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Making the Best of It

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‘One day there appeared at luncheon sitting opposite to us a rosy, gray-bearded, bald-headed, gold-spectacled old gentleman who captivated my attention . . . Something seemed to bubble and sparkle in his talk and his eyes twinkled benignly.’ This was one small American girl’s first meeting with Edward Lear in 1870. At about the same time he was writing of himself in his diary: ‘Broken down with a hideous load of sorrow – the blinding accumulation of now nearly 60 years.’

When Vivien Noakes’s biography, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, was first published in 1968, the cartoonist Ronald Searle hailed it as ‘magnificent . . . as constantly fascinating as Lear himself’. This was deserved praise for the woman who devoted herself to revealing the many talents of the man too often seen simply as runner-up to Lewis Carroll as the great Victorian children’s writer. Her work continued. In 1985 she curated an important exhibition at the Royal Academy that was a revelation of the full range of Lear’s achievement as a landscape artist, and in 1988 she edited both a selection of his extensive correspondence and The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse for Penguin Classics.

I never read Lear as a child and was only introduced to what he called his ‘nonsense’ when I read his poems to my daughter, then aged 7. Now, thirty years later, I find myself reading them to my granddaughter, aged 5. The long poems, such as ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’ and ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’, continue to work their magic, though some of the limericks can be a little difficult to explain:

There was a Young Lady in White,
Who looked at the depths of the night:
But the birds of the air,
Filled her heart with despair,
And oppressed that Young Lady in White.

This, like a lot of Lear, has a grown-up melancholy, and if you read it to a young child you may be met with an enquiring upward look, as if to say

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‘One day there appeared at luncheon sitting opposite to us a rosy, gray-bearded, bald-headed, gold-spectacled old gentleman who captivated my attention . . . Something seemed to bubble and sparkle in his talk and his eyes twinkled benignly.’ This was one small American girl’s first meeting with Edward Lear in 1870. At about the same time he was writing of himself in his diary: ‘Broken down with a hideous load of sorrow – the blinding accumulation of now nearly 60 years.’

When Vivien Noakes’s biography, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, was first published in 1968, the cartoonist Ronald Searle hailed it as ‘magnificent . . . as constantly fascinating as Lear himself’. This was deserved praise for the woman who devoted herself to revealing the many talents of the man too often seen simply as runner-up to Lewis Carroll as the great Victorian children’s writer. Her work continued. In 1985 she curated an important exhibition at the Royal Academy that was a revelation of the full range of Lear’s achievement as a landscape artist, and in 1988 she edited both a selection of his extensive correspondence and The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse for Penguin Classics. I never read Lear as a child and was only introduced to what he called his ‘nonsense’ when I read his poems to my daughter, then aged 7. Now, thirty years later, I find myself reading them to my granddaughter, aged 5. The long poems, such as ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’ and ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’, continue to work their magic, though some of the limericks can be a little difficult to explain:
There was a Young Lady in White, Who looked at the depths of the night: But the birds of the air, Filled her heart with despair, And oppressed that Young Lady in White.
This, like a lot of Lear, has a grown-up melancholy, and if you read it to a young child you may be met with an enquiring upward look, as if to say ‘What’s that all about?’ But I think we underrate Lear’s appeal to children and exaggerate that of Carroll. And as men? Well, Carroll’s rather cold, Oxford bachelor-don personality is well known, but I had no idea of the mixture of warmth and terrible darkness in Lear’s life until I read Vivien Noakes’s book. Edward Lear was born in 1812 in Holloway, London, the penultimate of twenty-one children. His father was a stockbroker, but even for a wealthy man such a huge family was a considerable burden, and when he got into financial difficulties the family was split up, with the older children having to find work and the younger ones being farmed out to relatives. Edward, then aged 4, was left in the charge of his 25-year-old sister Ann. The difficulties of family life were horribly exacerbated two years later when he suffered the first attack of what he called ‘the Demon’ – epileptic fits that occurred almost every day, and sometimes several times a day, for the rest of his life. He quickly learned to recognize an oncoming attack, to hide himself away and to suffer each in complete isolation. It seems that no one outside the immediate family circle ever became aware of his condition or of the accompanying sense of loneliness and shame he called ‘the Morbids’. It’s not surprising that moments of happiness in his childhood stood out with great clarity:
The earliest of all the morbidnesses . . . must have been somewhere about 1819 – when my Father took me to a field near Highgate, where there was a rural performance of gymnastic clowns &c – and a band. The music was good . . . & the sunset & twilight I remember as if yesterday. And I can recollect crying half the night after all the small gaiety broke up.
He did not go to school until he was 11 and the experience was painful. What saved him from complete despair was being taught by his sisters to paint and draw. His natural talent was such that he was able to support himself as a freelance artist from the age of 15. His work was his salvation. Many years later he wrote, ‘I HATE HATE LIFE unless I WORK ALWAYS.’ He started off ignominiously, selling sketches to coach passengers in the yards of inns, but he rapidly became a sought-after illustrator of natural history books. A folio of drawings of parrots, published before he was 20, was judged to equal if not excel the great Audubon and led to an invitation to the Earl of Derby’s estate to draw the animals in a private menagerie. Initially regarded as a servant, Lear was found so amiable and entertaining that he was soon invited to dine with the family. In the next few years he was passed from one aristocratic family to another, each charmed by the large, ungainly young man who was an ideal guest, able to draw, sing, play the piano and flute and, above all, amuse their children with his verses and stories. When Lord Derby and others clubbed together to provide him with enough money to go to Rome for two years, in return for drawings he would make for them, Lear found liberation in simply being away from England. A letter home explained, in his own idiosyncratic way, that ‘The walking – sketching – exploring –noveltyperceiving & beautyappreciating part of the Landscape painter’s life is undoubtedly to be envied – but the contrast of the moneytryingtoget, smoky dark London life – fuss – trouble is wholly odious and every year more so.’ The wanderer lived and worked in Italy, Greece, Corfu, Albania, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine and India. Breezily accepting the most difficult of living conditions and often travelling through virtually unexplored country, he worked from dawn to dusk at watercolours, drawings and the landscape oil paintings that he hoped to sell for large sums. He was mostly disappointed, but by unceasing activity he was able to make a reasonable living and to remain free. The number and radiant beauty of the works he produced on his travels are a triumph of spirit over private depression and suffering. But it is for his ‘nonsense’ that most of us remember Lear. His first work for children, A Book of Nonsense, containing his limericks and extraordinary, grotesque drawings, appeared in 1846 and was followed by a book of verses, stories and comic alphabets. But the nonsense – if it was such – was not something concocted to charm children. It spilled out from his personality in the almost surreal verbal contortions and drawings that fill the letters he wrote to friends. Like most of the great Victorians, Lear wrote letters almost every day. They confide some of his troubles candidly, but they are also full of the joy he found in new places and people. He always maintained that he was weak at drawing the human figure – but the cartoons of Lear himself, as a tall, heavy figure dancing, painting or walking in great strides on legs as long as stilts are a delight. It seems that he was alternately embarrassed and intrigued by his own appearance: he portrays himself with his arm around a huge and rather bashful parrot, astride a runaway elephant, accompanied by huge frogs, one on each arm, dressed as an archbishop, or disguised as a bespectacled and besuited owl or bee or snail. In many of the later drawings he is accompanied by his wily-looking cat, Foss. (Lear adored Foss – so much so that when forced to move from his house in Italy, he had an exact copy built so Foss would feel quite at home in new surroundings.) One drawing in the letters that comes as a mild shock is of three young women in India dressed in what look like bikinis. Lear says ‘they are the most virtuous of people’, but goes on to tell his correspondent, Lord Carlingford, that as many of ‘these worthy females are perfect in shape & very pretty . . . it might be well that you should make some public suggestion that so economical and picturesque an apparel may be brought into general use in England’. Despite this lively appreciation of women, Lear never married. Vivien Noakes believed he was a suppressed homosexual, and he did indeed become very attached to the younger men who sometimes accompanied him on his travels. He invested deep trust and feeling in these relationships and was devastated when they ended, but we are too quick to regard all close friendships of the Victorian era as sexually driven. After all, Lear left plenty of evidence in his diaries and letters that he pined after marriage, and he came close on more than one occasion. But it seems that whenever he thought he might propose his nerve failed him. What he thought of as the hideous and shameful secret of his epilepsy would inevitably be revealed. This deeply affectionate man was also horribly sure that he was not a fit mate for anyone. In his final book of verses, published when he was in his sixties, he wrote with affecting sadness of his position:
‘Lady Jingly! Lady Jingly! Sitting where the pumpkins blow, Will you come and be my wife?’ – Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò. ‘I am tired of living singly, – On this coast so wild and shingly, – I’m a-weary of my life: If you’ll come and be my wife, Quite serene would be my life!’ – Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò. Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
There is a tolling valedictory sound in those last two lines that sums up what he told his diary: ‘Accept a lonely destiny . . . & make the best of it.’ In later life Lear settled in San Remo, with Giorgio, his faithful Greek servant of many years, and Foss. He had taken to drinking large quantities of marsala as, unfortunately, had his servant, and the odd couple often fell to arguing. Lear also began to have trouble with his sight and attacks of dizziness. He continued to work but was now hardly able to sell anything at all. It was at this low point that he drew together his last and greatest verses in Laughable Lyrics (1877), including the wonderful ‘Dong with a Luminous Nose’, ‘The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò’, ‘The Pelican Chorus’, ‘The Quangle Wangle’s Hat’, ‘The Pobble Who Has No Toes’ and other poems whose combination of sadness and humour sum up his own life and which have provided pleasure and enchantment to others ever since. Edward Lear, most brave and amiable of spirits, died in 1888.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 56 © William Palmer 2017


About the contributor

William Palmer latest novel, The Devil Is White, was published in 2013. A collection of his poetry, Endland, was published by Rack Press in 2017.

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