Kathryn Hughes

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Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Non­sense by Jenny Uglow

Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Non­sense by Jenny Uglow. Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 598 pp., $45.00

One day in 1848 Edward Lear, pro­fes­sional trav­eler, artist, and pur­veyor of non­sense, en­tered a small Al­ba­nian vil­lage and, spot­ting a stream full of wa­ter­cress, pulled up a clump to have with his bread and cheese. Ex­cited by the sight of a tubby for­eigner eat­ing weeds, lo­cal chil­dren pro­ceeded to present the pe­cu­liar vis­i­tor with a se­ries of even more out­landish snacks—a this­tle, a stick, a nice juicy grasshop­per. Soon ev­ery­one was laugh­ing, none louder than Lear, who re­called that “we parted amaz­ingly good friends.” The way Lear tells the story in his Jour­nals of a Land­scape Painter in Al­ba­nia (1851) makes it sound as if the episode would be per­fectly suited for one of his col­lec­tions of non­sense verse. All the el­e­ments seem to be in place. There’s the ec­cen­tric central char­ac­ter, in this case Lear him­self, and the glee­ful top­pling of hi­er­ar­chies: wa­ter­cress may be a del­i­cate sum­mer gar­nish in civ­i­lized Bri­tain, but in this back­ward cor­ner of Europe it is noth­ing but a dirty weed. And then there’s the ex­am­ple of how quizzi­cal logic be­comes when pushed to its lim­its: If a for­eigner likes for­ag­ing among na­ture’s less ex­alted bounty, then why would he not also en­joy a juicy grasshop­per? What’s miss­ing, though, is any un­der­tow of emo­tional long­ing or phys­i­cal threat. For if this anec­dote re­ally had been taken from Lear’s first non­sense book, pub­lished five years be­fore Jour­nal of a Land­scape Painter, then the Young Man of Al­ba­nia would have been smashed, or bashed, or even lashed by the lo­cals—on an ear­lier oc­ca­sion Lear had been pelted by Mus­lim towns­folk for draw­ing liv­ing crea­tures. And if it had ap­peared in one of his longer nar­ra­tive po­ems from the 1870s, then the Young Man of Al­ba­nia might have ful­filled his des­per­ate long­ing for love by ask­ing the grasshop­per to elope with him to a far­away land.

The fact that it is so easy to imag­ine Lear’s anec­dote re­cast as one of his comic verses shows how com­plete a hold he still has on our imag­i­na­tion. His four books of non­sense, pub­lished in the mid­dle decades of the nine­teenth cen­tury, are still in print, and in 2012, the bi­cen­te­nary of his birth, “The Owl and the Pussy­cat” was voted Bri­tain’s fa­vorite poem. Lear’s orig­i­nal au­di­ence was the chil­dren of his many friends for whom he wrote il­lus­trated let­ters and im­promptu rhymes, but it was the grown-ups who kept buy­ing his books, as if they had a lin­ger­ing de­sire to re­turn to the land where the Bong-Tree grows.

What keeps pulling us back to Lear’s comic verse is not the prospect of ev­ery­one end­ing up “amaz­ingly good friends” but the rue­ful recog­ni­tion that they prob­a­bly won’t. Read his po­ems care­fully and you’ll find anger and dis­ap­point­ment in ev­ery line: a wife is kept in a box by her hus­band; an old man is be­rated for danc­ing with a raven; a young lady from Wales catches a fish with­out any scales. In Lear’s lim­er­icks—not a term he ever used him­self—the fi­nal line re­calls the first rather than rhyming with it. Some cur­mud­geons have found the ef­fect not only un­funny but slack, as if the poet sim­ply couldn’t come up with a killer fin­ish. But the vet­eran Bri­tish bi­og­ra­pher

Jenny Uglow ar­gues as­tutely in Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Non­sense that these rep­e­ti­tions are cru­cial to Lear’s en­gag­ing can­dor. He shows us what we find so hard to bear: that the busi­ness of liv­ing is not pro­gres­sive but cir­cu­lar, and that there’s a high chance of end­ing up stuck where we started. The Old Per­son of Rhodes who hates toads and pays his cousins to catch them fin­ishes the verse by car­ry­ing on, even though the ef­fort is “fu­tile.” The Young Lady of Dork­ing who buys a huge bon­net for walk­ing soon dis­cov­ers that she prefers stay­ing at home in Dork­ing.

The per­sis­tence of Lear’s Per­sons, young and old, is dou­bly ad­mirable given their re­fusal to take any notice of the naysay­ers who carp from the side­lines. Nearly ev­ery lim­er­ick fea­tures a “They” who want to scold the Per­sons into con­form­ity. They tut at the way the Old Per­son of Hurst won’t stop get­ting fat­ter, They smash the Old Per­son of Buda who keeps grow­ing ruder, and They tell the Old Man of Mel­rose that he looks ridicu­lous walk­ing on the tips of his toes. For Ge­orge Or­well, writ­ing about Lear in the mid­dle of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, They are the op­pres­sive arm of the state, in­tent on crush­ing in­di­vid­u­al­ity in the service of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. For Bri­tish psy­cho­an­a­lysts long fas­ci­nated by Lear’s work, They op­er­ate as a super­ego, an in­ter­nal­ized po­lice­man who steps in to cen­sor a Per­son ev­ery time she at­tempts to ex­press a side of her­self that is messy, non­sen­si­cal, and au­then­tic.

In Mr. Lear, Uglow sets out to show how both They and the Per­sons were forged by the con­di­tions of Lear’s early life. He was born in 1812 to a City of Lon­don mer­chant, which ex­plains his knack for ren­der­ing the dropped h’s and glot­tal stops of cock­ney speech in some of the longer po­ems. As the next-to-last child in a fam­ily of six­teen, Lear was painfully aware of the fi­nan­cial costs of an­i­mal fer­til­ity, es­pe­cially af­ter his fa­ther was hu­mil­i­at­ingly de­clared bank­rupt. So it’s no sur­prise that his comic uni­verse throngs with pro­lific par­ents, fathers es­pe­cially, who strug­gle to keep their prog­eny alive: the old man of Apu­lia feeds his twenty sons on noth­ing but buns, an­other huge fam­ily ex­ists solely on snails, and in one poem the chil­dren eat so much that the fa­ther dies of shock. Re­jected by his mother, who must have been numbed by the sheer size of her fam­ily (it’s pos­si­ble she gave birth twenty-one times and lost some ba­bies along the way), Edward was raised by his sis­ter Ann, a life­long spin­ster.

Ma­ter­nal re­jec­tion and pa­ter­nal in­com­pe­tence only go so far in ex­plain­ing Lear’s feel­ings of per­ma­nent dis­place­ment. From an early age he suf­fered from epilepsy, and while no one re­ally be­lieved that the con­di­tion was a mark of the Devil, it was still suf­fi­ciently sham­ing to make a sen­si­tive boy feel per­ma­nently es­tranged from him­self. As an adult his in­sis­tence on hid­ing away when­ever he felt a fit com­ing on kept him phys­i­cally and psy­chi­cally re­mote from his peers: “It is wonderful that these fits have never been dis­cov­ered,” he wrote grate­fully in old age. The usual so­cial plea­sures of a mid-Vic­to­rian bach­e­lor—a walk­ing tour with friends, shar­ing lodg­ings with a col­league—were out of bounds since a seizure might oc­cur at any mo­ment. Ro­mance was even harder to imag­ine,

since at some point the bride would need to be let in on the ter­ri­ble se­cret. It wasn’t just health anx­i­eties that kept Lear away from women. Ever since Vivien Noakes, Lear’s pi­o­neer­ing bi­og­ra­pher, sug­gested in 1968 that he was a “re­pressed” or “non-prac­tic­ing” gay man, Lear’s erotic pref­er­ences have been the sub­ject of bad-tem­pered de­bate. Crit­ics of Noakes’s view have drawn at­ten­tion to the sev­eral crushes on women about which Lear would boast tire­somely to fam­ily and friends. There was one in par­tic­u­lar, a plain, gen­tle young wo­man called Au­gusta Bethell, with whom he episod­i­cally de­clared him­self to be in love. Ev­ery time Gussie moved away, mar­ried, or oth­er­wise be­came un­avail­able, Lear con­vinced him­self that he had been about to pro­pose. At the age of sev­enty-five, months from death, he was still con­sid­er­ing pop­ping the ques­tion.

When­ever Lear sighed af­ter a wife, he imag­ined her pri­mar­ily as a pur­veyor of “pen­cils and pud­dings,” which sug­gests that what he ac­tu­ally had in mind was less a ro­man­tic part­ner than an older sis­ter. Uglow fol­lows Noakes in as­sum­ing, as a mat­ter of ac­cepted fact, that Lear was gay and that he worked hard to keep his de­sires out of his di­aries and let­ters. She notes that “he recorded moods, health, toothache, itchy skin, con­sti­pa­tion; work and travel; peo­ple met, let­ters re­ceived, gos­sip heard; walks taken, books read, meals eaten. What did he not record? Dreams, lusts, his feel­ings about words.” Ex­cept, that is, for a brief span in the mid-1850s when Lear fell lop­sid­edly and trau­mat­i­cally in love with a younger man called Frank Lush­ing­ton. Many of the rel­e­vant di­aries and let­ters from that time turn out to be miss­ing— though Uglow can’t help won­der­ing, “Are they still in some trunk, wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered?”

For the time be­ing, she reads be­tween the lines and di­rects us to the many lim­er­icks in which the poet writes ten­derly of un­ortho­dox cou­plings. It’s not just the Owl and the Pussy­cat, al­though she is surely right to draw at­ten­tion to just how much is at stake here: cats and birds of prey are quite ca­pa­ble of tear­ing each other to pieces. Other un­likely es­cape artists in­clude the Duck and Kan­ga­roo who “hopped the whole world three times round,” with the fowl bal­anc­ing pre­car­i­ously on the mar­su­pial’s tail. Then there’s the Daddy Long-legs and the Fly, an­other mixed-up cou­ple who “Rushed down­wards to the foamy sea/ With one sponge-taneous cry.”

Lear was twenty-five be­fore he could af­ford to rush down to the foamy sea, let alone hop the world three times round. By the age of four­teen and a half he was draw­ing for “bread and cheese,” loi­ter­ing in in­n­yards and sell­ing sketches to pas­sen­gers wait­ing to change coaches. Be­fore long he was at­tract­ing se­ri­ous at­ten­tion for his re­mark­able abil­ity as an or­nitho­log­i­cal il­lus­tra­tor. At eigh­teen he pro­duced the land­mark Il­lus­tra­tions of the Fam­ily of Psittaci­dae, or Par­rots, the first mono­graph pro­duced in Eng­land that con­cen­trated on a sin­gle fam­ily of birds. Many felt it to be as good as any­thing pro­duced by the great Audubon, in­clud­ing Audubon him­self. The se­cret was not sim­ply young Lear’s tech­ni­cal skill but also his in­sis­tence on work­ing from live mod­els, which he could do at the Re­gent’s Park Zoo, where he had per­mis­sion to sketch.

On the strength of this tri­umph Lear was in­vited by the Earl of Derby to his pri­vate menagerie on the fam­ily’s es­tate at Knowsley, where ex­otic an­i­mals from all over the globe dis­ported them­selves in the driv­ing Lan­cashire rain. The ex­pe­ri­ence not only gave Lear a sense of the grand span of the world, but also fixed his sense of his place in the tax­on­omy of Bri­tish class. Nei­ther ser­vant nor gen­tle­man, he was in­vited to dine with the toffs only on ac­count of his pro­fes­sional use­ful­ness. He could sing a bit, play the pi­ano, and loved be­ing with chil­dren in a bless­edly un­creepy way.

This craft­ing of a so­cial per­sona for evenings was par­tic­u­larly strik­ing given that dur­ing the day Lear was hon­ing his un­der­stand­ing of the way in which sci­en­tists clas­si­fied the nat­u­ral world. It is this im­pulse to doc­u­ment same­ness and vari­a­tion that Uglow sug­gests is the or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple of Lear’s lim­er­icks. His Per­sons are mostly de­fined with ref­er­ence to their habi­tat, their be­hav­ior, and their diet. They like to sit at the tops of trees or perch on boxes; they play the harp with their chin or stick their heads into lilies; for food, they pre­fer crum­pets, or roast mut­ton, or gruel with mice. Nor do they stay the same. They are of­ten in the process of burst­ing out of their old forms and evolv­ing into strange new shapes. There’s a nice co­in­ci­dence to the fact that in 1836 Lear briefly lived in the same West End lodg­ings where the young Charles Dar­win was busy sort­ing his HMS Bea­gle spec­i­mens, try­ing to work out the process by which species evolve. To both young men it was be­com­ing clear that the world’s phys­i­cal forms, far from be­ing di­vinely fixed, were in con­stant flux. The dif­fer­ence was that while Dar­win was work­ing in time’s long­est mea­sure, Lear’s comic trans­mu­ta­tions hap­pen in the blink of an eye. He draws the Old Per­son of Bree as some­thing be­tween a mer­maid and a gi­ant prawn. The Old Man of Que­bec ap­pears to be turn­ing into a bee­tle, while the Old Man of Peru is al­ready well on his way to be­com­ing a bear.

Lan­guage too evolves at an ex­tra­or­di­nary rate in Lear’s hands. For all that he liked to call his comic verse “non­sense,” it is ac­tu­ally no such thing. Mean­ing­less bab­ble does not sell books, and by 1846, with the pub­li­ca­tion of his first Book of Non­sense, Lear was sell­ing thou­sands. Rather, what he gives us is lan­guage stuffed to its lim­its, made huge and po­tent by a sur­feit of mean­ings. So, for in­stance, when Lear de­scribes him­self in a let­ter as “happy as a hedge­hog,” we get a sense not just of his in­ner bliss but also of the sharp prick­les he re­quired to de­fend that pre­car­i­ous state. In an­other let­ter he de­scribes want­ing to stay in “a Phar­mouse or a Nin,” and we work out both the in­tended mean­ing—farm­house, inn—and are re­leased into a stream of pri­vate as­so­cia­tive fan­tasy, in­volv­ing phar­ma­cies, dormice, djinns, and who knows what else.

On other oc­ca­sions the lan­guage is more di­rect, as when Lear de­scribes him­self as feel­ing “like a cow who has swal­lowed a glass bot­tle—or a boiled weasel.” We at once pick up on his ter­ror of col­laps­ing cor­po­real bound­aries, which reaches a crescendo in his comic verse with “The Pob­ble Who Has No Toes” (the im­por­tant point be­ing that the Pob­ble “had once as many as we” be­fore they were trau­mat­i­cally lopped off ). When he de­clare she is“splen­did op horo ph eros tip hong io us” weim me­di­ately un­der­stand that what is be­ing com­mu­ni­cated is an ex­cess of joy that can­not help but over­flow avail­able lin­guis­tic con­tain­ers. Uglow has a lovely way of sum­ma­riz­ing all this by ex­plain­ing how by the 1870s Lear’s word­play had be­come Dar­winian in its de­vel­op­men­tal en­ergy, “alive, pro­tean, ever evolv­ing,” and “find­ing new end­ings and ap­pendages, like new limbs.” Only now, she sug­gests, are we able to see what a huge in­flu­ence Lear had on a whole cadre of later mod­ernist writ­ers, in­clud­ing Joyce, Eliot, and Au­den.

This is praise in­deed, al­though it’s un­likely that Lear would have set great

store by be­ing hailed as the pathfinder of lit­er­ary mod­ernism. He ac­knowl­edged that “bosh re­quires a good deal of care,” but he never con­sid­ered his non­sense verse as any­thing more than a handy knack that had turned into a use­ful money-spin­ner. Real art, for him, resided in the huge land­scape oil paint­ings on which he la­bored through­out the 1850s and 1860s. The mo­ment he had some spare money he en­rolled at the Royal Academy for the train­ing he had missed as a boy. He also in­for­mally ap­pren­ticed him­self to Wil­liam Hol­man Hunt, in an ef­fort to un­der­stand just how the younger man achieved the pin-sharp brush­work that was the call­ing card of the Pre-Raphaelite Brother­hood. Yet while Lear worked hard to un­learn old tricks and ac­quire new skills, his fin­ished work al­ways de­faulted to ear­lier mod­els. Poussin and Claude re­mained his ma­jor in­flu­ences. You can see the ev­i­dence in the beautiful re­pro­duc­tions in­cluded in Uglow’s hand­some vol­ume. Masada on the Dead Sea (1858) is a seven-foot­long de­pic­tion of a fiery or­ange sun­rise over a his­toric site, which while tech­ni­cally ac­com­plished could only draw faint praise from the Times as be­ing “con­sci­en­tious.” Cedars of Le­banon (1861), which was sup­posed to seal Lear’s rep­u­ta­tion as a great artist, was also poorly re­ceived and proved hard to sell, even­tu­ally go­ing for only a third of the ask­ing price. The fact that at one point Lear was hired to give Queen Vic­to­ria draw­ing lessons sug­gests that his art was gen­er­ally con­sid­ered both tech­ni­cally ac­com­plished and, to use that cu­ri­ously am­biva­lent Vic­to­rian com­pli­ment, “un­ex­cep­tional.” It was ev­ery­thing that his comic verse was not: con­ven­tional, po­lite, earnest, and slightly pleased with it­self.

De­spite crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial fail­ure, Lear never stopped think­ing of him­self pri­mar­ily as a land­scape artist. This kept him con­stantly on the move for the bet­ter part of thirty years as he roamed around the Mediter­ranean look­ing for the best views. This com­pul­sive fid­geti­ness presents a chal­lenge for any bi­og­ra­pher who chooses, as Uglow has, to write a cra­dle-to-grave ac­count of her sub­ject’s life. A the­matic ap­proach, or a par­tial life his­tory, would have al­lowed her to com­press or skip over the re­lent­less roll call of rail­way jour­neys, bad ho­tels, good lodg­ings, slow mules, viceroys, en­coun­ters with fans (his non­sense was mak­ing him fa­mous) and bores. As it is we are obliged to en­dure more of them than seems quite bear­able.

But that, per­haps, is Uglow’s clever point. By mak­ing us feel ex­as­per­ated, sad, dizzy, and bored as we watch the Mid­dle-aged Man of Nowhere in Par­tic­u­lar use up his money, health, and cre­ativ­ity on point­lessly cir­cu­lar ac­tiv­ity, she makes us won­der in ex­as­per­a­tion just what he was try­ing to out­run. If we could speak to him as They, we would ask, “Pray why do you never sit still?” Chances are that Lear would not have been able to say. In his late poem “How Pleas­ant to Know Mr. Lear,” he mut­ters some­thing about din­ing on “choco­late shrimps from the mill,” which is re­ally no answer at all. But as Uglow points out, the poem also con­tains two eas­ily over­looked lines that may hold a clue to what is be­ing dis­placed: “He weeps by the side of the ocean/He weeps on the top of the hill.” What was he weep­ing about? Uglow sug­gests that the root of his re­cur­ring sad­ness, which he re­ferred to as “the mor­bids,” lay in two in­ci­dents of sex­ual abuse in his early child­hood, at the hands of a cousin and an older brother. In mid­dle age, fol­low­ing the news of his cousin’s death, he took to mark­ing the an­niver­sary of the worst of these two events in his diary each year. Quite apart from the ini­tial trauma, Uglow thinks it pos­si­ble that he be­lieved that these ear­lier ex­pe­ri­ences had skewed him to­ward a life­time of ho­mo­sex­ual de­sire and quotes his diary from mid­dle age in which he de­scribed them as “the great­est evil... which must now last to the end—spite of all rea­son and ef­fort.” Af­ter the dis­ap­point­ment of 1855, when he failed to trans­form his friend­ship with Lush­ing­ton into an af­fair, he seems to have been too timid to try again. In­stead he de­vel­oped a fond de­pen­dency on his Greek ser­vant Gior­gio, who fussed around him with warm coats and cham­ber pots and gave him the moth­er­ing that may have been his great­est lack of all.

Yet it was these deficits in Lear’s life that pro­duced his great­est art. When he spoke di­rectly and clearly in his land­scape paint­ings, the re­sults were al­ways slightly unin­spired. But when he took refuge in a code whose sources he didn’t quite un­der­stand him­self, he en­chanted the en­tire world. It is a lan­guage that speaks of odd bod­ies and un­likely pair­ings, of threats ig­nored and lives made ra­di­ant (lit­er­ally in the case of the “Dong with a lu­mi­nous Nose,” and yes, Lear’s non­sense world is full of phal­luses). Above all it is full of Per­sons who con­tinue to revel in their queer­ness, de­spite what They say.

A col­ored litho­graph from A Book of Non­sense, by Edward Lear, circa 1875

‘Phat­tfa­cia Stu­penda’; draw­ing by Edward Lear from Non­sense Botany, 1888

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