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Charles Lamb Essays Sparknotes Brave

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 state...in 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.

It is beyond the scope of an eNote answer to explicate an essay of this length line by line, but I will provide an overview, and please feel free to ask more questions.

As the title of the essay indicates, the subject is poor relations, by which Charles Lamb means relatives with very little money. They were common in early 19th century England because society favored the accumulation of wealth into a few hands. For example, the laws of primogeniture ensured that great estates were inherited in their entirety by the eldest son, rather than divided among the children. This kept the estates intact and maintained the family prestige. Custom, as Samuel Richardson had outlined a half century earlier in Sir Charles Grandison, also tended to favor leaving even discretionary income to one heir, something Richardson deplored as cruel to other relatives. Jane Austen's novels, close to Lamb's period, also dealt with the issue: the plots of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are put into motion by the real or threatened loss of an estate to a male heir. 

What kept wealth concentrated in a few hands (the good fortune of eldest sons) tended to leave other relatives in more precarious situations that could lead to poverty, especially given the lack of a social safety net in that period. Then, as now, having the poor relation show up for dinner could be embarrassing (if you have seen the movie National Lampoon Vacation, you will remember the comic problems that arise when poor, uneducated relations show up), and this becomes the focus of the Lamb essay, though more poignantly than in National Lampoon: the poor relative who arrives at the house for a meal. 

In the first paragraph, Lamb, in the guise of his narrator, Elia, lists some of the common thoughts or cliches about a poor relation, none of them flattering. A poor relation is "irrelevant" or unimportant, "impertinent" in writing to you, in other words, a person you don't want to hear from, a drain on your finances, an embarrassment, something that delights your enemies, inconvenient, annoying, a blot on your life. These are blunt words, and while there is a comic intent in this piling up of cliche upon cliche to the point of exaggeration, at the same time, Lamb/Elia doesn't fall into silly pieties or the hypocrisy of pretending a poor relation is wholly welcome. 

In the second paragraph, Elia describes the arrival of the male poor relation, including the mutual embarrassment: you, the host, really don't want to see him and he is embarrassed by his poverty, but he needs a free meal. (We remember that the problem of food scarcity isn't really solved, even in rich countries, until after World War II, well beyond this time period.) The poor relation never seems to arrive on the days when you don't have other company. He, of course, shows up at dinnertime, then has to be persuaded to eat the food he is hungry for, even if there is none too much ("the turbot ... small"). Lamb lays out the whole embarrassing scene: 

He declareth against fish, the turbot being small — yet suffereth himself to be importuned [persuaded] into [taking] a slice against his first resolution. He sticketh by the port — yet will be prevailed upon to empty the remainder glass of claret, if a stranger press it upon him.

His manners (how he acts) are also excruciating: he is both too "familiar," in other words, he acts too much like a close friend, and at the same time, he is too "diffident" or shy, too abject and humble. The servants don't know how to treat him and the other guests wonder about him, though his unfortunate knack of being both overly friendly and overly abject betray him as the poor relation. He brings up old family stories at the wrong moment (is "unseasonable") and his conversation and compliments irritate (they are a "trouble" and "perverse"): his presence, in a word, is  awkward, and when he's gone, you whisk his chair into a corner and breathe a sigh of relief. He's that person who doesn't fit in but who you can't not have over.

Elia then moves to the female poor relation. He finds poor females worse than poor males because they have an even more difficult time hiding their status and can't be dismissed easily as simply eccentric:

But in the indications of female poverty there can be no disguise. No woman dresses below herself from caprice. The truth must out without shuffling.

Her clothes are between those of gentlewoman and a beggar, presumably meaning once well made, stylish clothes of good fabric now worn, outdated and patched. But even worse are her manners. She is too humble, too self-aware of being a poor relation, too abject, and people hold her in contempt: for instance, the governess, below her rank, corrects her when she calls the piano a harpsichord (a humbler, more old-fashioned instrument). 

In the next paragraph, Lamb first mentions a Richard Amlet, a poor gamester (or gambler) in a play called "The Confederacy" by Sir John Vanburgh, then moves to a friend, who was the son of a house painter. This man went to Oxford and loved the scholarly life, but was pulled out of it to take up his father's trade, for financial reasons. The difference between "gown and town" or academics and life in a shop, was too great for this young man, who instead joined the army and was killed in Portugal. 

Elia goes on to say in the next paragraph that while he started off his essay half comically, the subject of poor relations is also painful and tragic. He mentions his own childhood and a poor relation, an old gentleman, who would come to dinner every Saturday and one day was offended when Elia's aunt pushed a second helping of food on him saying, “Do take another slice, Mr. Billet, for you do not get pudding every day." He gets revenge later on her calling out his poverty by labeling her superannuated, which means obsolete or outdated. But Elia allows the poor relation to land on a note of dignity, for this elderly man dies poor, but with five pounds to his name: "enough to bury him." The very ending, however, is ambiguous, possibly ironic: he had "never been obliged to any man for a six-pence" (if you don't count the weekly meals). 

Overall, the essay is notable for dealing honestly with an uncomfortable subject. 

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