On Essays and Letters

On December 31, 2003, I chanced to come across the essay
of Charles Lamb (1775–1834) entitled, “Old
.” Naturally,
I thought it was about Ancient China. “China,” however,
new or old, turned out to be “China” in the sense
of delicate tea cups, vases, and dishes. I think even the
classic English versions, like Wedgwood, were related to
this delicate Chinese craft.

But before I get to “old China,” I note that
this touching essay, in which Lamb’s rather tragic
sister Mary plays a significant part, deals with a traditional
end-of-year practice wherein we account for our annual finances—how
we spent our money in the past year or hope to spend what’s
left or anticipated in the next.

Mary Lamb, who had been reminiscing on how much better life
seemed when she and her brother were poorer, remarks to Charles,
who spent much of his life as a clerk at India House in London, “I
know what you were going to say, that it is mighty pleasant
at the end of the year to make all meet,—and much ado
we used to have every Thirty-first of December to account
for our exceedings. . . .” That is a wonderful expression
for the eve of any New Year, “to account for our exceedings!”

Lamb rather sheepishly begins the essay by confessing that
when he visits any “great house,” what interests
him first is the “china-closet, and next . . . the
picture-gallery.” He
remembers the “first exhibition” he was taken
to. But he cannot conceive of a time “when china jars
and saucers were introduced into my imagination.” Probably
this love of china was an “acquired” taste, he
thought, but too early to remember when it began in his own

Lamb recounts his memories of various scenes depicted on
china cups or saucers. “Here is a young and courtly
Mandarin, handing tea to a lady from a salver—two miles
off. See how distance seems to set off respect!” he
recalls. “And here the same lady, or another—for
likeness is identity on tea-cups—is stepping into a
little fairy boat, moored on the hither side of this calm
garden river, with a dainty mincing foot, which in a right
angle of incidence (as angles go in our world) must infallibly
land her in the midst of a flowery mead—a furlong off
on the other side of the same strange stream.” He carefully
examines what he sees on various pieces of “old china.”

One evening over a cup of Hyson (a Chinese green tea “drunk
unmixed”), Lamb explained to a cousin (i.e., Mary,
also called Brigid) that they could now afford more delicate
patterns, but on new china. “Circumstances” had
been favorable to them in recent years. At this affirmation
of new wealth, Lamb noticed a frown come over his sister’s
face. Mary, it seems, longed for a less prosperous time,
not that she wanted to be poor.

Mary Lamb thought that they were both a “great deal
happier” with less money. “A purchase is but
a purchase, now that you have money enough to spare,” she
explained. “Formerly, it used to be a triumph. When
we coveted a cheap luxury (and, O! How much ado I had to
get you to consent in those times!)— we were used to
have a debate two or there days before, and to weigh the for and against,
and think what we might spare it out of. . . . A thing was
worth buying then, when we felt the money that we paid for
it.” The two or three day debate for and against served
to underscore the worth of a thing. To have even a “cheap
luxury,” certain tangible sacrifices had to be made.

Mary Lamb saw things in terms of what was needed to obtain
them. She recalls that, even though many told him how awful
it was, Charles once kept an ugly old brown suit longer than
necessary so that, with his savings, he could purchase a
folio volume of the 17th Century dramatists Beaumont and
Fletcher. They found the volume at Baker’s in Covent-garden.
They could not make up their minds to purchase it. Finally,
one Saturday night, Mary recalls, “you set off from
Islington, fearing you should be too late. . .the old bookseller
with some grumbling opened his shop. . . .”

When Lamb “lugged it home, wishing it were twice as
cumbersome,” he showed it to Mary. They were excited
at the purchase. They explored the “perfectness” of
the “dusty volume.” Lamb was impatient not to
leave the book unrepaired till daybreak, so they pasted some
loose leaves together. At this, Mary asks him, rhetorically,
on the basis of these happy memories, “was there
no pleasure in being a poor man?
” Clearly, they
knew the best kind of pleasures when they were both able
to see and enjoy things that they did not have. They had
to sacrifice to obtain what they could see or purchase.

“Look at you now. Can those neat black clothes which
you wear now, and are so careful to keep brushed, since we
have become rich and finical,” Mary chides her brother,

give you half the honest vanity with which you flaunted
it about in that over-worn suit—your old corbeau—for
four or five weeks longer than you should have done, to pacify
your conscience for the mighty sum of fifteen—or sixteen
shillings was it?—a great affair we thought it then—which
you had lavished on the old folio. Now you can afford to
buy any book that pleases you, but I do not see that you
ever bring me home any nice old purchases now.

Mary realized that the availability of everything made it
more difficult to become enthusiastic about the one thing
that one could barely afford.

Mary then recalled going on a walk with her brother. “Then,
do you remember our pleasant walks to Enfield, and Porter’s
Bar, and Waltham, when we had a holyday—holydays, and
all other fun, are gone, now we are rich—and the little
hand basket in which I used to deposit our day’s fare
of savoury cold lamb and salad—and how you would pry
about at noon-tide for some decent house, where we might
go in, and produce our store—only paying for the ale
that you must call for . . . ?” That rather poignant
passage deserves much reflection—“holydays, and
all other fun, are gone, now we are rich.” There are
not a few who think that the real problem began when “holy
days” became “holidays,” with no further
transcendent purpose signified by the “holy.”  

However, by contrast, now that the Lambs were rich, “when
we go out a day’s pleasuring, which is seldom moreover,
we ride part of the way, and go into a fine inn,
and order the best dinners, never debating the expense which,
after all, never have half the relish of those chance country
snaps, when we were at the mercy of uncertain usage and a
precarious welcome.” What most people consider to be
the height of social experience, Mary Lamb compares to a
simple outing that contained more real human experience.

Likewise, when it came to a play, they formerly had to climb
steep stairs to the shilling seats to attend George Coleman’s “The
Battle of Hexam” or “The Surrender at Calais” or
to see Bannister and Mrs. Bland in the “Children in
the Wood.” Mary explained, that the social atmosphere
was far better in the upper galleries than now where, in
the finer seats in the house, “as a woman, I met less
attention and accommodation. . . .” Comparative wealth
caused Mary Lamb to appreciate what she had when she was

Lamb finally meditates on these observations of his sister,
on the ability of poverty to cause us to appreciate ordinary
things that we so much take for granted. When we arericher,
we do not notice them. “Now we can pay our money and
walk right in (to the theater),” Lamb imagines his
sister telling him. “You cannot see, you say, in the
galleries now. I am sure we saw, and heard too, well enough
then—but sight, and all, I think, is gone with our
poverty.” The ability to see the really important things
was far more acute when they were poor. True insight disappeared
when poverty disappeared. Surely this is a vast counter-cultural
position, though one often found in Scripture and indeed
in Socrates.

In his final reverie, again watching the figures on the
old china cups, Lamb again took up his sister’s chiding
about the happier times of poverty, with the paradoxical “pleasures
of being a poor man.” “Would he want to return
to those times?” he wonders to himself. Indeed, he
would. He would bury his new found wealth, even if it were
that of Croesus or Rothschild, as deep as any fathom-line
could find the bottom of the sea in which to plunge it.

What is now left to him? He returns to his first love, to “old
china.” “And now do (I) just look at the merry
little Chinese waiter holding an umbrella, big enough for
a bed-tester, over the head of that pretty insipid half Madonna-ish
chit of a lady in the very blue summer-house.” “The
pleasures of being a poor man” were, no doubt, more
real, but “old china,” with its little boat “at
the hither side of the garden river,” holds his attention
now. Such contemplations too are their own kind of “exceedings” that
need to be reckoned up on each December 31 to sort out real
pleasures from those that money, in its purchasing, cannot

V. Schall, S.J.
, is professor
of government at Georgetown University.