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How baffling to know Mr Lear
December 2018 / January 2019

“Lear showing a doubting stranger his name in his hat to prove that Edward Lear was a man and not merely a name”, 1866: Lear continually caricatured himself

How pleasant to know Mr Lear!
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few think him pleasant enough.
So wrote Edward Lear and a Miss Bevan in 1879. This extract from their longer collaboration is not a bad summary of what Sara Lodge seeks to convey in her new book on the Victorian author and artist whose “The Owl and the Pussycat” was voted the nation’s favourite childhood poem in 2014. “So little is known of the late Edward Lear, the nonsense Laureate,” The Globe commented in 1889, just a year after Lear’s death at his Italian home in San Remo. Now, 140 years later, comprehensive biographies including Jenny Uglow’s recent Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense and Vivien Noakes’s pioneering Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, mean that we know far more. However, Sara Lodge seeks to add her own unique perspective and, while she introduces the book as an “academic discussion”, Inventing Edward Lear is clearly borne of a very personal love of Lear’s work. The book makes a valiant effort at tackling Lear’s “volumes of stuff” — his prolific output not just as a poet but as an artist, musician, travel writer, diarist and correspondent. In the final chapter, from which the book derives its title, Lodge engages with some of the contradictions at the heart of a man deeply concerned to create a persona with which to both express and conceal himself.

Lodge’s own personal fascination with Lear is easy to understand. While she never quite makes the claim that Lear was a tortured genius, he certainly had the background of one. Born in Holloway in 1812 as one of at least 17 children and subsequently neglected by his mother, Lear suffered the material consequences and social stigma of his stockbroker father’s bankruptcy. This complex background was further darkened, Lodge claims, by the high likelihood that Lear was the victim of fraternal child abuse which he himself called “the greatest evil done to me in life”. On top of this layered family trauma, Lear was a lifelong sufferer of asthma, epilepsy and depression. And yet, surprisingly, the product of these difficult circumstances was not a social recluse but a textbook extrovert. Lear described himself in an 1867 letter to Lady Waldegrave as “a queer beast to have so many friends” and Lodge concurs that “[Lear’s] talent for friendship was perhaps his greatest gift”.

Indeed, Lodge does well to convey vividly Lear’s extraordinary genius for friendship, showing just how well acquainted he was among the great and good of Victorian society. Not only did he give drawing lessons to Queen Victoria but he knew the poet laureate Alfred Tennyson, who wrote a poem for him, “To E.L., on His Travels in Greece”, while Tennyson’s wife, Emily, was Lear’s close confidante and correspondent. In addition, Lear was a regular guest of the Earl of Derby and later struck up professional and personal links with William Holman Hunt, whom Lear called “Daddy” in acknowledgement of the pre-Raphaelite luminary’s artistic pre-eminence. It would appear that Lear’s social compulsion, his need for connection and his desire and ability to make friends, shaped his choice of limerick and nonsense verse forms. Lodge posits that “nonsense is . . . a game in which the reader is invited to take an active part” and it is easy to see how literary absurdity draws together reader and writer as intimate co-conspirators in silliness.
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