“Dream Children: A Reverie” is an essay by English author Charles Lamb (1775–1834). It is part of a series of very popular essays that first appeared between 1820 and 1825 in The London Magazine and was also published in a collection entitled Essays of Elia. In this series (and its sequel, Last Essays of Elia), Lamb takes on the persona of a bachelor named Elia. Lamb's sister Mary, with whom he shared a home in real life, appears as Cousin Bridget.
Charles Lamb is regarded as one of the finest familiar (informal) essayists of the English language and is remembered as an amiable person who dealt gracefully with life’s difficulties. Familiar essays are characterized by a conversational tone and a relaxed style. This genre can reveal a lot about the author’s personality and interests. In the persona of Elia, Lamb explores a number of subjects that caught his interest in real life, including antique china. Elia has a tendency to daydream, and this serves as a literary avenue in which the author can share his own thoughts and commentaries on a number of subjects—some light and comical, and others more thought-provoking.
Some background information on the title, as well as on the author’s life, will help you to understand “Dream Children: A Reverie” as a personal essay. A personal essay is usually defined as a work of nonfiction that includes biographical elements and ties them to universal themes. This particular essay, however, blends both biography and fantasy, and I believe it can be more accurately categorized as a familiar (informal) essay. The subtitle itself tells us that the author takes a flight of fancy in this work, for a “reverie” is a daydream.
There are some important biographical elements in “Dream Children” that can help us to understand the very personal nature of this essay. Charles Lamb had fond childhood memories of time spent with his maternal grandmother, Mary Field, who worked as a housekeeper in a country home that he visited and delighted in exploring. As a young man, he fell in love with a young woman named Ann Simmons, whom he courted unsuccessfully for many years and who married another man. She is represented as Alice W----n in “Dream Children.”
In this essay, Elia recounts for the reader the memories he shares with his “children,” Alice and John, about their great-grandmother Field (Lamb’s own maternal grandmother), the fine country house where she worked, their Uncle John (his real-life deceased brother), and their “pretty dead mother,” Alice. It is only at the very end of the essay that Elia reveals that the children, Alice and John, are imaginary: “We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all...We are only what might have been.” Elia awakens in his “bachelor armchair.” He has never been a father at all.
Indeed, Lamb neither married nor had children of his own. His blending of biography and fantasy in this essay poignantly reveals something deeply personal about himself—a longing for what might have been and a desire to keep alive the memory of loved ones.