On December 31, 2003, I chanced to come across the essay of Charles Lamb (1775–1834) entitled, “Old China.” 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 life.
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 poorer.
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 are richer, 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 buy.
James V. Schall, S.J., is professor of government at Georgetown University.
Posted: March 20, 2007 in On Essays and Letters.