Charles Lamb Essays Sparknotes 1984

Charles' Lamb's "Old China" comes from a collection of his writings entitled, Elia and The Last Essays of Elia. To answer your question first, I believe that Lamb, in describing the faces painted on the china, is simply observing that the artist made the men look much like woman with dainty features, and then made the women to look even more feminine if that were possible. In essence, perhaps their clothing distinguishes the two more than their features do.

I love the men with women's faces and the women, if possible with still more womanish expression.

Lamb notes that he has "an almost feminine partiality for old china," thereby introducing the appeal of these items to men and women. Upon visiting a home, he wants to see the china first and then the art gallery. And as he describes the paintings on the china, the sense of proportion of the figures is off in terms of the distance that separates them. The writer is fascinated by the artistry presented, and we sense that the appeal of these pieces transcends gender, and that Lamb is not the only man to be fascinated by these painted figures. However, the lack of realism regarding the space between the figures may also apply to the features of the men and woman. Perhaps this also alludes to how memories are not always accurate either.

The timeless theme found in "Old China" may be in part what accounts for its popularity. For when speaking to his cousin Bridget (actually his sister Mary), she praises not the beauty of "old china," but the delight they experienced when purchasing such items when money was short. She says...

“I wish the good old times would come again,” she said, “when we were not quite so rich. I do not mean, that I want to be poor; but there was a middle which I am sure we were a great deal happier. A purchase is but a purchase, now that you have money enough and to spare. Formerly it used to be a triumph."

Bridget notes that before they ever bought anything that would belie a certain success in life for the one purchasing it, much thought and planning preceded its purchase. For in the days gone by, they would research the piece, its cost, etc. Bridget declares that at that time, that were more exultant. And in achieving it, they felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. When it was with great impatience purchased and "lugged" home, and when they "explored" every detail, nook and cranny, and even repaired the piece that very night rather than waiting until morning, Bridget asks the speaker:

...was there no pleasure in being a poor man?

She continues and will ask this question again. For in living in "poverty," she believes that they appreciated more of what they had because it was not so easily come by.

The speaker explains that they don't have quite as much money as she thinks, but concedes that living as they once did when finances were scarce...

...strengthened, and knit our compact closer. We could never have been what we have been to each other, if we had always had the sufficiency which you now complain of.

However, he also notes that memory can deceive: physically they can no longer walk so far to carry out their schemes; they are not as young as they were. He reminds her that the memories she cherishes do not include the worries, fears and difficulties she did not favor at that time; instead, he turns her attention to the tea cup, asking her to admire the images painted on its surface—also with unrealistic details.

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Summary of the Essay OLD CHINA by Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb had a sentimental attachment to old china-cups, plates, jars and the like which are generally known as china-ware.  Whenever he visited a great house, he used to enquire first about the china-closet and then about the picture-gallery.  He did not remember when this love was planted in him. 

The pictures on old-china tea-cups are drawn without any sense of perspective.  The eye helps us in making up the sense of distance.  The figures may be up in the air but a speck of blue under their feet represents the earth.  The men on these cups and jars have women’s faces and the women have more womanish expressions. 

One of the cups has the picture of a young and courtly Mandarin, handing tea to a lady from a salver.  Between the two is a distance of only two miles.  On another side there is the same lady or another.  On tea-cups things similar are things identical.  She is stepping into a little fairy boat.  There is a river beside a garden.  At a distance are houses, trees, pagodas, country dances, a cow and a rabbit.  Lamb was pointing out these to his sister over a cup of tea.  This sister is represented as his cousin Bridget in the essays.   She was caught in the memory of their past.  So she started a long lecture.  She wanted Elia not to forget the past.
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Bridget wished for a return of the good old times when they were not quite so rich.  She did not want to be poor, nor did she like to be rich.  She wanted to get back to that state when they were neither rich nor poor, and in that state they were much happier.  Now if they buy something it has no other value except that of the money spent on it.  In the old days every purchase was a triumph.  Before they purchased anything, they used to argue about it and about their expenses for two or three days.  All the arguments for and against were duly considered, and then they would think about an item of expenditure where they could save something.  Thus they were inconvenienced by the money spent on the object purchased, and this raised the value of the purchase.
Lamb used to wear the same brown suit which used to change on him even after it was in rags.  This he did because they wanted to purchase the folio edition of the plays of Beanment and Fletcher.  For weeks they looked at the volume before they could decide whether to purchase it, and then at ten o’ clock of a Saturday night they ran to the shop and paid for it.  But now he wears neat black clothes because he has become rich and finical; and he goes about purchasing any book or any print he likes. 

In the past they would walk to Enfield and Potter’s Bar, and Waltham on a holiday.  They would go there with their meagre lunch and enter in a decent inn.  There they were lucky having an honest hostess like the one described by Izaak Walton in his The Complete Angler.  Formerly, they used to sit in the pit to witness the dramatic performances.  They squeezed out their shillings to sit in the one shilling gallery.  There Elia felt many a time that he ought not to have brought Bridget who was grateful to him for having brought her there.  When the curtain was drawn up, it did not matter where one sat.  So Elia used to say that “the Gallery was the best place of all for enjoying a play socially”.  The spectators in the Gallery were illiterate ones who never read the plays and who therefore were highly attentive to the play.  Bridget received the best attention there because there was chivalry still left, but now Elia cannot see a play from the Gallery.  So Bridget says that his sight disappeared with his poverty.
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In the past, they used to eat strawberries; at that time they did not become quite common.  Now they cannot have such a treat.  Elia may now say that it is better to have a clean balance-sheet at the end of the year.  But there was a different pleasure in the past.  On the night of the 31st December, they used to argue accounting for the excess in the expenditure.  At last they pocketed up their loss and welcomed the New Year.  Now there is not such accounting, and there are “no flattering promises about the new year doing better for them”.

As long as Bridget was in a rhetorical vein speaking thus, Elia kept quiet.  At last he told her that they must put up with the excess.  He said that they must be thankful for their early struggles.  Because of the past suffering, they were drawn together.  “We must ride, where we formerly walked; live better, and lie softer.”


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