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00588--Summary of the Essay OLD CHINA by Charles Lamb [Essays of Elia]

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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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