On Christmas Day in 1815: Charles Lamb’s letter to Thomas Manning

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Thankyou to Lucy Hodgetts (University of York) for this festive post which continues the ‘On This Day’ series. Her blog discusses Charles Lamb’s letter to Thomas Manning exactly 200 years ago on the 25th December 1815.

(If you’d like to contribute a post to this blog series next year please contact anna.mercer@york.ac.uk).


Charles Lamb, by William Hazlitt (1804)

Charles Lamb, by William Hazlitt (1804)


‘Dear Old Friend and Absentee’: Charles Lamb’s letter to Thomas Manning, 25th December, 1815.

by Lucy Hodgetts

Very few letters addressed to Charles Lamb still exist, apart from those written by the sinologist Thomas Manning. One of the first British scholars of Chinese language and culture, Manning was a friend and inspiration to Lamb throughout his writing life. Manning was the ‘friend M.’ from whom Elia professed to have received the translated Chinese manuscript which inspired ‘A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig’.

Manning was a gifted mathematician and was accepted to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in 1790 to study Maths, but sharing the Quaker antipathy towards oaths meant he never took a degree. He stayed in Cambridge studying medicine and teaching maths, and met Lamb in 1799. While at Cambridge, Manning became interested in the study of Chinese language and culture and in 1802 travelled to Paris to study Chinese under Dr Hagar at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Manning planned to travel to China and, in need of a useful trade, returned to England in 1805 to gain practical medical experience at Westminster Hospital. Manning was granted permission by the court directors of the East India Company to travel and live as a doctor in an English factory in Canton (Guangzhou), and left for China in May 1806. Unsuccessful in his attempts to travel into China’s interior, Manning stayed mainly in Canton until 1810 when he set out for the holy city of Lhasa (now the capital of Tibet), via Calcutta. Manning travelled without government permission, but arrived in Lhasa in December 1811. He was the first British traveller to reach the holy city and was even granted an audience with the Dalai Lama, then a seven-year-old boy. Manning left Lhasa in April 1812 and remained in Canton until 1816.

During Manning’s long absence abroad, Lamb wrote to his friend on Christmas Day, 1815, pondering upon the supposed impossibility of Christmas in Canton:

This is Christmas-day 1815 with us; what it may be with you I don’t know, the 12th of June next year perhaps; and if it should be the consecrated season with you, I don’t see how you can keep it. You have no turkeys; you would not desecrate the festival by offering up a withered Chinese bantam, instead of the savoury grand Norfolcian holocaust, that smokes all around my nostrils at this moment from a thousand firesides. Then what puddings have you? Where will you get holly to stick in your churches, or churches to stick your dried tea-leaves (that must be the substitute) in? What memorials you can have of the holy time, I see not.

– (C.L. to Manning, Dec. 25th, 1815. From The Letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb, vol 3: 1809-1817, ed. Edwin W. Marrs. Cornell University Press, 1978.)

In language prescient of De Quincey’s opium-eater, Lamb encourages his friend to take leave of the ‘Pagodas’, ‘idols’, and ‘wretched reliques’ of ‘Babylon’, enticing him with the nostalgic tastes and smells of home. For Lamb, it is the ‘faces fragrant with the mince-pies of half a century, that alone can authenticate the cheerful mystery’ of the Nativity. It is the domestic comforts and folk traditions of Christmas at home, rather than any religious doctrine, that represents the civilized ideal of England in this letter. In pitting the festive traditions of the ‘holy tide’ against those of the ‘unedified heathen’, Lamb elides a personal nostalgia for home with a patriotic pride in Western civilisation.

In an extended conceit, Lamb exaggerates the time Manning has spent abroad to imagine the future decay of his homeland. ‘And in sober sense what makes you so long from among us, Manning?’ asks Lamb. ‘You must not expect to see the same England again which you left.’ Lamb describes a near future in which England has altered radically in Manning’s absence: ‘empires have been overturned, crowns trodden into dust, the face of the western world quite changed’. London landmarks, icons of empire and progress, have decayed and vanished: ‘St. Paul’s Church is a heap of ruins; the Monument isn’t half so high as you knew it, […] the horse at Charing Cross is gone, no one knows whither’. Lamb joshes that in the time it has taken Manning to master the arcane minutiae of a foreign civilisation, he has missed the total downfall of his own: ‘and all this has taken place while you have been settling whether Ho-hing-tong should be spelt with a —- or a —-.’

In typical digressive style, Lamb’s reverie of the future shifts into a more personal key. ‘Poor Godwin!’ he laments. ‘I was passing his tomb the other day in Cripplegate churchyard. There are some verses upon it written by Miss Hayes [sic].’ Coleridge is ‘just dead, having lived just long enough to close the eyes of Wordsworth, who paid the debt to nature but a week or two before’. Godwin and Coleridge do not escape Lamb’s lampoon of academia either. While Godwin’s theories die with him, ‘ten feet deep in Cripplegate mould’, Coleridge has left behind ‘more than forty thousand treatises in criticism and metaphysics, but few of them in a state of completion. They are now destined, perhaps, to wrap up spices’. A light hearted warning to his friend on the ephemeral nature of cloistered scholarship, and on the cyclical rise and fall of empires, Lamb’s letter can also be read as a reproach on neglected friendships: ‘You see what mutations the busy hand of Time has produced, while you have consumed in foolish voluntary exile that time which might have gladdened your friends’.

Thomas Manning, by J.M. Davis (1805)

Thomas Manning, by J.M. Davis (1805)

Despite the decay of civilisation, and the mutability of its monuments and institutions, the precious friendship between Lamb and Manning endures. Lamb depicts a future in which the elderly friends will reminisce nostalgically for their Cambridge youth. In a touching conclusion, he implores the future Manning to ‘come to your old home. I will rub my eyes and try to recognise you. We will shake withered hands together, and talk of old things – of St. Mary’s Church and the barber’s opposite, where the young students in mathematics used to assemble’. Here, temporal distance emphasizes geographical division. Lamb’s intense and evocative yearning for a recent past is projected onto Manning’s physical remoteness. Lamb asks Manning to imagine a future in which their shared memories of a recent life will then be remembered as ‘old things’, perhaps with the aim of intensifying his friend’s twinges of homesickness. Lamb plays upon the precarious definitions of nostalgia and homesickness for emotive effect in this letter. Nostalgia is a Greek neologism, from ‘nostos’ meaning home, and ‘algos’ meaning a ‘painful longing’, and in the eighteenth century was regarded as an acute homesickness in those who travelled widely. Lamb’s letter demonstrates the transition of nostalgia from a form of homesickness for a physical place, to a longing for an idealised past or nationhood. Most of all, it shows how the pinning for idealised places or experiences often belies a powerful longing for an absent friend:

You like oysters and to open them yourself; I’ll get you some if you come in oyster time. [James] Marshall, Godwin’s old friend, is still alive, and talks of the faces you used to make.
Come as soon as you can.

 C. Lamb