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Fragmented Persons: Charles Lamb, John Woodvil and ‘The Confessions of a Drunkard’

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Part of the Romanticism in Perspective: Texts, Cultures, Histories book series (ROPTCH)

Abstract

Attitudes toward heavy drinking change at the end of the eighteenth century. We have seen that doctors and social observers noticed the heavy drinking of the poor because of their greater concentration in cities and around industries, and that doctors began to call this drinking a disease and to lament it not just for groups but also for individual cases. We have seen Dr Currie examine at length Burns’s drunkenness where fifty years before it would scarcely deserve mention and two hundred years before would rouse laughter, as the transformation of the drunkard Christopher Sly in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew sets the tone of the actions to come. Dating the moment of change is difficult, but the contrast between Samuel Johnson (who willed himself to stop drinking) and James Boswell (who tried, but could not) points the way:1 inward struggle, powerlessness and guilty awareness subtly deepen the problem of drunkenness.

Keywords

Personal Identity Heavy Drinking Bundle Theory East India Company Malt Liquor 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Thomas B. Gilmore, ‘James Boswell’s Drinking’, Eighteenth Century Studies 24 (1991), 337–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. The distinction between Johnson and Boswell is also clearly noted in Robin N. Crouch, ‘Samuel Johnson on Drinking’, Dionysos: The Literature and Addiction Triquarterly 5, 2 (Fall 1993), 19–27.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Charles J. Rzepka, The Self as Mind: Vision and Identity in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 23–6, describes the ‘pluralism of identities’, the subsequent ‘feelings of emptiness and insubstantiality’, and ‘the correspondent derealization of the embodied self’, that begin in this troubled periodCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Felicity Nussbaum, The Autobiographical Subject: Gender and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), pp. 103–26, reveals that Boswell applied Hume’s doubts about personal identity directly to his own fluctuating self, a ‘dissipated, inconstant fellow’, and saw himself in a continual flux. His drunken self, like Lamb’s and Coleridge’s, surprised him with unpredictable acts and feelings.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    For the shift toward a discourse of addiction, see Clifford Siskin, The Historicity of Romantic Discourse ( New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988 ), pp. 164–94.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Roy Porter has shown that as early as 1740 some doctors were already lamenting their lack of control over their own drinking in ‘The Drinking Man’s Disease: The “Pre-History” of Alcoholism in Georgian Britain’, British Journal of Addiction 80 (1985), 385–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 6.
    David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Ernest C. Mossner ( Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969 ), pp. 299–300.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    For a profound discussion of existential shipwreck in Romanticism generally and in Coleridge in particular, see Thomas McFarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969 ), pp. 314–16.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    David Hartley, Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty and His Expectations (1749), ed. Theodore L. Huguelet (2 vols, Gainsville, Fla.: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1966), pp. 50–1 and 393–5Google Scholar
  10. Jerome Christensen, Coleridgé s Blessed Machine of Language (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), closely examines the power of Hartley’s theories over Coleridge and his contemporaries.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. Mary J. Gregor ( The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974 ), p. 9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. See The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. F. Max Muller (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 248–64, for his arguments for the person based on ‘a transcendental unity of apperception’Google Scholar
  13. See Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. Thomas K. Abbott (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1949), p. 46, for his definition of the ethical personGoogle Scholar
  14. I have written about the influence on Coleridge of Kant’s refutations of Hume in Anya Taylor, ‘Coleridge on Persons in Dialogue’, MLQ 50,4 (Dec. 1989), 357–74; and in ‘Coleridge on Persons and Things’, European Romantic Review 1, 2 (Winter 1992 ), 163–80.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Gerald Monsman, Confessions of a Prosaic Dreamer: Charles Lamb’s Art of Autobiography ( Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984 ), p. 13.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Thomas McFarland, ‘Charles Lamb: The Politics of Survival’, Romantic Cruxes: The English Essayists and the Spirit of the Age ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987 ), p. 47.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    The approach of madness, heard as ‘a dull trampling sound’, is described with horrified precision by Charles Lloyd, as recounted in Thomas De Quincey, ‘Society of the Lakes II’, Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, ed. David Wright (London: Penguin, 1970), pp. 323–30. De Quincey speaks with revulsion of the cruelties in the asylums for the insane.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Winifred F. Courtney, Young Charles Lamb 1775–1802 (New York and London: New York University Press, 1982), pp. 347–8, n. 7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    The Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb, ed. Donald S. Klopfer (New York: Modern Library, 1935), p. 31. Page references to Lamb’s essays, poems, and plays will be to this readily available volume, and will appear in the text as LCW.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Jane Aaron, A Double Singleness: Gender and the Writings of Charles and Mary Lamb (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), explores the siblings’ ‘atypical merging of gender roles’, and suggests that these constant companions reject aggressive, authoritarian styles and prefer a ‘feminine’ attentiveness to others. Their ‘choice’ of styles arises from their lack of access to social power (p. 147) and adoption of attitudes characteristic of ‘social dispossession’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 22.
    James White, Original Letters, Etc., of Sir John Falstaff and his Friends (1796), ed. Charles Edmund Merrill, Jr. (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1924), pp. 120–1, ‘Sir John to Antient Pistol’.Google Scholar
  22. 24.
    Mark Taylor, ‘Prospero’s Books and Stephano’s Bottle: Colonial Experience in The Tempest’, Clio 22, 2 (1993), 101–13.Google Scholar
  23. 26.
    Fred V. Randel, ‘Eating and Drinking’, The World of Elia: Charles Lamb’s Essayistic Romanticism (Port Washington, N.Y., and London: Kennikat Press, 1975), pp. 113–37, gives many references to eating, as symptoms that Lamb was deprived of mothering, but hardly mentions drink.Google Scholar
  24. 29.
    The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, ed. Willard Bissell Pope (5 vols, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960–3), 2,173–6.Google Scholar
  25. 30.
    E. V. Lucas, The Life of Charles Lamb (2 vols, continuous pagination, London: Methuen, 1921; reprinted 1968), p. 768. Subsequent references in the text are to EVL.Google Scholar
  26. 31.
    Lamb’s biographers often ignore and usually excuse his drinking as ‘understandable’. Ernest C. Ross, The Ordeal of Bridget Elia: A Chronicle of the Lambs (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1940), is one biographer who refers often to Charles’s drunkenness, particularly as it unsettles Mary.Google Scholar
  27. 33.
    David Cecil, A Portrait of Charles Lamb (New York: Charles Scribners, 1983), pp. 122–3. Despite her important contribution to an understanding of Charles and Mary Lamb’s madness, Jane Aaron in A Double Singleness persistently denies the reality of Charles’s alcoholism, saying, for example, that his night in the stocks in 1809 showed only his marginal social position, and that the ‘Confessions of a Drunkard’ revealed that drink did not relieve depression. Such denial of alcoholism is common even for commentators on twentieth-century writers.Google Scholar
  28. 34.
    Again, the strange problem of biographers denying the alcoholism of their subjects arises. Thomas B. Gilmore, as we saw, noted this denial among the biographers of Boswell; Tom Dardis, The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1989), describes it at work among biographers of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.Google Scholar
  29. 35.
    Henry Crabb Robinson, Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence, ed. Thomas Sadler (2 vols, London and New York: Macmillan and Co, 1872; reprinted 1967), I, 165: ‘Coleridge spent an afternoon with us on Sunday. He was delightful. Charles Lamb was unwell, and could not join us. His change of habit, though it on the whole improves his health, yet when he is low-spirited leaves him without a remedy or relief.’Google Scholar
  30. 37.
    Katherine Anthony, The Lambs: A Study in Pre-Victorian England (1948; reprinted Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1973), pp. 101 and 224–5. Coleridge’s joke about the origins of the word appears in Chapter 4.Google Scholar
  31. 38.
    Neither Alan Richardson, A Mental Theatre: Poetic Drama and Consciousness in the Romantic Age ( University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988 )Google Scholar
  32. nor Julie A. Carlson, In the Theatre of Romanticism: Coleridge, Nationalism, Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), mention the play, though both credit Lamb’s contributions as a theatre critic.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 39.
    Jane Aaron, A Double Singleness, pp. 149–50, arguing that Lamb opposes masculinity and male aggression, writes, ‘The “stains of manhood” also bring about a parent’s death in John Woodvil.’ These ‘stains’ presumably include Woodvil’s desire to participate in the manly drunkenness of the age, but Aaron mentions his drinking only in the phrase, ‘In the pride of his liquor’. George L. Barnett, Charles Lamb (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976), pp. 45–7, does say that the hero was drinkingGoogle Scholar
  34. The most sustained analysis of the play, in Wayne McKenna, Charles Lamb and the Theatre (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978), pp. 55–63, clearly explains the weaknesses of plot and character, but does not mention drink.Google Scholar
  35. 45.
    Gregory Bateson, ‘The Cybernetics of “Self”: A Theory of Alcoholism’, Psychiatry 34 (Feb. 1971), 1–18Google Scholar
  36. Loy D. Martin, Browning’s Dramatic Monologues and the Post-Romantic Subject (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), pp. 257–63, uses Bateson to connect the dramatic monologue to the ‘drunkalogue’ of Alcoholics Anonymous and to ground both in the fragmented subjectivity and alienation of person from system initiated in Romanticism.Google Scholar
  37. 46.
    Brother Ralph’s soliloquy in James Agee, A Death in the Family (New York: Avon, 1938), pp. 52–9, reproduces a similar maudlin self-involvement and self-loathing.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Anya Taylor 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.John Jay College of Criminal JusticeThe City University of New YorkUSA

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