Title: Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense
Author: Jenny Uglow
Publisher: Faber/Allen and Unwin
Published: 25th October 2017
Synopsis: A beautifully illustrated, literary appreciation of Edward Lear – best-known for his poem ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ – and his ‘nonsenses’ by one of Britain’s most highly regarded historians.
Edward Lear’s poems follow and break the rules. They abide by the logic of syntax, the linking of rhyme and the dance of rhythm, and these ‘nonsenses’ are full of joy – yet set against darkness. Where do these human-like animals and birds and these odd adventures – some gentle, some violent, some musical, some wild – come from? His many drawings that accompany his verse are almost hyper-real, as if he wants to free the creatures from the page. They exist nowhere else in literature, springing only from Lear’s imagination.
Lear lived all his life on the borders of rules and structures, of disciplines and desires. He vowed to ignore politics yet trembled with passionate sympathies. He depended on patrons and moved in establishment circles, yet he never belonged among them and mocked imperial attitudes. He loved men yet dreamed of marriage – but remained, it seems, celibate, wrapped in himself. Even in his family he was marginal, at once accepted and rejected. Surrounded by friends, he was alone.
If we follow him across land and sea – to Italy, Greece and Albania, to The Levant and Egypt and India – and to the borderlands of spirit and self, art and desire, can we see, in the end, if the nonsense makes sense? This is what Jenny Uglow has set sail to find out.
Jenny Uglow’s latest biogpraphy examines the life, art and nonsense poetry or Edward Lear. Born in 1812, Lear was the youngest boy of seventeen, nineteen or twenty-one children (depending on which source is consulted, Uglow suggests that Lear claimed it was twenty-one). As the second to last born child, he was passed off to a much older sister to care for and raise. Lear’s life led him into an adult life of travel, nonsense and art, and through his struggles with his identity and epilepsy, he wrote and created watercolours, limericks and one of the best loved poems known today: The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (1871), and his numerous limericks that appear to hint at dark outcomes for the Old Men and other characters that populate his limericks from a variety of places. It is not merely the story of Lear’s life, but how his art, travels and writing shaped his life, and how the people he interacted with throughout his life. such as the Pre-Raphaelites, including William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, and their infamous exhibit that caused a scandal because of the nature of their paintings. Lear spent much of his adult life travelling across Europe, especially to Greece and Corfu, painting and writing for children of friends, whilst never marrying himself, despite coming close. At the same time, Lear grappled with his sexuality and who he was attracted to, as well as his asthma, and epilepsy that hindered him in some ways.
I had previously encountered Edward Lear in a university course about Children’s Literature, where I studied the classics and some of the most well-known works from what is known as The Golden Age, through to modern day literature from Australia and America, as well as fairy tales. So, this was a special treat for me, and something I wished I had had back then. I knew of his large family, his writing and his epilepsy and sexuality – what I did not know was how extensively he travelled and just how much his sister, Ann, meant to him – how much of a mother she was to him over his own mother, and I didn’t know anything about his relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites. On this account in the book, I would have liked to have known more about this time he spent with them and whether he knew the women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle as well as their husbands. This biography is beautiful, traversing Lear’s life in travel, art and nonsense, opening each chapter with a limerick and peppering them throughout in places where each one relates to what has just been written.
Uglow also incorporates the Owl and the Pussy-Cat, and part of the solemn, depressing Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. Of these two, The Owl and the Pussy-Cat is my favourite, and his limericks are full of whimsy, delight and the nonsense that Lear and his contemporary, Lewis Carroll, perpetuated in their early works that introduced entertainment over didacticism and morally uplifting stories to children, thus ushering in what is known as The Golden Age of Children’s Literature. What this biogpraphy offers is a colourful and well-rounded view of the life of Edward Lear, flaws and all are recognised as he travels and through his encounters of world events and hearing about them.
Through a life lived on the borders of convention, a life that helped bring the delightful nonsense to life, Lear’s life lived in the margins, accepted by some, and yet alone amongst friends, a life that was not lived in a conventional or normal manner, where he gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, and at the same time, used his nonsense to mock imperial attitudes, we can perhaps begin to understand how his nonsense verses emerged.
Authors of Children’s Literature today owe much to people like Lear and Carroll – they opened the door to literature for children as entertainment, using nonsense, magic and humour to entertain and potentially teach rather than didactic texts and primers that had abounded up until the 1860s, when their first works were published. Lear was one of the first authors of children’s literature to push these boundaries, and this biogpraphy shows that he was more than this, that he led a fascinating life in a time when there were different expectations for everyone.