Were you a tome?

Matthew Bevis

  • Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow
    Faber, 608 pp, £25.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 0 571 26954 9

When faced by admirers, Edward Lear was inclined to portray himself as a puzzle, or a trap:

‘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.

The first observation was originally made by somebody who did not know Mr Lear. As a truth universally acknowledged is then whittled down to the opinion of a few, it’s hard to be sure whether this stanza is a protest against understanding or a plea for it. The decision to stay in the third person is coyly evasive, Lear’s way of intimating that he’s not what is said about him; more unnervingly, though, it whispers that he doesn’t have the last word on who he is. To know him is not to be him – and vice versa.

Lear’s ‘stuff’ (for which read: stuff and nonsense) has often been taken to be merely pleasant. But to be ‘pleasant enough’ is to be other things too, and elsewhere the word carries a glint of queerness or ill-temper. (In diary entries, he records: ‘the pleasantest time of these tiresome times’; ‘Dinner very pleasant. Evening very ditto’; ‘pleasant evening – in a way – ’.) Sometimes the word stretches to untold pleasure or perturbation: ‘Evening pleasant enough; went into some lady’s room by mistake, thinking it mine. Great fuss thereanent.’ Lear’s nonsense is full of mistakes that both the characters and their creator may or may not want to make, and Jenny Uglow’s absorbing new biography brings to the fore the question of the relation of his creativity to the accidence of his experience. In his diaries Lear often quotes or invokes his nonsense characters when talking about his own life, and Uglow’s subtitle – ‘A Life of Art and Nonsense’ – gives you pause. Is nonsense artful, or not? Could a life be engulfed (not simply informed) by both? What could have happened to make someone insist on talking nonsense in this way?

The title page of Lear’s first book of poems explains that he wrote it because he ‘loved to see little folks merry’. He was under no illusions about the sources of such merriment: the first children in the volume throw stones at the Old Person of Chester until they break nearly every bone in his body, and the only other children in the book have an appetite for patricide (their father had given them a feast, ‘But they all ate so much, and their conduct was such,/That it killed that Old Man of the East’). John St Loe Strachey was eight when he met Lear, and later recalled that ‘he knew a great deal about children, and they knew that he knew it and he knew that they knew that he knew it and so a complete and (as he might have said) abject harmony was established.’ The abjections of Lear’s own childhood helped to forge these unsentimental intimacies.

He was born in 1812, the 16th of 17 children of a London stockbroker. As well as being very short-sighted (‘my imperfect sight formed everything into a horror’), he struggled with bronchitis, asthma and epilepsy, and kept this last condition a secret for the rest of his life. When he was four, his father defaulted on the stock exchange and his mother left Lear to the care of his eldest sister, Ann. His sense of rejection began early, and he dated the start of his prolonged periods of depression (‘the morbids’) to the age of six. Then, just before his tenth birthday, his cousin Frederick Harding ‘did me the greatest evil done to me in life – excepting that done by C: – which must last now to the end – spite of all reason and effort’. Lear never specified what the evil was (the actions of ‘C’ also remain a mystery), but some kind of sexual abuse seems likely. He was sent away to school the following year (‘a crowd of horrid boys’), before he and Ann took rooms away from the rest of the family at Gray’s Inn Road. He was, he wrote, ‘at the age of 14 & a half … turned out into the world, literally without a farthing’.

As Uglow puts it, much of Lear’s writing is ‘funny, but only just’. The earliest poem we have is a mock heroic ‘Eclogue’ in which he recalls how he and his siblings were forced to leave the house in Holloway where they were born. His letters and journals contain linguistic breakings and remakings, with nonsense refusing to play by house rules: ‘Then “home” – politeful word!’, ‘were you a Tome yesterday?’, ‘I came moam & rote this.’ Lear would refer to ‘this ludicrously whirligig life which one suffers from first & laughs at afterwards’, and his experiments in the ludicrous often take shape as a form of aftermath. In another early poem, Miss Maniac confesses that, having been exiled from her home, she became ‘lost in unknown agony’ and ‘laughed as if in mirth’. Everywhere in Lear you sense a connection between damage and merriment, a taste for the comic as a kind of frantic fun. When he describes the Old Person of Chili ‘whose conduct was painful and silly’, the second adjective is both an expression and an avoidance of the former.

Many readers are as resistant to serious interpretations of nonsense as they are to silly behaviour in adults. Still, although Lear conceded that his work could reasonably be described as ‘bosh’, he also felt the need to add: ‘not but that bosh requires a good deal of care’. This sounds like a surreptitious appeal for attention – surreptitious, perhaps, because Lear’s childhood had made him as wary of those who did attend to him as of those who didn’t. Staying with another sister when he was ill as a teenager, he wrote a verse-letter to Ann: ‘Exceedingly careful were they of my health,/And I scarcely left home at all – saving by stealth.’ One response to the feeling that your earliest dependencies have left you intolerably exposed is to refuse or evade care, or to see care itself as ‘exceeding’ boundaries. Lear is always leaving home by stealth, always soliciting and shying away from attempts to keep him healthy. His fury at being turned out without a farthing is also his pride at going it alone (in his portrait of the artist as an old man, he notes that Uncle Arly ‘Always by his own exertions … subsisted on those hills’). Lear writes in one letter that it should have been preceded by a ‘deadication’, and his poems are full of people who reserve the right to decline various forms of indebtedness, or suspect they might be harmed by affection (a nonsense story tells of tokens of ‘sincere and grateful infection’). ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ doesn’t provide the last word on relations between fair and fowl in his work, and for one of his closest friends, Chichester Fortescue, he dreamed up a darker parable: ‘Once upon a time a bird was ill, and a cat, bending down to it, said, “How are you and what do you want? I will give you everything, only get well.” And the bird replied, “If you go away I shan’t die.”’

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