Charles Lamb: Essays

Charles Lamb: Essays Summary and Analysis of "Ellistoniana"


Elia opens this obituary of his friend E. by recounting a time when he visited the new Lemington Spa Library, opened by E.'s family. There, at the counter, two girls had come under the pretense of inquiring about a new publication, but really to see and talk to E. himself, who acted the part of an eccentric bookseller to denounce the volume the girls were inquiring about. Elia, in that exact moment, decided he should be better acquainted with the man.

Elliston was a comedian whose personal and public personas were indistinguishable from one another. When Elia once remarked on his admiration of an actor named Wrench for demonstrating the same easy going demeanor on stage and off, Elliston noted that he himself was the same way. Except, Elia notes, it was the converse, with Elliston playing the same comedian in his regular life.

Wherever Elliston was, the theater would be too, as all in his company would be treated to magnificent comedic performance. Elia asks if truly Elliston played his famous role of Ranger, when in fact Ranger was all Elliston's own temperament, spirits, and follies. He wonders if the man that he knew was in fact Elliston himself, or if simply Elliston was performing his persona all along, but that it barely matters on account of Elliston's greatness.

In his later years, Elliston felt under-appreciated or, even, betrayed by the industry that employed him. He griped that he was relegated to comedy, even though this is what he was truly best at. But even then, he considered his theater the highest heaven, and took to chastising younger aspiring actors for growing frustrated with their trade and forsaking their theatrical duties. Elia points out that as great as he was, he was also tender in manner. In death, none of that greatness has been diminished, as his performance will always be remembered and celebrated.


Here, Lamb applies a familiar form in his writing—the elegy—to a unique genre for his oeuvre—the obituary. While Lamb often takes as his subject memories of the past, exalting particular aspects of history with typical Romantic floridness, he rarely gives such a treatment to a person on the occasion of their death. But here, Lamb tasks himself with writing an obituary of his friend that relishes the man's life and posits that tragedy did not come in death, but had a peculiar way of rearing its head during life.

This is an idea that we see come up several times in Lamb's writings, that what stings in life are not big, traumatic events, but the subtle misfortunes that happen along the way. Elliston's despair that he was getting typecast later in his career is a similar regret to Elia's that he never successfully courted Alice M. or to his schoolmaster friend's that the students feel so alien to him. Lamb finds a salient way to illustrate the notion that there's something tragic about the comedian as a figure.

We also see Lamb's brand of nostalgia here, with him reveling in his memories with the slightest hint of yearning for something that is gone. It's clear that Elliston was a larger than life character, and his absence leaves Elia a little emptier. Elliston, a generous man with a lot to give to the people around him, is exactly the type of person that we see Elia show the most admiration for. The way that Elia describes Elliston isn't so different than how he describes his grandmother Field in "Dream-Children; A Reverie."