Summary of the Essay THE SOUTH-SEA HOUSE by Charles Lamb [ from ESSAYS OF ELIA]
The South-Sea House stands on the north side of Thread Needle Street, not far away from the Bank of England, and is a melancholy-looking, handsome, brick and stone edifice. It has magnificent portals revealing a grave courtyard, with cloisters and pillars. It was once a house of trade. Merchants used to assemble here and business was transacted. Now importance is gone, and it is no more than a magnificent relic. The South-Sea House is of interest to Lamb because it is so rich in past associations, now fallen into neglect, though situated as it is in the very centre of business life. Its coolness, its silence and repose, and its indolence are now welcome to Lamb. Lamb was a clerk here for a short time before he went to India House, and remembers things of past, in which all his interest lies. Lamb is speaking of the South Sea House forty years back.
The clerks of the South-Sea House were in the first place mostly bachelors, old fashioned and with a speculative turn of mind. They were humourists of all descriptions, and having been brought together in their middle age, they could not certainly shed their angularities, as Lamb says, a sort of Noha’s ark. Yet they were quite pleasant fellows in their own way.
The cashier was one Evans, a Welshman. He wore his hair powdered and frizzed out, the fashion known as Maccaronies. His melancholy face bent over the cash, he ever fumbled with it, fearing that everyone about him was a defaulter including himself. His face seemed to brighten when he sat over his roast veal at Anderton’s at two. It was not till evening that he really came into life. Just on the stroke of six he would tap at the door. Over a muffin he would melt into talk, ranging over old and new London, and he seemed to have such a lot of information.
Thomas Tame was his deputy. He had the air and stoop of a gentleman. He seemed to look down condescendingly on anyone to whom he talked, and the latter felt, as soon as his talk ended, what a shallow intellect the man had. Thomas Tame had, however, no riches to support his pretensions. His wife traced her relationship obliquely to an illustrious but unfortunate house of Darwentwaten. It cheered the couples as the bright solitary star of their lives.
The accountant, John Tip, was of a different sort. He had no high pretensions. He had a hobby of his own. It was his fiddle. He had a fine suit of rooms in Thread Needle Street, which resounded every fortnight to the notes of a concert of “sweet breasts”. Tip presided over it. But at desk he appeared quite a prosaic and unromantic man, attending exclusively to the business of writing off dividend warrants and striking the annual balance which was a very serious affair, occupying days and nights a month before it was due. He was a stickler for form. He was the best executer in the world, taking very seriously the duty of protecting the rights of orphans. He was well endowed with the principle of self-preservation, and never took any risk in life.
Lamb recalls Henry Man, the wit, the polished man of letters, the author. He was best known for his gibes and jokes, some of which are recorded in his volumes which Lamb had the good fortune to procure from a stall in Barbican. His wit might have grown little stale in these days of ‘new-born gauds’, but it was highly relished in his life time, and radiates from his chronicles upon Chatham and Shebume, and Rockigham, and Howe, Burgoyne and Clinton.
Then there was the fine rattling, rattle-headed Plumer. He was descended from the Plumers of Hertfordshire, and inherited their features too. His father, old Walter Plumer, flourished in George II’s days. He was summoned before the House of Commons for having a shady deal in franks, an account of which is given in Johnson’s Life of Cave. Richard Plummer did not mind this allusion at all. He was rather flattered by it. He was a nice fellow and could sing too.
Maynard could sing exquisitely, and sang the song sung by Amiens to the banished Duke. His father was unapproachable churchwarden of Bishopsgate. Lamb laments the tragic death of Maynard. Lamb could have called up other shadowy figures from the past, but they are now no more than shadows and the living have little interest in them.