Originally published at FirstThings.com.
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.
Unfortunately, Mill edited the piece so freely that, from the moment Lamb saw the mangled result, publication of an unmolested version became practically inevitable. Mill had cut several lines he thought inconsistent with Utilitarian principles—for example, “I have no puling apology to make to mankind. I see them all in one way or another deviating from the pure reason.” Also gone was where Lamb begs his reader not to “trample on the ruins of a man” by demanding the reformation of drunkards well and truly confirmed in their habit. These changes, which together altered the meaning of the piece, were made without Lamb’s permission, and the piece was published without his authorization under the pseudonym “Ebrosius.”
“I understand you have got (or had) a snivelling methodistical adulteration of my Essay on Drunkenness,” wrote Lamb to Hazlitt that spring. “I wish very much to see it . . . . There certainly was no crying ‘Peccavi’ in the 1st draught.” Unmentioned in the letter, but certainly not unnoticed, were the stylistic infelicities Mill had introduced in his effort to bring Lamb’s prose in line with his own Euclidean ideal. “Avoid the bottle as you would fly your greatest destruction” was changed to “fly from certain destruction,” because Mill did not think that destruction could have degrees. “I scarce knew what it was to ail anything” became “I scarce knew what it was to have an ailment.”
An opportunity to publish an uncorrupted version of the essay came a few months later when Basil Montagu told Lamb of his intention to publish a collection of temperance essays under the title Some Enquiries into the Effects of Fermented Liquors. Montagu was a well-connected figure in the London literary scene and an activist in many reform causes, including teetotalism. He was also the person who had inadvertently effected the break between Wordsworth and Coleridge when, in the course of one of his frequent lectures to Coleridge on his opium-taking, he repeated some harshly worded criticisms of Coleridge’s behavior that Wordsworth had made to him in private.
The Montagu book was a well-chosen venue for Lamb. Basil was a personal friend who would not take unlicensed liberties with his copy the way Mill had. He would also allow him to publish anonymously. If anyone discovered the author’s identity, Lamb could claim he had simply been assisting a friend in one of his humanitarian ventures, as a willing freelance. This was plausible enough. Hazlitt, for instance, would later write an uncharacteristic essay against capital punishment at Montagu’s request. The book was duly published in 1814, with Lamb’s piece appearing in the chapter “Do Fermented Liquors Contribute to Moral Excellence?” And for several years that was that.
When the essay resurfaced in 1822, it was as an entry in Lamb’s popular “Elia” series for the London Magazine . By publishing the piece under the Elia pseudonym, Lamb was all but admitting authorship, which he probably would not have done if it had not been for two extraordinary circumstances. That year Lamb had gone abroad for the first and only time in his life, and during his absence the London Magazine had published its first issue without an Elia piece in over two years. Unfortunately Lamb’s travel plans had been somewhat dislocated when, upon their arrival in France, Mary had suffered an attack and he was forced to make arrangements for her confinement. Faced with the prospect of an unprecedented second issue in a row without Elia, the editors asked Lamb if they might republish some of his older work.
The second extraordinary circumstance was an insinuation that had appeared in the Quarterly Review earlier that year. An anonymous review of a new book on nervous disorders had quoted the “Confessions” as they had appeared in Montagu’s book, describing the essay as one “which affords a fearful picture of the consequences of intemperance, and which we have reason to know is a true tale.” Perhaps this author had heard rumors, or perhaps he had pieced together the clues embedded in the essay—the specific references to a crippling stammer, an excessive love of tobacco, and bad companions befriended “twelve years ago,” all of which were known to fit Lamb’s own life.
Lamb was livid—aside from the damage to his reputation, East India Company clerks could be fired for excessive drunkenness—so he used the opportunity of the piece’s republication to try a new tactic of misdirection. After granting permission for his editors to republish the “Confessions,” Lamb supplied them with an introduction supposedly explaining how it came to be written. In this version of events, Elia had seen an essay by a rival author called Edax (actually another of Lamb’s pseudonyms) describing his struggles with gluttony, and this had inspired Elia to experiment with a similar essay on drinking. “We deny not that a portion of his own experiences may have passed into the picture,” the introduction explains, “but then how heightened! how exaggerated!” The Quarterly Review is scolded for spreading falsehoods and a warning issued that “Elia shall string them up one day.”
Even with this exculpatory preface, the “Confessions” did not appear in any anthology of Lamb’s work until the year before his death, and even then it was almost omitted. The first edition of Last Essays of Elia had included a short reflection on the death of a man Lamb had known as a child. The man’s widow objected that the piece made too overt a reference to her poverty, so the editors of the second edition were forced to pull that essay and find a substitute. They chose the “Confessions,” which had been left out of the earlier edition at Lamb’s request. It is not known whether Lamb approved their selection. They may not have asked him, since he was by this time pretty far gone in his degeneration from functioning alcoholic to hopeless sot. He died shortly thereafter when a scrape incurred in a drunken fall became fatally infected.
In an 1822 letter to Southey complaining about the Quarterly Review incident, Lamb called his decision to write the “Confessions” a “folly” and said of its publication that “my guardian angel was absent at that time.” He clearly wished the piece had never seen the light of day. Two centuries later, we can be grateful that the “Confessions” found its way into the public record, however circuitously. I have refrained from quoting it extensively because it’s a short read and best digested all at once; those who read it will have the pleasant experience of seeing how far the fellowship of addicts extends across time. It is still bracing, and still surprisingly candid. There is really only one thing that keeps “Confessions of a Drunkard” from being a genuine forerunner of the recovery memoir as we know it today, and that is the unfortunate fact that, for Lamb, there was never any recovery.