Charles Lamb

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What does Charles Lamb mean by the following quote in "Oxford in the Vacation" from Essays of Elia?

"I can here play the gentleman, enact the student. To such a one as myself, who has been defrauded in his young years of the sweet food of academic institution, nowhere is so pleasant, to while away a few idle weeks at, as one or other of the Universities."

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In this quote from "Oxford in the Vacation," Charles Lamb speaks to loss and desire. He had wished to be able to attend either Oxford or Cambridge but had to go to work instead. Here, he describes the pleasure he derives in the substitute gesture of visiting one of these colleges for a vacation, where he can pretend he is a student and enact for a short time one of his deepest desires.

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Lamb, writing autobiographically under the persona of his alter-ego Elia, here discusses making amends of sorts for not having had the opportunity to attend Oxford or Cambridge. As a child of a family of limited means, he was fortunate to attend Christ's Hospital in London, a rigorous academic school not far from his home. Although a good student, a bad stutter prevented him from moving onto one of the universities, which in those days were training grounds for clergy. As it was thought that he could not deliver a sermon adequately, his education ended at the age of fourteen.

At that point, Lamb went to work as a clerk, spending most of his career at the British East India House. From then on, the academic and literary life he would have loved to pursue full time was pushed to the peripheries, though he did write his famous Essays of Elia and Tales of Shakespeare, a children's book he collaborated on with his sister.

Returning to the quote, he here speaks of the pleasure he derives, since he was unable to go to college (was "defrauded" of an education) of spending a few weeks of vacation time now and then at one of the universities. He finds it very pleasant because he can pretend for a short time to be a student and gentleman, as today, a person might take an expensive cruise to spend a week or two imagining what it is like to feel rich.

As so often happens in Lamb's writing, the essay deals with the power of the imagination to fill in the deficits of what we lack in real life. The poignancy is that while Elia can spend a few weeks imagining himself as a student and thus living out one of his deepest longing, in real truth, this was a desire that was denied him—as it was and is so many people. We identify and feel for Elia because the very pleasure he takes in his fantasy points to the bitterness of his loss.

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In this essay, "Oxford in the Vacation," a part of Charles Lamb's collection entitled, Essays of Elia, the author (writing under the pseudonym "Elia") speaks of pretending to be what his is not.

In the essay, Lamb notes that he spent many of his younger years at "Christ's," short for Christ's Hospital, a "traditional English boarding school." It was "bleak and full of violence." Because of the connections of his family through his father's employer and—it is suggested—perhaps because of Lamb's amiable disposition, he escaped most of the aggressive behavior of the brutal headmaster, Rev. Mr. James Boyer. Lamb was also able to return home regularly to friends and family, which also made his life immeasurably easier. (It was here he met his lifelong friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.) Lamb's recollections in this essay of his time at Christ's refer to the training he received with regard to the church.

I was as good as an almanac in those days. I could have told you such a saint's day falls out next week, or the week after.

With this background at Christ's, Lamb was able to visit Oxford as an adult, and walk the halls and grounds—perceived by others to be a man of "degree or standing," which he was not. He had to leave school early, due to a stutter...

...this "an inconquerable impediment" in his speech deprived him of Grecian status at Christ's Hospital and thus disqualifying him for a clerical career.

While his classmates (including Coleridge) went on to Cambridge, Lamb's education ended at fourteen, when he had to go out to work. When Lamb speaks of fitting in at Oxford, it is as if he can pretend to experience what he missed because of leaving boarding school so early and never having had the chance to attend school at the university level—he uses the word "defrauded." He also notes that there was " pleasant" as Oxford, for one like him.

Your quote refers to Lamb's vacation (which was also vacation time at Oxford), when he enjoyed "idle weeks" soaking in a world he had missed when unable to attend Cambridge.

Then, to take a peep in by the way at the butteries, and sculleries, redolent of antique hospitality...ovens whose first pies were baked four centuries ago; and spits which have cooked for Chaucer! 

Those who work there curtsy to him out of respect. He wears black, something that also adds to the illusion that he belongs there. For Lamb, this vacation is a chance for him to see the academic world that was taken from him when he was forced to leave Christ's. In some sense, he is able to make right as an adult, that which he was prohibited from experiencing earlier. And this fills him with a sense of deep satisfaction—for he appreciates the antiquity there. His imagination runs rampant in perceiving life in those buildings many, many years before. Spending time in such a place would never have been wasted on Lamb: it would have been a humbling, yet gratifying, experience.

The quote in question is placed in the middle of the recollection of his visit to Oxford, and refers to that which he missed as a young man after leaving boarding school.

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