Last Updated on September 9, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
Elia—a semi-autobiographical persona adopted by Charles Lamb in many of his essays—sits in his home as his children, Alice and John, gather around him. He intones that children often love hearing stories about the childhoods of their elders and that such stories “stretch their imagination” and give them a greater sense of connection to long-dead relatives. Today, Elia tells his children about their great-grandmother Field.
Field lived in a large house in Norfolk. Many people believed the house was the site of a great tragedy, which was commemorated in a carved wooden chimney-piece. However, a “foolish rich person” later replaced the chimney-piece with a different one made of marble, and the story has since been lost. Young Alice expresses her disapproval of the rich person’s actions.
Great-grandmother Field was a pious woman who was beloved by everyone. She did not own the great house but rather was entrusted with its keeping by a wealthy individual who preferred to live in a more modern dwelling. Field maintained the house with great care, and Elia laments that, upon her death, all of the Norfolk estate’s beautiful antique ornaments and decorations were “stripped and carried away.” They were then placed in the owner’s other home, where they looked awkward and displaced among the more modern finishings. Young John acknowledges the foolishness of such an act.
Field was so respected by the community that her funeral was attended by a great number of people, including members of both the poorer classes and the landed gentry. Her religious piety was particularly admirable—she could recite both the Psalms and parts of the Bible from memory. She was also widely regarded as an excellent dancer in her youth, although she was later stricken with cancer, which made dancing too painful. However, in spite of the pain her disease caused, she retained her positivity and kindness, bolstered as she was by her faith.
Elia then recalls how he used to visit Field’s home in his youth. She believed that she could see the ghosts of two infants on her staircase but felt that they would do her no harm since they were “innocents.” A young Elia was terrified by the thought of these apparitions, and he attributes this fear to the fact that he was neither as “good or religious” as Field. However, he never actually saw the infant spirits.
Field was kind to all of her grandchildren, and she often hosted them at her home during the holidays. Elia recalls how he used to wander around the great mansion and its expansive gardens, admiring the marble statues of Roman emperors and other such antiquated wonders. The “idle diversions” of the garden were of particular interest to Elia in his youth, and he remarks that he was more interested in watching the fish swim in the pond or laying amidst the orange trees than in eating the plethora of ripe fruits that would normally serve as such “common baits of children.” Upon hearing this, John and Alice surreptitiously put down a bunch of grapes they had been planning to eat.
Elia then tells the children about their uncle, John L., who was greatly beloved by both Field and himself. John L. was a “handsome and spirited youth” who was always kind and patient, carrying Elia around on his back when Elia injured his foot. Elia laments that he was never as kind or patient with John L. when the latter became “lame-footed” later in life. Elia further ruminates on his own reaction to John’s eventual death. At first, he thought he bore it “pretty well,” but it came to haunt him, and he greatly missed his brother, whom he loved dearly. He remarks that there is a great distance “betwixt life and death.” Alice and young John begin crying, and they ask their father to stop talking about their uncle. Instead, they ask him to tell them about their “pretty, dead mother.”
Elia begins to tell the children about his long, arduous courtship of his deceased wife—also named Alice. However, when he looks at his daughter, he is struck by a sudden inability to distinguish her from the other Alice. Both children then begin to recede from his view, and their fading visions remind him that they are “not of Alice, nor of thee.” Elia then wakes in his “bachelor armchair,” forcibly reminded that he is not married, nor does he have any children. Instead, the “faithful Bridget”—the name given to Charles Lamb’s sister, Mary, throughout the Elia essays—sits by his side.
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