They were not, however, the productions of a gentleman of leisure. Lamb worked his whole life as a lowly accounting clerk, at first for the London South Sea House and later the East India House in Leadenhall St. One of his colleagues was F. Augustus Elia, an Italian author of French tracts, from whom Lamb took his pen-name. Lamb wrote in a letter to John Taylor of 30 July 1821:
Poor ELIA, the real, (for I am but a counterfeit,) is dead. The fact is, a person of that name, an Italian, was a fellow clerk of mine at the South Sea House, thirty (not forty) years ago, when the characters I described there existed, but had left it like myself many years; and I having a brother now there, and doubting how he might relish certain descriptions in it, I clapt down the name of Elia to it, which passed off pretty well, for Elia himself added the function of an author to that of a scrivener, like myself.Lamb may have been drawn to the name because, as he himself remarked, the name forms an anagram of 'a lie'.
I went there the other day (not having seen him for a year) to laugh over with him at my usurpation of his name, and found him, alas! no more than a name, for he died of consumption eleven months ago, and I knew not of it.
So the name has fairly devolved to me, I think; and ‘tis all he has left me.
Perhaps surprisingly, his workmates formed an extraordinary galaxy of literary talent. Among them were John Stuart Mill, Thomas Love Peacock, the playwright James Cobb, and a swarm of other poets, essayists, translators and pamphleteers, all of whom had inexplicably gravitated towards accounting to make ends meet. Thomas De Quincey later said: ‘Such a labour of Sisyphus,— the rolling up a ponderous stone to the summit of a hill only that it might roll back again by the gravitation of its own dulness, — seems a bad employment for a man of genius in his meridian energies. And yet, perhaps not. Perhaps the collective wisdom of Europe could not have devised for Lamb a more favourable condition of toil than this very India House clerkship.’
De Quincey, Thomas: De Quincey’s Works (1862)
Prance, Claude Annett: Companion to Charles Lamb (1983)
Lamb, Charles: The Life, Letters, and Writings of Charles Lamb, Vol. III (2008)
Some Lamb footnotes:
Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) on Lamb:
It is not by chance, or without a deep ground in his nature, common to all his qualities, both affirmative and negative, that Lamb had an insensibility to music more absolute than can have been often shared by any human creature, or perhaps than was ever before acknowledged so candidly. The sense of music — as a pleasurable sense, or as any sense at all other than of certain unmeaning and impertinent differences in respect to high and low, sharp or flat — was utterly obliterated as with a sponge by nature herself from Lamb’s organization. It was a corollary, from the same large substratum in his nature, that Lamb had no sense of the rhythmical in prose composition. Rhythmus, or pomp of cadence, or sonorous ascent of clauses, in the structure of sentences, were effects of art as much thrown away upon him as the voice of the charmer upon the deaf adder. We ourselves, occupying the very station of polar opposition to that of Lamb, being as morbidly, perhaps, in the one excess as he in the other, naturally detected this omission in Lamb’s nature at an early stage of our acquaintance. Not the fabled Regulus, with his eyelids torn away, and his uncurtained eye-balls exposed to the noon-tide glare of a Carthaginian sun, could have shrieked with more anguish of recoil from torture than we from certain sentences and periods in which Lamb perceived no fault at all.
‘Charles Lamb’ in the North British Review, 1848, in De Quincey as Critic, ed. JE Jordan (1973)
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) on Lamb:
Charles Lamb I sincerely believe to be in some considerable degree insane. A more pitiful, rickety, gasping, staggering, stammering tomfool I do not know. He is witty by denying truisms and abjuring good manners. His speech wriggles hither and thither with an incessant painful fluctuation; not an opinion in it or a fact or even a phrase that you can thank him for: more like a convulsion fit than natural systole and diastole. — Besides he is now a confirmed shameless drunkard; asks vehemently for gin-andwater in strangers’ houses; tipples till he is utterly mad, and is only not thrown out of doors because he is too much despised for taking such trouble with him. Poor Lamb! Poor England where such a despicable abortion is named genius!
In JA Froude, Thomas Carlyle: A History of his Life in London 1834-1881 (1884)
 De Quincey adds as a footnote here: ‘Marcus Atilius Regulus, Roman general of the third century B.C., was by possibly apocryphal tradition, sent as a captive of the Carthaginians to Rome to arrange a peace, counseled against it, returned to Carthage according to his oath, and was fiendishly tortured.’
 Carlyle wrote this in his diary in 1831 after visiting Lamb at Enfield.
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