Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE LAWYER FRIENDS OF CHARLES LAMB.

No other figure in English literature is so closely associated with law and lawyers as Charles Lamb. He was born in the stronghold of English lawyers—the Temple. The Temple Register contains the following entry of that fact: "Charles Lamb, born 10th February, 1775, baptised 10th March, following by Rev. Mr. Jeffs." Lamb's father was a lawyer's clerk. The boy's early recollections were all of lawyers and their courts. The companions of his maturer years included many lawyers, Montagu, Baron Field, Procter, Hone and Martin Burney, among others. Moreover, the best contemporary view of Lamb and his circle is found in the diary of another lawyer friend, Henry Crabb Robinson. And, finally, it was Lamb's fortune to have for his literary executor and biographer a lawyer of first-rate ability, Thomas Noon Talfourd. In fact, the men of law seem to have taken the fact that fortune fixed Lamb's birthplace in their sanctuary as a good omen and claimed him for their own.

In the Elia essay on the Old Benchers of the Inner Temple, Lamb himself says, "I was born and passed the first seven years of my life in the Temple." Association with the Temple, however, did not end there. In 1782 Lamb entered Christ's Hospital, where he became a Blue-coat boy and a schoolmate of Coleridge. But the Temple, nearby, was still the paternal home, and there Lamb spent his frequent vacations and holidays. In 1791, on the recommendation of Samuel Salt, a lawyer of the Temple, he became a clerk in the South Sea House. A year later he was called home by the death of Salt, who was his father's employer, and soon thereafter, probably in 1793, the Lambs removed from the Temple. Eight years later, Charles and his sister, Mary, returned to the Temple for a stay of sixteen years. First, they were established at 16 Mitre Court Building, and later, in 1809, at No. 4 Inner Temple Lane, where Lamb, as he wrote to Manning, "meant to live and die." He added in his characteristic fashion, "Our place of final destination—I don't mean the grave, but No. 4 Inner Temple Lane—looks out upon a gloomy churchyard— like court, called Hare Court, with three trees and a pump in it. Do you know it? I was born near it, and used to drink from that pump when I was a Rechabite of six years old." The pump was not the least of Lamb's possessions; for the "water was excellent cold with brandy, and not very insipid without." But Lamb was disappointed in his plan to spend the remainder of his life at No. 4 Inner Temple Lane. He and his sister left that residence in the autumn of 1817, and the Temple knew them no more.

In May, 1809, Lamb wrote Coleridge that life in Inner Temple Lane was "like living in a garden." Lamb's biographer, Talfourd, suggests that "The years which Lamb parsed in his chambers in Inner Temple Lane were, perhaps, the happiest of his life." It is certain that these years gave the world one of its most graceful and charming essays, "The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple." Nowhere else in the language is there anything so delightfully whimsical about lawyers and their foibles. In Peter Pierson, Samuel Salt, Thomas Coventry, Barton, Twopenny, Mingay, and the rest, Lamb has held the mirror up to the lawyers for all time.

"Peter Pierson was a benevolent, but not a prepossessing man. He had that in his face which you could not term unhappiness; it rather implied an Incapacity of being happy. . . . Contemporary with these, but subordinate, .was Daines Barrington—another oddity—he walked burley and square, in imitation, I think, of Coventry—howbeit he attained not to the dignity of his prototype. Nevertheless, he did pretty well, upon the strength of being a tolerable antiquarian, and having a brother, a bishop. . . . Next to him was old Barton, a jolly negation, who took upon him the ordering of bills of fare for the parliament chamber where the benchers dine—much to the easement of his less epicurean brethren. . . . Then Read and Twopenny—Read good humored and personable—Twopenny, good humored, but thin, and felicitous in jests upon his own figure. If Twopenny was thin, Wharry was attenuated and fleeting. Many must remember him (for he was rather of later date) and his singular gait, which was performed by three steps and a jump regularly succeeding. The steps were little efforts like that of a child beginning to walk; the jump comparatively vigorous, as a foot to an inch. Where he learned this figure, or what occasioned it, I could never discover. It was neither graceful in itself, nor seemed to answer the purpose any better than common walking. . . . Jackson—the omniscient Jackson, he was called—was of this period. He had the reputation of possessing more multifarous knowledge than any man of his time. He was the Friar Bacon of the less literate portions of the Temple. ... I had almost forgotten Mingay with the iron hand—but he was somewhat later. He had lost his right hand by some accident, and supplied it with a grappling-hook, which he wielded with a tolerable adroitness. I detected the substitute before I was old enough to reason whether it was artificial or not. I remember the astonishment it raised in me. . . . Baron Maseres, who walks (or did till very lately) in the costume of the reign of George the Second, closes my imperfect recollections of the Old Benchers of the Inner Temple.

"Fantastic forms, whither are you fled? Or, if the like of you exists, why exist they no more for me? . . . Why make ye so sorry a figure in my relation, who made up to me—to my childish eyes-—the mythology of the Temple?"

Two of the Old Benchers, Samuel Salt and Thomas Coventry, make a larger figure in Lamb's life than*the rest. Salt was called to the bench in 1782 and died ten years later. John Lamb, the father, was his clerk and confidential servant for forty-five, years. Mrs. Lamb was his housekeeper. Salt occupied two sets of chambers—one for the Lambs—in Crown Office Row, forming a substantial dwelling house and office. It was there that Charles Lamb was born. Lamb has described the peculiarly intimate relations that existed between his father, the Lovel of the "Old Benchers," and Salt in the following language: "Lovel took care of everything. He was at once his clerk, his good servant, his dresser, his friend, his 'flapper,' his guide, stop-watch, auditor, treasurer. . . . Salt did nothing without consulting Lovel, or failed in anything without expecting and fearing his admonishing."

The picture of Salt is one that most lawyers will linger over with keen delight: "Salt had a reputation of being a very clever man, and of excellent discernment in the chamber practice of the law. I suspect his knowledge did not amount to much. When a case of difficult disposition of money, testamentary or otherwise, came before him, he ordinarily handed it over, with a few instructions, to his man Lovel, who was a quick little fellow, and would dispatch it out of hand by the light of natural understanding, of which he had an uncommon share. It was incredible what repute for talents Salt enjoyed by the mere trick of gravity. He was a shy man; a child might pose him in a minute— indolent and procrastinating to the last degree. Yet men would give him credit for vast application, in spite of himself." It is worth remarking that Salt owned the '' spacious closet of good old English reading" into which Lamb and his sister were "tumbled early, by accident or design . . . without much selection or prohibition," as we are told in the essay, "Mackery End." Moreover, Lamb owed his nomination to the clerkship in the East India House to his father's old employer, who was a director of that concern. And it is certain that another Old Bencher of the Inner Temple, Peter Pier son, was a surety on the bond which Lamb gave as a security for his good behavior during his employment. Later, Pierson's place on the bond was taken by another lawyer, Martin Charles Burney.

Thomas Coventry, also an Old Bencher of the Inner Temple, was one of the governors of Christ's Hospital when Lamb entered that famous school. Lamb must have owed his admission to that school as well as his first employment after leaving it to Coventry. "One day," as the story runs, "Coventry said to Mr. Joseph Paice, 'There is a lad whom I placed some years ago in the Blue Coat School, now on the point of leaving it, and I know not what on earth to do with him.' 'Let him have the run of my counting-house till something better offers,' said Mr. Paice; and accordingly Lamb took his place there, and continued in it till he obtained a clerkship in the South Sea House, of which company Mr. Coventry was governor, and Mr. Paice one of the directors." A recent biographer of Lamb, Mr. E. V. Lucas, suggests that likely Samuel Salt, instead of Coventry, stood sponsor for Lamb at Christ's Hospital, but, aside from the variation in this slight detail, the foregoing account of Coventry's active interest in young Lamb is doubtless true.

Lamb has given us an interesting picture of Coventry in his gallery of the Old Benchers: "Thomas Coventry was a cadet of the noble family of that name. He passed his youth in contracted circumstances, which gave him early those parsimonious habits which in after life never forsook him; so that with one windfall or another, about the time I knew him, he was a master of four or five hundred thousand pounds; nor did he look or walk worth a moidore less. .. . His house had the aspect of a strong box. . . . Coventry gave away thirty thousand pounds at once in his lifetime to a blind charity. His housekeeping was severely looked after, but he kept the table of a gentleman."

Surrounded as he was with all these "old familiar faces," is it any wonder that Lamb's heart warmed towards the lawyers, and that in the maturity of his genius he achieved "The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple," which critics have joined in declaring one of the finest English essays of the nineteenth century. Percy Fitzgerald pronounces it, "one of the most exquisite of all the essays of Elia." Hazlitt, in the course of a very friendly appreciation published in "The Spirit of the Age," says: "With what gusto Lamb describes the inns and courts of law, the Temple and Gray's Inn, as if he had been a student there for the last two hundred years, and had been as well acquainted with the person of Sir Francis Bacon as he is with his portrait or writings." Alfred Ainger is even warmer in his praise, declaring "The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple" to be "one of the most varied and beautiful pieces of prose that English literature can boast." But whatever the general estimate of the critics may be, or what verdict another century may give, it is certain that the lawyers can point to nothing so far written about their profession that is "more varied and beautiful" than Charles Lamb's "Old Benchers of the Inner Temple."

« PreviousContinue »