Were you a tome?

Matthew Bevis

  • Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow
    Faber, 608 pp, £25.00, October, 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The first observation was originally made by somebody who did not know Mr Lear.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.

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