'What Might Have Been': An Episode in the Life of Charles Lamb


ON a cold, raw day in December, 1882, there was laid to rest in Brompton Cemetery, in London, an old lady, — an actress, — whose name, Frances Maria Kelly, meant little to the generation of theatre-goers, then busy with the rising reputation of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. She was a very old lady when she died — ninety-two, to be exact; she had outlived her fame and her friends, and few followed her to her grave,

I have said that the day was cold and raw. I do not know certainly that it was so; I was not there; but for my sins I have passed many Decembers in London, and take the right, in Charles Lamb’s phrase, to damn the weather at a venture,

Fanny Kelly, as she was called by the generations that knew her, came of a theatrical family, and most of her long life had been passed on the stage. She was only seven when she made her first appearance at Drury Lane, at which theatre she acted for some thirty-six years, when she retired; subsequently she established a school of dramatic artand gave from time to time what she termed ‘Entertainments,’ in which she sometimes took as many as fourteen different parts in a single evening. With her death the last link connecting us with the age of Johnson was broken. She had acted with John Philip Kemble and with Mrs. Siddons. By her sprightliness and grace she had charmed Fox and Sheridan and the generations which followed, down to Charles Dickens, who had acted with her in private theatricals at her own private theatre in Dean Street, — now the Royalty, — taking the part of Captain Bobadil in Every Man in his Humor.

Nothing is more evanescent than the reputation of an actor. Every age lingers lovingly over the greatness of the actors of its own youth; thus it was that the theatre-goer of the eighteeneighties only yawned when told of the grace of Miss Kelly’s Ophelia, of the charm of her Lydia Languish, or of her bewitchingness in ‘breeches parts.’ To some she was the old actress for whom the government was being solicited to do something; a few thought of her as the old maiden lady who was obsessed with the idea that Charles Lamb had once made her an offer of marriage.

It was well known that, half a century before, Lamb had been one of her greatest admirers. Every reader of his dramatic criticisms and his letters knew that; they knew, too, that in one of his daintiest essays, perhaps the most exquisite essay in the language, ‘Dream Children, A Reverie,’ Lamb, speaking apparently more autobiographically than usual even for him, says, —

‘Then I told how, for seven long years, in hope sometimes, sometimes in despair, yet persisting ever, I courted the fair Alice W——n; and, as much as children could understand, I explained to them what coyness, and difficulty, and denial meant to maidens — when suddenly, turning to Alice, the soul of the first Alice looked out at her eyes with such a reality of re-presentment, that I became in doubt which of them stood there before me, or whose that bright hair was; and while I stood gazing, both the children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding and still receding, till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in the uttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely impressed upon me the effects of speech: “We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all. The children of Alice call Bartrum father. We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been.” ’

I am quoting, not from the printed text, but from the original manuscript, which is my most cherished literary possession; and this lovely peroration, if such it may be called, is the only part of the essay which has been much interlineated or recast. It appears to have occasioned Lamb considerable difficulty; there was obviously some searching for the right word; a part of it, indeed, was entirely rewritten.

The coyness, the difficulty, and the denial of Alice: was it not immortally written into the record by Lamb himself? Miss Kelly’s rejection of an offer of marriage from him must be a figment of the imagination of an old lady, who, as her years approached a century, had her dream-children, too — children who called Lamb father.

There the matter rested. Fanny Kelly was by way of being forgotten: all the facts of Lamb’s life were known, apparently, and he had lain in a curiously neglected grave in Edmonton Churchyard for seventy years. Innumerable sketches and lives and memorials of him, ‘final’ and otherwise, had been written and read. His letters — not complete, perhaps, but volumes of them — had been published and read by the constantly increasing number of his admirers, and no one suspected that Lamb had had a serious love-affair — the world accepting without reserve the statement of one of his biographers that ‘Lamb at the bidding of duty remained single, wedding himself to the sad fortunes of his sister.'

Then, quite unexpectedly, in 1903, John Hollingshead, the former manager of the Gaiety Theatre, discovered and published two letters of Charles Lamb written on the same day, July 20, 1819. One, a long letter in Lamb’s most serious vein, in which he formally offers his hand, and in a way his sister’s, to Miss Kelly, and the other a whimsical, elfish letter, in which he tries to disguise the fact that in her refusal of him he has received a hard blow.

By reason of this important discovery, every line that Lamb had written in regard to Fanny Kelly was read with new interest, and an admirable biography of him by his latest and most sympathetic critic, Edward Verrall Lucas, appearing shortly afterwards, was carefully studied to see what, if any, further light could be thrown upon this interesting subject. But it appears that the whole story has been told in the letters, and students of Lamb were thrown back upon the already published references.

In the Works of Lamb, published in 1818, Lamb had addressed to Miss Kelly a sonnet: —

You are not, Kelly, of the common strain,
That stoop their pride and female honor down
To please that many-headed beast, the town,
And vend their lavish smiles and tricks for gain;
By fortune thrown amid the actor’s train,
You keep your native dignity of thought;
The plaudits that attend you come unsought,
As tributes due unto your natural vein.
Your tears have passion in them, and a grace
Of genuine freshness, which our hearts avow;
Your smiles are winds whose ways we cannot trace,
That vanish and return we know not how —
And please the better from a pensive face,
And thoughtful eye, and a reflecting brow.

And early in the following year he had printed in a provincial journal an appreciation of her acting, comparing her, not unfavorably, with Mrs. Jordan, who, in her day, then over, is said to have had no rival in comedy parts.

Lamb’s earliest reference to Miss Kelly, however, appears to be in a letter to the Wordsworths, in which he says that he can keep the accounts of his office, comparing sum with sum, writing ‘Paid’ against one and ‘Unpaid’ against t’other (this was long before the days of scientific bookkeeping and much-vaunted efficiency), and still reserve a corner of his mind for the memory of some passage from a book, or ‘the gleam of Fanny Kelly’s divine plain face.’ This is an always quoted reference and seems correctly to describe the lady, who is spoken of by others as an unaffected, sensible, clearheaded, warm-hearted woman, plain but engaging, with none of the vanities or arrogance of the actress about her. It will be recalled that Lamb had no love for blue-stocking women, and speaking of one, said, ‘If she belonged to me I would lock her up and feed her on bread and water till she left off writing poetry. A female poet, or female author of any kind, ranks below an actress, I think.’ This shortest way with minor poets has, perhaps, much to recommend it.

It was Lamb’s whim in his essays to be frequently misleading, setting his signals at full speed ahead when they should have been set at danger, or, at least, at caution. Thus in his charming essay ‘Barbara S——’ (how unconsciously one invariably uses this adjective in speaking of anything Lamb wrote), after telling the story of a poor little stage waif, receiving by mistake a whole sovereign instead of the half a one justly due for a week’s pay, and how she was tempted to keep it, but did not, he adds, ‘I had the anecdote from the mouth of the late Mrs. Crawford.’ Here seemed to be plain sailing, and grave editors pointed out who Mrs. Crawford was: they told her maiden name, and for good measure threw in the names of her several husbands. But Lamb, in a letter to Bernard Barton in 1825, speaking of these essays, said, ‘Tell me how you like “Barbara S——.”I never saw Mrs. Crawford in my life, nevertheless’t is all true of somebody.’ And some years later, not long before he died, to another correspondent he wrote, ‘As Miss Kelly is just now in notoriety,’ — she was then giving an entertainment called ‘Dramatic Recollections ’ at the Strand Theatre, — ‘ it may amuse you to know that “Barbara S——” is all of it true of her, being all communicated to me from her own mouth. Can we not contrive to make up a party to see her?’

There is another reference to Miss Kelly, which, in the light of our subsequent knowledge, is as dainty a suggestion of marriage with her as can be found in the annals of courtship. It appeared in The Examiner just a fortnight before Lamb’s proposal, which was shortly to follow. In a criticism of her acting as Rachel in The Jovial Crew, now forgotten, Lamb was, he says, interrupted in the enjoyment of the play by a stranger who sat beside him remarking of Miss Kelly, ‘What a lass that were to go a gypsying through the world with!’ Knowing how frequently Lamb addressed Elia, his other self, and Elia, Lamb, may we not suppose that on this occasion the voice of the stranger was the voice of Elia? Was it unlikely that Miss Kelly, who would see the criticism, would hear the voice and recognize it as Lamb’s? I love to linger over these delicate incidents of Lamb’s courtship, which was all too brief.


But what of Mary? I think she cannot but have contemplated the likelihood of her brother’s marriage and determined upon the line she would take in that event. Years before she had written, ‘You will smile when I tell you I think myself the only woman in the world who could live with a brother’s wife, and make a real friend of her, partly from early observations of the unhappy example I have just given you, and partly from a knack I know I have of looking into people’s real character, and never expecting them to act out of it — never expecting another to do as I would in the same case.’

Mary Lamb was an exceptional woman; and even though her brother might have thought he kept the secret of his love to himself, she would know and, I fancy, approve. Was it not agreed between them that she was to die first? and when she was gone, who would be left to care for Charles?

Before I come to the little drama — tragedy one could hardly call it — of Lamb’s love-affair as told in his own way by his letters, I may be permitted to refer to two letters of his to Miss Kelly, one of them relatively unimportant, the other a few lines only, both unpublished, which form a part of my own Lamb collection. These letters, before they fell from high estate, formed a part of the ‘ Sentimental Library ’ of Harry B. Smith, to whom I am indebted for much information concerning them. It will be seen that both these letters work themselves into the story of Lamb’s love-affair, which I am trying to tell. So far as is known, four letters are all that he ever addressed to the lady: the two above referred to, and the proposal and its sequel, in the collection of Mr. Huntington of New York, where I saw them not long ago. I have held valuable letters in my hand before, but this letter of Lamb! I confess to an emotional feeling with which the mere book-collector is rarely credited. The earlier and briefer letter is pasted into a copy of the first edition of the Works of Charles Lamb, 1818, ‘in boards, shaken,’ which occupies a place of honor on my shelves. It reads: ‘ Mr. Lamb, having taken the liberty of addressing a slight compliment to Miss Kelly in his first volume, respectfully requests her acceptance of the collection, 7 June, 1818.’ The compliment, of course, is the sonnet already quoted. The second letter was written just ten days before Lamb asked Miss Kelly to marry him. The bones playfully referred to were small ivory discs, about the size of a two-shilling piece, which were allotted to leading performers for the use of their friends, giving admission to the pit. On one side was the name of the theatre; on the other the name of the actor or actress to whom they were allotted. The letter reads: —

If your bones are not engaged on Monday night, will you favor us with the use of them? I know, if you can oblige us, you will make no bones about it; if you cannot, it shall break none betwixt us. We might ask somebody else; but we do not like the bones of any strange animal. We should be welcome to dear Miss Linton’s, but then she is so plump there is no getting at them. I should prefer Miss Iver’s — they must be ivory, I take it for granted — but she is married to Mr. —, and become bone of his bone; consequently can have none of her own to dispose of. Well, it all comes to this: if you can let us have them, you will, I dare say; if you cannot, God rest your bones. I am at an end of my bon-mots.

9th July, 1819.

This characteristic note in Lamb’s best punning manner (‘I fancy I succeed best in epistles of mere fun; puns and that nonsense’) may be regarded as a prologue to the drama played ten days later, the whole occupying but the space of a single day.

And now the curtain is lifted on the play in which Lamb and Miss Kelly are the chief actors. Lamb is in his lodgings in Great; Russell Street, Covent Garden, the individual spot he likes best in all London. Bow Street Police Court can be seen through the window, and Mary Lamb seated thereby, knitting, glances into the busy street as she sees a crowd of people follow in the wake of a constable, conducting a thief to his examination. Lamb is seated at a table, writing. We, unseen, may glance over his shoulder and see the letter which he has just finished.

DEAR MISS KELLY, — We had the pleasure, pain I might better call it, of seeing you last night in the new Play. It was a most consummate piece of acting, but what a task for you to undergo! at a time when your heart is sore from real sorrow! It has given rise to a train of thinking, which I cannot suppress.

Would to God you were released from this way of life; that you could bring your mind to consent to take your lot with us, and throw off forever the whole burden of your Profession. I neither expect nor wish you to take notice of this which I am waiting, in your present over-occupied & hurried state. — But to think of it at your pleasure.

I have quite income enough, if that were to justify me for making such a proposal, with what I may call even a handsome provision for my survivor. What you possess of your own would naturally be appropriated to those for whose sakes chiefly you have made so many hard sacrifices. I am not so foolish as not to know that I am a most unworthy match for such a one as you, but you have for years been a principal object in my mind. In many a sweet assumed character I have learned to love you, but simply as F. M. Kelly I love you better than them all. Can you quit these shadows of existence, & come & be a reality to us? Can you leave off harassing yourself to please a thankless multitude, who know nothing of you, & begin at last to live to yourself & your friends?

As plainly & frankly as I have seen you give or refuse assent in some feigned scene, so frankly do me the justice to answer me. It is impossible I should feel injured or aggrieved by your telling me at once, that the proposal does not suit you. It is impossible that I should ever think of molesting you with idle importunity and persecution after your mind [is] once firmly spoken — but happier, far happier, could I have leave to hope a time might come when our friends might be your friends; our interests yours; our book-knowledge, if in that inconsiderable particular we have any little advantage, might impart something to you, which you would every day have it in your power ten thousand fold to repay by the added cheerfulness and joy which you could not fail to bring as a dowry into whatever family should have the honor and happiness of receiving you, the most welcome accession that could be made to it.

In haste, but with entire respect & deepest affection, I subscribe myself
20 July, 1819.

No punning or nonsense here. It is the most serious letter Lamb ever wrote — a letter so fine, so manly, so honorable in the man who wrote it, so honoring to the woman to whom it was addressed, that, knowing Lamb as we do, it can hardly be read without a lump in the throat and eyes suffused with tears. The letter is folded and sealed and sent by a serving-maid to the lady, who lives hard by in Henrietta Street, just the other side of Covent Garden — and the curtain falls.

Before the next act we are at liberty to wonder how Lamb passed the time while Miss Kelly was writing her reply. Did he go off to the ‘dull drudgery of the desk’s dead wood’ at East India House, and there busy himself with the prices of silks or tea or indigo, or did he wander about the streets of his beloved London? I fancy the latter. In any event the curtain rises a few hours later, and Lamb and his sister are seen as before. She has laid aside her knitting. It is late afternoon. Lamb is seated at the table endeavoring to read, when a maid enters and hands him a letter; he breaks the seal eagerly. Again we look over his shoulder and read: —

HENRIETTA STREET,July 20th,1819. An early & deeply rooted attachment has fixed my heart on one from whom no worldly prospect can well induce me to withdraw it, but while I thus frankly & decidedly decline your proposal, believe me, I am not insensible to the high honour which the preference of such a mind as yours confers upon me — let me, however, hope that all thought upon this subject will end with this letter, & that you henceforth encourage no other sentiment towards me than esteem in my private character and a continuance of that approbation of my humble talents which you have already expressed so much and so often to my advantage and gratification.

Believe me I feel proud to acknowledge myself

Your obliged friend

Lamb rises from his chair and attempts to walk over to where Mary is sitting; but his feelings overcome him, and he sinks back in his chair again as the curtain falls. It moves quickly, the action of this little drama. The curtain is down but a moment, suggesting the passage of a single hour. When it is raised, Lamb is alone; he is but fortyfive, but looks an old man. The curtains are drawn, lighted candles are on the table. We hear the rain against the windows. Lamb is writing, and for the last time we intrude upon his privacy.

Now poor Charles Lamb, now dear Charles Lamb, ‘Saint Charles,’ if you will! Our hearts go out to him; we would comfort him if we could. But read slowly one of the finest letters in all literature: a letter in which he accepts defeat instantly, but with a smile on his face; tears there may have been in his eyes, but she was not to see them. See Lamb in his supreme rôle — of a man. How often had he urged his friends to play that difficult part — which no one could play better than he. The letter reads: —

DEAR MISS Kelly,— Your injunctions shall he obeyed to a tittle. I feel myself in a lackadaisical no-how-ish kind of a humor. I believe it is the rain, or something. I had thought to have written seriously, but I fancy I succeed best in epistles of mere fun; puns & that nonsense. You will be good friends with us, will you not? Let what has past ’break no bones ’ between us. You will not refuse us them next time we send for them?

Yours very truly,
C. L.

P. S. Do you observe the delicacy of not signing my full name?

N. B. Do not paste that last letter of mine into your book.

We sometimes say the English are not good losers. To think of Charles Lamb may help us to correct that opinion. All good plays of the period have an epilogue. By all means this should have one; and ten days later Lamb himself provided it. It appeared in The Examiner, where, speaking of Fanny Kelly’s acting in ‘The Hypocrite,’ he said, —

‘She is in truth not framed to tease or torment even in jest, but to utter a hearty Yes or No; to yield or refuse assent with a noble sincerity. We have not the pleasure of being acquainted with her, but we have been told that she carries the same cordial manners into private life.’

The curtain falls! The play is at an end.