The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Clare Bucknell on Charles Lamb

February 06, 2024 The Point Magazine Season 2 Episode 2
Selected Essays | Clare Bucknell on Charles Lamb
The Point Podcast
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The Point Podcast
Selected Essays | Clare Bucknell on Charles Lamb
Feb 06, 2024 Season 2 Episode 2
The Point Magazine

On the new episode of Selected Essays, Jess and Zach speak with Clare Bucknell about Charles Lamb’s “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers”—surprisingly the first essay a guest has chosen that was written before 1900. In histories of the essay form, from Montaigne forward, you’ll often see Lamb’s name appear as one of the great “familiar” essayists, but he’s read relatively little today. Listen to hear Clare’s  reading of Lamb’s essay and how it shaped her thoughts on the ever-controversial Giacomo Casanova, the focus of her piece in Harper’s, The Thoughtful Prick.”

Craving more essays? Subscribe to The Point here and use the coupon code 7POD50 at checkout for 50% off.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On the new episode of Selected Essays, Jess and Zach speak with Clare Bucknell about Charles Lamb’s “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers”—surprisingly the first essay a guest has chosen that was written before 1900. In histories of the essay form, from Montaigne forward, you’ll often see Lamb’s name appear as one of the great “familiar” essayists, but he’s read relatively little today. Listen to hear Clare’s  reading of Lamb’s essay and how it shaped her thoughts on the ever-controversial Giacomo Casanova, the focus of her piece in Harper’s, The Thoughtful Prick.”

Craving more essays? Subscribe to The Point here and use the coupon code 7POD50 at checkout for 50% off.

Jessica Swoboda  00:00

Hey everyone, welcome to Selected Essays, a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read, but probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda, and I'm here with my co host Zach Fine. 


Zach Fine  00:22

Hey everyone. This week we spoke with Clare Bucknell about Charles Lambs's, "In Praise of Chimney Sweepers" and Clare's essay about the infamous Giacomo Casanova in Harper's. Clare is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Her book about the social history of poetry anthologies, The Treasuries, was published in February.


Jessica Swoboda  00:40

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments, or anything else, send an email to selected essays at the point We'd love to hear from you. And also, be sure to subscribe to The Point, the magazine that brings you content like this podcast. You can find a 50% off discount code exclusive to listeners in the episode notes.


Zach Fine  01:15

Hey Clare, thank you so much for joining us on this episode of Selected Essays.


Clare Bucknell  01:21

Hey, Zach and Jess, thanks for having me.


Zach Fine  01:24

So just to start, can you tell us a little bit about the life of Charles Lamb?


Clare Bucknell  01:29

Yeah, so Charles Lamb was born in 1775. In London, he was a barristers, clerks son, so nothing fancy in his background. He was a contemporary of coloriages of school. But unlike Coleridge, he missed out on a university education. And he went to work at 15 first for the South Sea Company, and then in the accountants department of the East India Company, where he worked from 17 to 50. And so he had to write in the sort of snatch moments that he found around his work. And for you know, for the first couple of decades of his writing life, he wrote short essays, dramas, literary criticism. He retold Shakespeare's plays for children, with his sister, Mary. Mary, I should say is one of the big reasons why he had no choice but to stick to a conventional decently paying job. She was in and out of private asylums, all her life, and she was fortunate not to have been confined to the public Madhouse Bassam in 1796, after killing their mother with a kitchen knife, so there's this kind of deep trauma in their background and lamb has no choice really, but to care for his sister. And he became famous as a writer later on in his late 40s, when he began to produce essays under the pseudonym Elia for the London magazine, as said by John Scott, and Elia as a character is a kind of tissue of autobiographical truth and fiction. So some of his personal history is lands history, some of it isn't. Some of what seems to be self revelation turns out not to be the kind of subjects that Elia produced essays on as he grew to be more and more popular range from studies of kinds of people. So chimney sweepers, beggars, fools, witches, to anecdotes, literary criticism, and made up histories of so at one point, Elia tries to tell us that the ancient Chinese first discovered the deliciousness of roast pork, by accidentally setting a house on fire with pigs in it, and then proceeded to keep destroying their houses in order to taste it again. Five years later, 1825 By which time he lamb is a literary celebrity because of Elia. He gives up the character feeling cramped by the conditions that placed on his writing, and produces little more before his death in 1834.


Zach Fine  04:04

Thank you so much. In so can you tell us why you chose his essay, the praise of chimney sweepers in particular out of all of those Elia essays?


Clare Bucknell  04:15

Yeah, it's a very rich essay. It's filled with quotations and allusions which take you in odd places, which is the very last thing to do. He leaked uses allusions, not to explain things will make them clearer, but to make them less clear, to kind of take you down avenues that you didn't expect. It's a problematic essay, which is very interesting. It makes interesting equations between types of vulnerable subjects, which would have been provocative and lunchtime still is now. It kind of brings together narratives, social observation, whimsical speculation, again, very lamb all in this interesting mishmash, so it's sort of typical of him and extremely rich.


Jessica Swoboda  05:05

Why don't we turn to the first passage of the essay? Can you read that for us, Clare? 


Clare Bucknell  05:10

Yeah, of course, let me just so, "The Praise of Chimney Sweepers." "I like to meet a sweep, understand me, not a grown sweeper, old chimney sweepers are by no means attractive. But one of those tender novices, the maternal washings, not quite a face from the cheek, such as come forth with the dawn or somewhat earlier, with their little professional notes sounding like the peep peep of a young Sparrow, or likely to the mat in Lark should I pronounce them in their aerial a sense not seldom anticipating the sunrise, I have a kindly yearning towards these dim specs."


Jessica Swoboda  05:55

This first passage really seems to capture how the poetic form finds itself into his prose and into the essay. There's the excessive use of dashes the single sentence that proliferates with commas, and semi colons, so what do you make of lamb style?


Clare Bucknell  06:15

So lamb has, I would say, a kind of Baroque style. So he doesn't see things one way he says them 50 different ways. And as you said, his sentences often tend to be very long, which makes them difficult to paraphrase, because it's not always clear. What is the tenor? And what is the vehicle to use terms drawn from metaphor? So what is the substance and what is the illustration of substance is not always clear how to distinguish those two things, as you pointed out those dashes, which both connects parts of sentences, but also disconnect them in a way that a conjunction can join something together, that it can also disjoin it. He likes to build in elements of common speech and sound. So the Pete people, the young Sparrow alongside those more literary allusions and the big words that he loves, he likes an archaic style. So often, there'll be lots of F verb endings, he look F, he stomped Earth. And so it is the sort of Baroque tapestry of references and sentences that in theory could go on forever, because it doesn't really matter where they're going. The point is how we're getting there.


Jessica Swoboda  07:33

And then we also get an introduction to the subject of his fascination, the chimney sweepers, particularly the young chimney sweep sweepers. And I have to say there are times throughout the essay when I was made uncomfortable by his descriptions of the chimney sweepers just in terms of his relationships to them. But how are we as readers supposed to understand his fascination with them? Perhaps my reaction isn't the one that's intended to be produced.


Clare Bucknell  07:59

I think your reaction is exactly the one that's intended. I think discomfort is something that lamb is deliberately sowing the seeds of. But I think our reaction is meant to change and alter as we as we move through the assay, which is another typical lamb effect. That that opening that I like to meet a sweep, understand me not agreeing sweeper, because they're not attractive. And you think, oh, okay, so we're not coming in on humanitarian level. He's not interested in the sweeps, because they're objects of pity. He's interested in small boys sleeps, because they are somehow more attractive than older timeworn sweets. So that's a strange, wrong footing note to come in on. And then as you say, discomforting notes introduced when he begins to compare the sweeps to, to young Africans to slave boys. And this was this was a common analogy and reformed circles have the time to compare two kinds of victims. And in this case, it's this physical analogy between the sweeps city black faces, and the black faces of African slaves. That would have been around the time that Lam was publishing this. So increasingly, point of public reference. But these references are deeply discomforting and are meant to be so and get pushed and pushed further as we make it through the essay. And it's this odd playing off between recognizable analogies. So the sweeps look like African slaves or the sweeps look like strategical children in Macbeth to very precise descriptions of this particular sweep who I once met, who reminded me of a sweep and Hogarth, so this strange oscillation between the particular and the general, which again, is very typical of lamb style, it's highly referential, but also it's very precise. I am interested in this one weird character thing I want to tell you about it. So yeah, that's why it is certainly discomforting. So


Jessica Swoboda  10:01

thank you. And it seems to me that this essay gets that questions of race and class among much else. And so, in what ways does this essay provide a snapshot of 19th century Britain?


Clare Bucknell  10:13

Yeah, that's an interesting question. Um, I think one way it does that, which Dickens also does, is to focus in on a strange, marginalized figure. So in this case, the figure of the young chimney sweep, who Lam makes sure that we see in a strange marginalized time of day, which is this odd threshold Dawn moment where most people are in bed, and the Sweeps are out, and the rakes are coming home from their midnight revelries also awake, but normal, ordinary, law abiding good people, implicitly middle class people are in their beds. So the sweep occupies the strange threshold weird place in society, much like the beggars mannequins he describes in a later assay, who he compares specifically to sort of fragments of stone. So they are sort of little marginal things from which you can extrapolate larger ideas and questions about society. So if you start off in the small marginal place, you can get bigger issues, but you have to focus on the weird and the small first. So he takes us from the margins to these these bigger questions. And I think that is a distinctive way in the romantic imagination, certainly possible, possibly also the Victorian imagination, of understanding these bigger humanitarian questions that were beginning to be raised. Okay, we start with a small fragment on the edge. And we take you from that fascinating titillating point to somewhere else.


Zach Fine  11:50

It's so interesting, because I was thinking at the beginning, as you were you were saying that he wasn't approaching this through humanitarian angle, and I was trying to understand, you know, he approaches these chimney sweeps as the social outcasts like the beggars, but talks about their necessity in a way of their importance. And so what what is their social function for him? What purpose do they serve, as in comparison with the beggars for instance? Yeah,


Clare Bucknell  12:14

he only doesn't talk too much about what the sweets actually do. So he remembers as a child, seeing them disappear into chimneys, and he remembers his childish imagination being fired by thinking of the dark trapped places through which they were calling at a later point in the essay, he says, If you, dear reader, give the sweep a penny, then, you know, you can be sure of having clean chimneys or your lives, those really the only references to the social function that the Sweeps are performing. And it's as if that doesn't particularly interest them. And what interests him instead, is a kind of whimsical extrapolation from that. Two worlds that the sweeps might have inhabited, had their social condition been different. So when one point he imagines that the sweeps must In fact, the changelings, from noble families stolen away from rich families at a very young age and forced into apprenticeships, because they couldn't their teeth are so gleaming white, they have this vestigial air of nobility that must have come from somewhere. So he is distinctly not interested in what they're actually doing. He's interested in what they're not doing or what they might have been doing, but the world hasn't not allowed them to do. So it's a very interesting deliberate turning away from their from their social function.


Zach Fine  13:41

Speaking of those gleaming white teeth, can we talk about the second passage, which I think is also my favorite passage? In the essay? Could you could you read it for us?


Clare Bucknell  13:50

Yes, of course. Let's start with the teeth. So lamb lamb says or alias as I am by theory obdurate to the seductiveness, of what are called a fine set of teeth. Every pair of rosy lips the ladies must pardon me, is a casket, presumably holding such tools, but me thinks they should take leave to air them as frugally as possible, the fine lady or fine gentleman who show me their teeth, show me bones. Yet I must I confess that from the mouth of a true sweep, a display even to ostentation of those white and shining classifications strikes me as an agreeable anomaly in manners and allowable piece of for free. It is as when, and he's quoting from Milton, a sable cloud turns forth her silver lining on the night. It is like some remnant of Gentry not quite extinct, a badge of better days, a hint of nobility, and doubtless, under the obscuring darkness and double night of their flaw and displacement. Oftentimes, look if good blood and gentle conditions derive from loss ancestry and Allah pedigree. The premature apprentice many of these tender victims give the too much encouragement I fear to clandestine and almost infantile abductions that seeds of civility and to courtesy so often discernible in these young graphs, not otherwise to be accounted for, plainly hint at some forced adoptions, many noble Rachel's mourning for their children, even in our days countenance the fact the tales of fairy spiriting, may shadow a lamentable Verity and the recovery of the young Montague who was Edward Watney, Montague he ran away from Westminster School to become a chimney sweep the recovery of the young Montague the but a solitary instance of good fortune out of the many irreparable and hopeless, deep affiliations.


Jessica Swoboda  15:50

So clear, why did you want to read this passage? Well, it


Clare Bucknell  15:54

starts from some a weird and anatomical place, which is often what lambdas so he has a famous essay on ears, in which he sort of opens by implying that he doesn't have any ears and then you learn that he in fact does. But he likes to move again from an isolated fragment, in this case a single body part and writes about it in a disorientating way. So the lady or fine gentleman who show me their teeth, show me bones, and then he moves from there to understand that fragment as a kind of singer to key for a greater whole and he whimsically moves from that to what white teeth might mean in a sweep. And it's the confidence which he has as he develops what is of course, a complete piece of whimsy and spins it into this full argument, drawing on various references and allusions biblical passages, recent history Montague's abscond from school. And as we said at the beginning, it's a couple of very, very long sentences, which build and build until what began as an absurd piece of whimsy through sheer repetition starts to feel halfway plausible, and ends with that example, which sort of hammers at home. Well, if one young lord ran away from a posh school to become a chimney sweep, I bet all the others are from noble houses. So it's that extraordinary building something very, very small and something very, very unlikely to this large, grander architecture of argument.


Zach Fine  17:35

When I was reading this passage, I was reminded there's a moment in an essay you wrote about lamb for the New York a few books, where you talk about his reception between the First and Second World Wars, and about critics tiring of his quote, mere surface charm, a kind of brain over familiarity, a mush of pleasantries for Toothless gums to mumble. And I think I'm forgetting if that's elitist quote at the end there. But I'm wondering if we see that lamb on display here? And if so, why? An


Clare Bucknell  18:05

interesting question, I think not in a sense because they clearly weren't reading lamb very, very closely because what they saw in him was the Lamb Enos of him. So the jovial Lamb, the kindly Lamb, the Lamb who was incredibly sweet, and whose whimsies were kept on a level of sort of Yeah, anodyne sweetness, or as if you read into these passages, to start with the anatomical as they do, to bring in bones and ossification ones, and histories that are quite violent graphs and Rachel's and clandestine abductions. Yes, there's a kind of softening that happens with endless repetition, that kind of calming effect, but the actual language is quite violent. And I don't think there's much there's Gmail about this passage, and I don't think there's much as meant to sue this and sort of Pat us on the head and tell us everything's going to be okay. So I don't think we see it really I think you see it possibly more than that in the in the first paragraph of the essay is sort of looping the reader genially you know, bringing him into the armchair in front of the fire. This is the story I'm going to tell you. But often that maneuver is done so that he can throw you off course later.


Zach Fine  19:18

There's a strange scene later in the essay, and I was hoping you could maybe help us parse it a little bit where there's a chimney sweep, who tired from working, crawls into a Dukes bed, inside of a castle in falls asleep. And it almost had the kind of quality of a fairy tale for me. And I'm wondering if you could help us understand why lamb chooses that scene and what it kind of represents for the chimney sweep?


Clare Bucknell  19:40

Yeah, that's a good question. So on one level, it's simply his example to prove a point that the sleeps must have noble origins because otherwise how could a lowly sweep possibly have the gumption to fall asleep? Not only in the Lord's bedroom, but literally in the Lord's sheets. unless he were tapping into some very dim, possibly unconscious memory of his own noble past, but that fairytale quality is really interesting. And for me, it relates to another essay of Elias in called Dream children, in which he talks about children that he Elia, these beautiful children of his flux and her children, Allison James, never had any children. And so the most sort of startling instance of Elia, creating fiction out of autobiography is this creation of these dream children, who later in the course of the essay, fadeaway, to air and undiscovered to have not been real at all. So they also have this fairytale dreamlike quality. It's something about the way that lamb writes about children, these things that he never had the opportunity of having He never married, he proposed but didn't work. And this is a half life that you never had. And I think you see that negative dreamlike quality in the passage here as well.


Zach Fine  21:03

And also Can I just ask you just out of out of pure personal curiosity compares the bed variously to a mother's lap. And then also a I'm gonna mispronounce it, but a book and into into nebula. I don't know if you can help me with the pronunciation there.


Clare Bucknell  21:21

Yeah, I guess. Yeah, yeah. And


Zach Fine  21:25

just the series. And I know, we've talked a little bit about lamb as this kind of associative thinker. And as you talk about in your essay on lamb about somebody who kind of, you know, moves elliptically. But the series of associations was so strange to me from the mother's lap to the to the book to if there was anything you made of that. And


Clare Bucknell  21:44

I think it must be the wet sheets, I think, I think that's the associative thinking that's going on there is simply in the worksheets. And that's often what lamb does is that words are so particular to him, that they sort of become fascinating in themselves, they have a kind of Quiddity. And so they, rather than the thing that they're meant to be pointing to then become the subject of his thinking. So he jumps from one kind of sheet to another, he can't stop themselves. Yeah, so I think that's what's going on.


Jessica Swoboda  22:15

There's another scene that I wanted to bring to our attention and to talk about, and it's when we learn that him and his friend white throw apart parties for these young boys, the young chimney sweepers, and they sort of shower them with alcohol and all these other treats, and they don't allow the old chimney sweepers to come in, in fact, send an invite kind of invitation saying you're not invited to this movie. And I'm wondering, what are we supposed to make of the scene? Because on one hand, I was like, Oh, this is weird. But on the other, as we've been talking, I was like, Oh, maybe I should read this more positively and less judgmental. But I'm wondering if you can offer any insights here. I will be interested


Clare Bucknell  22:56

to hear what how you judge this, like, what was the quality of your judgment? Now? What were you being judgmental about, right?


Jessica Swoboda  23:02

I was thinking, Oh, why are they having these, these two older, presumably older men having these parties for these young boys and giving them alcohol when many of them probably shouldn't be drinking? So maybe this is my 21st century view? Looking at this, I was like, Oh, is this really just like a pure party? or is there other intentions here behind these interactions?


Clare Bucknell  23:26

Yeah, interesting. I think I think it's related to the fact that the feast is held every year, he says upon the yearly Return of the fare of a buffalo mu. So buffalo, the Fed being a time of partying and carnival and Miss rule. So there's an element here of bringing this slightly in Congress group of people together, and the feast doing and make merry, and they're allowed not to work. So it's that sort of 12th night feeling of taking, you should be laboring into a place where they can be treated like gentleman, and it ties into lamps thought that that gentleman anyways, so why don't we treat them like this always. So, you know, the sausages are taken away from them. When this mysterious James White thinks that they're not sufficiently brown enough to palette of a young gentleman. So I think it is this Lord of Misrule moment which were pointed to by the Bartholomew fair reference. And then at the end, he says, The Fair doesn't happen anymore. James White is dead. I'm also leading the feast doesn't have any more. He carried away with him half the fun of the world when he died of my world at least, the Feast of some Bartholomew has altered the glory of Smithfield departed forever. So the world that is lost there is that world of upheaval and a loudness rule, and a quote from Shakespeare from assembling golden lads and lasses must as chimney sweepers, come to dust as part of that sense of postural it's like well Passing. Yeah. So


Zach Fine  25:02

it's just a world for land that has has passed in many ways. And the essay is, in some ways nostalgic or maybe Ella jive. I


Clare Bucknell  25:10

think that's right. And you can see it in other essays where he laments the passing of various folk customs and describes kinds of mischief or merrymaking, that now don't happen. And often when he's talking about customs as such in the New Year's Day essay, it's a real presentational exercise. If I didn't write about this strange thing, that maybe it won't last. So the essays invested in halting the passage of time in that sense, and this essay, it is lost, it's done. So what can you do that other dies? Yeah.


Jessica Swoboda  25:43

Why would you say lamb is such a major essayist and considered an influential essayist?


Clare Bucknell  25:50

The million dollar question. Yeah.


Jessica Swoboda  25:53

We have to ask it, you know, you are like the first person to pick a non 20th or 21st century essay? Oh, no, no, no, it's great. Um, well, I


Clare Bucknell  26:05

think one reason is that he's commonly paired with hazlit. So there is this age of the big romantic essay, the essay Yes, of the city, that essay becomes a form that is doing something distinct to what poetry does in the Romantic Period. It's specifically an urban form. And lamb makes that very clear in his pieces, where he talks in a para tactic way about the kind of novelties that you can get in an urban environment, like burglar and flow nursing, that aren't possible to get in a rural environment. So, and hazlit does something similar. So that essay performs something quite specific in this period. So that when you're thinking about the romantic sa lamb is the romantic essayist, non plus ultra, that's as of hazard. So it's partly that he accords with what we think drawing on Montaigne essays should do, which is that the essay they try, they're rambling, they go in multiple directions, they are associated. I mean, here's the sort of ultimate associated essayist. So he does things that we think SES should do. He's also very, very difficult. So he allows for the kind of multiplicity of interpretation that modern readers admire. Which is why I think it's strange that new criticism didn't pick him up, and why scrutiny and levers, and Dennis Miller was so hostile, because the kinds of acts of reading that he allows you to do are highly new critical. So that that, to me is a strange thing. Yeah. But certainly he's having a moment ago now.


Jessica Swoboda  27:46

So you selected your essay, the thoughtful prick to pair with the praise of chimney sweepers. Can you tell us a bit about your essay? And to what extent lamps influenced it?


Clare Bucknell  27:56

Yeah. So this was a difficult essay to write. It was a review of a biography of Giacomo Casanova, who I say elsewhere as the worst man of the 18th century, and he has a lot of competition by Leo Damrosch. And the work of this biography is to restore is to rethink Casanova in the shadow of me too. So how to think about this man, given what we now know. And to me, it was a tricky exercise, because it's not clear how much you can learn about someone as dreadful and predatory as Casanova simply by applying this lens. So what I tried to do in the essay is interrogate what he might have thought about himself through his fictional fictionalized ish autobiography, list, wha, which is this absolute giant sort of story of largely intellectual conquests, and large parts of it are novelized in a way that would have been recognizable to contemporary readers that what they were reading was kind of an autobiography and kind of a novel. So in the strategies it uses, it's very telling of how Casanova thought about himself thought about what he was doing, how he wanted to present himself to the world, how he felt he sometimes needs to lie. So I thought I need to dig into that, that slipperiness that seam between fiction and autobiography. And that to me, that made me think of lamb because lamb is that's predominantly what Elia is doing in these essays, is working in that interstice between fiction and autobiography. He's working with that kind of slipperiness so long was useful to me to help unpack that.


Jessica Swoboda  29:54

Interesting, right, because you discuss how Casanova in the duel projects himself as a hero. Like Third Person Character, and I was wondering if lamb is doing something similar with Elia, but it's suggest that he's more so doing the slipperiness between biography and fiction. Yeah,


Clare Bucknell  30:12

that's right. Yes, Casanova turns some of his exploits into fully blown novels in which he not only gives you the thoughts and feelings, his own thoughts and feelings, but also imagines normalizes the thoughts and feelings of others in his life that he couldn't possibly have known. So that's right. So it's that it's that move to turn the first person into the third, and what is gained and what is lost from that transition. And in lamb, there's a kind of defensiveness as a shield that he gets from trying on the cloak of Elia. And that may well be why he found it ultimately constricting why he felt like he had to throw it off. But there are things that lamb thinks that he can say in character that you can't say elsewhere. And there's also a unity, a unifying element that you get from character that you don't get if you simply write a bunch of essays, or at least that's the lambs view. If you write them in a character, they become dramatic and alive in a way that they aren't otherwise. And so that's also what Casanova is doing by writing the novels in this recognizable style. And by drawing on common novelistic tropes in his autobiography, he is lending this particular dramatic character aspect to what would otherwise be the sort of serial the serial run of conquests, which isn't interesting. It's not it's not plotted in that sense. It has no narrative arc, it has no resolution, unless we're thinking of the miniature narrative arc of sex. It is just serial.


Zach Fine  31:49

A word that appears in both your essays on lamb and Casanova is seduce or seduction. And I was wondering if we could think a little bit about your thoughts on Catherine Casanova as a as a seducer of the reader and also lamb as somebody who repels and seduces in how their styles of seduction as writers might be different?


Clare Bucknell  32:11

Yeah, that's a good question. And Casanova, as I, as I say, isn't a great writer. So a lot of what he wrote, isn't really read, large parts of list are relatively unreadable. And that is partly because he is so clearly reliant on generic vocabularies, for instance, around sex. So I talk about an end tag and the essay about the way that he relies on the common connection between sex and warfare. So the penis is always a weapon, the vagina was always a battlefield. So this isn't prose that is in any way seductive. It's prose that's meant to flick that button in your mind where you think, Okay, this is a genre I've seen before, I know where this is going. I know what the stakes are, I know who the players are. So it has this kind of generic force, but it doesn't have any particular force. So it's prose that doesn't seduce you, it, it refers to a genre of seduction, whereas lamb, there's something very different going on. And clearly he is playing back and forth with pulling the reader in seducing the reader, getting the reader on side and then repulsing the reader, saying something that is either too long or too extended, or too gross, or turning the tab off, turning away too quickly, leaving you in the lurch. So sort of, you know, snapping that thread of seduction. And clearly he knows what he's doing in that regard. That's part of the game. Because much, much more thoughtful than then will Casanova is doing.


Zach Fine  33:53

Thinking about the legacies of Casanova and lamb. We start with lamb for a second and thinking about him as a familiar essayist or an expert, the familiar essay, but whether that genre still functions today, and if so, in what kinds of outlets and by what kinds of writers. Yeah,


Clare Bucknell  34:12

I mean, that's the question. I mean, one of the reasons lamb fell so vertiginously out of fashion at the end of the 19th century was because the era of the of the gentleman the familiar essay was was was over, and readers still enjoyed it, but they were told by critics that they should not enjoy it, but this kind of, you know, dabble in the air, there's friendliness, there's over friendliness wasn't what SES should be giving you. And so a certain class of gentleman writers, largely, you know, went out of business or writing in that way. And essay writing became a much more aggressive regardless of mode, which I think you can you can still see now, I would say some publications are friendlier to that familiar mode than others. I would say one of the things I like about writing for the London Review of Books is that it does allow a certain version of that familiarity. And some writers do more than others. There are other publications, which I see is more hostile to us. But I think that self indulgent character element that we get in land and that land takes two extremes. Is you that is something you don't see. I think, maybe you disagree. Maybe you see it? And no,


Zach Fine  35:29

no, but it's also interesting that we're living in a kind of heyday of memoir, or also a lot of fiction, and how those modes might have anything to do with what lamb was doing in a different time in a different way. So whether the whether his impulses have been kind of sublimated into a different into different genres.


Clare Bucknell  35:47

Yeah, I think you can certainly see that. Yes, I mean, autofiction is clearly a sublimation of what's happening in lamb, but also what's happening in in Casanova. But I think modern memoir is a different thing to what certainly lamb is doing, I think there is a degree of a relation to the subject that is much less willing to indulge than in lamb. There's a element of analysis that you don't get in lamb that's perhaps informed by psychoanalysis.


Jessica Swoboda  36:28

Can I ask what other essays you'd recommend in the book of Elia?


Clare Bucknell  36:31

Yeah, of course. Um, so I would recommend the essay that comes out shortly after the Japanese people one. So that's the decay of a complaint of the decay of daggers and the metropolis, which in many ways is relatively similar to the shin chimney sweeper piece in the way that it treats a marginalized minority subject, but makes a thema ties is that because it picks out a specific beggar who has lost his legs in the in the golden riots of 1780. And so is sort of a sort of trunk and he exists on the streets. And Lam compares him to a kind of Elgin marble, sort of kind of museum fragment. And again, it's this very discomforting way of seeing a fragment, making it into a synecdoche a and making something from that. So he's a kind of, you know, Herculean part center, or what do we do with that kind of comparison? What are the problems whether it's, what is it not seeing in the particular person? How was it miss reading that beggar? So I think that's a really interesting one. I also think the essays about lambs, former colleagues, are very, very interesting. So there's one about the Saudi house and about these particular characters that he used to work with. And this is the beginning of his fascination with character particularity and the dramatization of character, and how language can help you get out quirks. So creating a language that no one else would use, because this is a person who is like no one else. Yeah.


Zach Fine  38:16

Can I ask Is there anything about lamps writing that you can see traces up in your own work any any explicit inheritances or, or tricks that you've taken from lamb? I'm, I'm


Clare Bucknell  38:29

partial to a dash. But on the on the broader level, I'm very interested in how the SA models thinking. And so lamb for me is someone who is very conscious of how you translate thought process onto the page and how style or style can map the way that a mind thinks through a subject. And so for lamb that's largely associative, but it's very clear that he's capable of logical reasoning when he wants to he just swerves it. So often, when I write about subject, a writer, what draws me what I'm most interested in first is how style might map the patterns of mind in their work. So that connection between the structure of a sentence and the structure of thought that that's what I am most alert to in my criticism, and I'm aware too of how my own style might feed into that. So if I am writing associatively, if I am writing, if I'm doing a piece of close reading or practical criticism, the way I write will be different than if I were making progressive argument and I will hop linguists help from word to word point of language to point of language, I would tend to use more dashes more semicolons because the thought is associative. So think it is yes that interest in habits of mind and how they translate into style.


Jessica Swoboda  40:07

Clare, thank you so much for joining us on this episode of selected essays. I know for me, I am not someone who has a lot of exposure to lamb. And so you've through the course of this conversation inspired me to go read more of his essays. So thank you for that.


Clare Bucknell  40:21

I'm so glad. Thank you very, very much for having me.


Zach Fine  40:23

Thanks so much, Clare.


Jessica Swoboda  40:26

Thanks, everyone for joining us for this episode of selected essays. We'd like to thank John Trevaskis for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy of Hand Habits for contributing the original music. As always subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and please subscribe to the point. There's a discount code for listeners in the show notes. If you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to selected essays at the pointmag dot com. We'd love to hear from you. Until next time, listeners.

Charles Lamb’s essay and its influence
“The Praise of Chimney Sweepers”
19th-century British society through marginalized figures
Victorian social class and nobility
An essay with multiple perspectives
Literary analysis and seductive writing
Lamb's style