The essay ‘Dream Children’, is one of the essays from ‘Essays of Elia’ which Charles Lamb wrote under the pen name of Elia. It is an autobiographical account of the author’s life that was riddled with so many tragedies. The essay expresses the feelings of loss and regret faced by him. This essay is a ‘reverie’ which means that it is nothing but a short day dream conjured by the author.
Almost all the characters are real; Mrs. Field, his great grandmother, Uncle John his elder brother, though the two children are merely figments of his imagination as he remained a bachelor all his life. John is a boy imagined by the author and Alice is the imaginary girl through whose eyes Lamb saw his beloved Ann Simmons, who married another man leaving Charles in a sea of agony after seven long years of courtship.
In the opening lines, Charles Lamb finds himself surrounded by two children, Alice and John. Just like all the children do, Lamb’s children also wanted him to narrate stories about his ancestors and the bygone days. It was in this spirit that he tells the children about their great grandmother Field, who lived in a great house in Norfolk, which was ‘a hundred times bigger’ than the house where Lamb and the children presently lived.
The children appeared to have heard (‘from the ballad of the children in the wood’) about the tragic incidents that had supposedly taken place at that house; a horrible episode of a very cruel uncle who had smothered some children, sometime in the past. The details of this horrific massacre were carved on a wood as ‘Ballad of the Woods’ upon a chimney piece inside the Norfolk mansion. Sadly, the owner of the house replaced the wooden chimney with a marble one, hence, the story was lost. Here, Lamb mentions that, Alice displayed her displeasure when she heard that.
Lamb spoke eloquently about his great grandmother Ms. Field, as the kids listened to him with attention. He continues to tell the children that she was a devout Christian and a woman of great piety. She was given the charge of the house since the owner liked to live in a more fashionable mansion. Lamb tells that Ms. Field was religious and a very good lady and was respected by everyone. She took care of the house very carefully. After her, the old ornaments of the house were stripped and set up in the owner’s house. When Lamb mentioned that the old ornaments could not fit decently in the new mansion, John smiled to express his agreement that it was a foolish act.
She was such ‘a famous and a religious woman’ that huge number of people attended her funeral; her admirers from far and wide converged in her house to pay their tributes. Lamb continues to tell that ‘she knew all Psaltery by heart’ and also ‘a great part of the Testament too’. At this point Alice spreads her hands in gesture. Ms. Field was a tall, upright and a graceful person who was esteemed as the best dancer in her youth, till she got afflicted with cancer and her zest for dancing took a beating. Alice’s little right foot played an involuntary movement on knowing about her great grandmother’s dancing talent. However, this crippling disease failed to diminish grandma Field’s spirit as she was a nice human being and very religious too.
Ms. Field’s, Lamb continued to tell the children, was a brave woman, for she slept in a solitary room in the large house, on her own, despite her belief that the ghosts of two infants glided up and down the staircase near the place where she slept. Her world stayed calm as she said that the spirits of the infants were too innocent to harm her. While contrary to her, during those days, Lamb himself used to sleep next to the maid out of fear. Lamb tells the children that though he was far less religious, yet he never saw the ghosts. At this point, John raised his eyebrow in an effort to look courageous.
Further speaking about Ms. Field, Lamb mentions that she was very good to all her grand children. This proves that her affection towards her grand children still remained vivid in his memory. She allowed them a free run over the house garden that had various fruit trees. When Lamb visited her during his holidays, he loved to observe with interest the Roman royalty; the busts of the Twelve Caesars. He would love roaming about the huge mansion, its vast empty rooms, worn-out hangings, fluttering tapestry, carved oaken panels, etc. There was also a spacious garden with trees like peach, nectarine, orange and many others. Hearing this account, Alice and John who were seated near their father, heard the influence of Lamb’s description of fruit trees by ignoring the bunch of grapes which they would have otherwise wanted to have.
In somewhat heightened tone, Lamb told the children that their great grandmother loved all her grand children, though she had a special fondness for their Uncle John L. He was more handsome and spirited than the rest and liked to go on a horse ride for long distances and would even join the hunters at times. Lamb told the children how their uncle John L. would carry him on his back when he was a lame – footed boy. Lamb recalls that when his elder brother became lame – footed in the later years, Lamb probably failed to reciprocate him in the similar manner like he was treated by his elder brother. Lamb mentions how he had missed their uncle when he died, although he did not express his emotions much. He said he missed their uncle’s kindness as well as his crossness. He wished him to be alive, to be rather quarrelling with him just like any other sibling, rather than not have him again. The children felt sorry and uncomfortable with the description of their uncle and urged Lamb to rather tell them about their pretty, dead mother.
Charles Lamb proceeded to name her; ‘Alice W___n’, though he held back the true name ‘Ann Simmons’. He told that he had courted her for seven long years but the romance and the efforts were all futile. He clarified to the children how he had faced problems due to her ‘coyness’ and ‘denial’. He expressed his dismay at her refusing to marry him. Just around this time, Charles saw some uncanny resemblance in the faces of Alice and Ann Simmons. It seemed as though Ann was speaking to him through Alice.
At this point, the story takes an abrupt turn. Gradually, the children started growing fainter to his view and receded into two mournful creatures appearing at a distance. He suddenly wakes up from his sleep and finds himself lying on his arm chair. Curtains fall on his lovelorn past and the hard reality prevails. He finds himself sitting in his bachelor armchair with his sister Mary by his side. He states that James Elia who had been narrating the essay, no longer lived in this world.