetime of its author, Charles Lamb, and each occasion was highly unusual. It was almost an accident that it was published at all, or that Lamb was ever revealed as its author. It has little in common with the two standard addiction narratives of its era, the maudlin cautionary tale popular in temperance tracts or the Romantic panegyric on the spiritual benefits of intoxication. It is clear-eyed, unsparing, and full of insight—and after setting down such a perceptive first-person account, Lamb tried a dozen different evasions to avoid being credited with it. These evasions make Lamb an interesting case study as much as his having written the “Confessions” in the first place.
Charles Lamb, who used to be a well-known name if only for his Tales from Shakespeare, is not the Romantic writer anyone would have expected to produce a searing account of alcoholism. In his circle he was always the normal one. He had a real job, unlike his friend Wordsworth, who had a government sinecure, or his old school chum Coleridge, who rarely worked and subsisted on the kindness of strangers. Nor was Lamb’s job in any way literary, merely a minor clerical position with the East India Company. His personal life was conventional. While his friend Leigh Hunt the radical journalist was experimenting with plural marriage and Hazlitt and Coleridge were abandoning their respective wives and children, Lamb was enjoying a respectable bachelor’s life under the domestic supervision of his sister Mary.
To his friends and to posterity he was “Saint Charles” because of his sweet disposition. It was Lamb who volunteered to play Cupid when Hazlitt had some difficulty courting his first wife Sarah, who happened to be Mary Lamb’s best friend. When Wordsworth and Coleridge were feuding, it was Lamb who tried harder than anyone to reconcile them. He was Surrey County Gaol’s most regular visitor during Leigh Hunt’s two-year incarceration there, a kindness Hunt never forgot. The “Elia” essays, on which Lamb’s reputation as a writer rests, are light-hearted musings on very ordinary topics like how dull one’s friends become when they marry. It is almost enough to point out that the title of the most well-known Elia essay is (what could be more benign) “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig.”
But beneath this genial exterior was a melancholy backstory, and it has been said that Lamb reveled in ordinariness only because in his case it was so hard won. As most of his friends knew, he was not only his sister’s constant companion but also her legal guardian. When she was 31 Mary had stabbed their mother to death in a fit of insanity, and she avoided being sentenced to life in Bedlam only when Charles, aged 21, promised to take her under his personal care indefinitely. Though she was quite lucid most of the time, at least once a year Mary’s madness would recur and she had to be packed off to an institution. The pair of them traveled with a straitjacket.
Charles himself had a tendency to nervousness that might have been hereditary. Unlike Mary’s history, which his friends needed to know about to be able to spot the warning signs of an impending episode, Charles’s brief institutionalization at age 20 never became public knowledge. According to Robert Southey, who knew him at the time, Lamb’s madness took the form of a delusion that he was Young Norval from the verse tragedy Douglas. The play is about a mother who abandons her son at birth and never does the least thing for him until she learns of his violent death, at which point she throws herself off a cliff. Fantasizing about a mother punished by fate for her neglect—one begins to suspect there was more to Mary’s first breakdown than nervous exhaustion.
We know little about the period leading up to this six-week brush with madness because, upon his release in early 1796, Lamb burned the relevant notebooks and correspondence. (Note his discretion.) The composition of “Confessions of a Drunkard” dates to another blank period in Lamb’s written record. The years bracketing 1813 are almost completely unrepresented in his Collected Letters, and he published practically nothing in the way of journalism either. It is not hard to imagine why this might have been a particularly dark time in Lamb’s life. His writing career to that point had been a string of failures. His novella and his plays had flopped, and the number of magazine editors willing to look at his submissions had dwindled so low that Lamb was beginning to wonder if he had any future as a writer at all. The “Elia” essays were almost ten years away.
In his personal life, he was coming to grips with the unlikelihood of ever finding a woman willing to marry into a bloodline prone to insanity. (He never did.) And his drinking was getting bad. His friends were too tactful to say it outright in their letters and diaries, but there is a repetitiveness to their anecdotes about Lamb in this period, which inevitably end with him “tipsy,” “overcome,” or having to be carried home. For at least ten years Charles had been periodically expressing his resolve to go on the wagon, but he was still getting drunk as often as ever. “Last night was to be a night of temperance,” wrote Mary in 1810, “but it was not.” In short, the year 1813 found Lamb a middle-aged man desperate to end his writer’s block and equally desperate to try anything, including authorial catharsis, that might cure his addiction to drink.
As for how the manuscript ended up in the hands of the editors of The Philanthropist, an obscure and short-lived Utilitarian magazine, nobody knows. It may not even have been Lamb who gave it to them. It could have been his best friend Hazlitt, who at the time was living in a guest-house in Jeremy Bentham’s garden, which would have brought him into regular contact with The Philanthropist’s co-editor, the famous James Mill. The fact that Mill was the editor responsible for the piece’s original publication resolves the paradox that while it took an exceptionally sensitive person to write “Confessions of a Drunkard,” it took an exceptionally insensitive person to decide to publish it. Tone-deafness has always been a hazard for rigorous Utilitarians, and the literal-minded James Mill was perhaps more susceptible than most. (more…)