Mid-Victorian Memories of Edward Lear

Robert Edward Francillon (1841-1919), barrister, novelist and journalist, editor of The Tatler circa 1877 (works at Archive.org); from Mid-Victorian Memories. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914. 30-35:

My second author [the first being Thomas Talfourd] was of a very different order. I am certainly not alone in affectionate memories of Edward Lear, When quite a young man, living in London as young men without means or any prospects better than Alnaschar’s do manage to live, he was introduced into my mother’s home circle by her brother Robert, then studying art—my only near relation neither sailor nor lawyer—under (I think) Hulmandel. He at once became an ever welcome visitor: an almost brotherly and sisterly relation grew up between him and the group of bright young girls who then filled with life the house in Queen Square. It was on one of my visits there that I met him for the first time. Marriages, two of them entailing emigration to an island in then distant and remote Ontario, had thinned the group by that time, and the years had not passed over those who were left without a sign. But such changes as these were not of the sort that affected Lear. One has heard a great deal of late about “genius for friendship.” The rather worn-out phrase might well have been invented, in its original freshness, for him. Of his ever-increasing multitude of friends I do not believe that he ever lost one except by death; a new friendship never lessened an old one; and it is impossible to imagine his having ever made an enemy. His correspondence came to be immense—he had at last to settle a scheme for its restriction, lest it should absorb the whole of his time. Whether he kept to such a scheme is more than doubtful. However that may be, he never ceased to write at frequent intervals to my mother so long as both were alive—long and intimate letters, free from the by no means brilliant jocularity of comic spelling which makes his published letters to Chichester Fortescue such wearisome reading. Only an occasional grotesquely coined polysyllable gave the Learian cachet to really amusing and interesting accounts of what he was doing or planning. They were a pleasure to us all. Alas, that such would-have-been valuable contributions to my reminiscences should have disappeared— I cannot think inadvertently, much less intentionally, destroyed.

Lear’s love of children, and his immediate attraction for them, was of the essence of his charm. That first meeting of mine with him is memorable inasmuch as, while talking to my aunts, he amused himself for my benefit by making a pen-and-ink drawing of an Eastern landscape, with camels and palms. I did not listen to the talk: I was wholly absorbed in following the strokes of the pen. I treasured it as long as the wear and tear of nurseries and schoolrooms allowed. Much more interesting, however—indeed they may take rank as pieces of literary history—were Lear’s occasional visits to us at Cheltenham; for we children, my brother, my sister, and myself, were delighted eyewitnesses of the production of some of the earliest pages of the first “Book of Nonsense;” both pictures (so to call them) and rhymes. The current tradition is that these were dashed off for the children of the fourteenth Earl of Derby. No doubt many of them were, for Lear numbered at least three successive earls among his patrons—which in his case invariably meant his attached friends; and his first commission, as an animal painter, had come from Knowsley. But equally without doubt many other children had their part in the fun; and I can answer for the very considerable part accorded to us three. We possessed a good share of the original drawings, made while we stood by the artist’s knee, and their attendant “Limericks” were household words, long before there was any thought of their collection and publication. Alas, again! When the general collection came to be made, our particular one was added to it, and, translated into print, was no longer our very own, that we had watched flow for us from the pen. Apropos of the connection of the House of Stanley with the “Book of Nonsense,” Lear used to tell how, soon after its publication, he was travelling in a railway carriage opposite a family party engaged in enjoying its fun. The father proceeded to explain to the children that its actual author was the Earl of Derby himself, under the pen-name of Edward Lear : a very slight disguise of “Edward, Earl,” “Lear” being of course an obvious anagram of ” Earl.” The veritable author’s assurance that not only was Edward Lear the real name of a real person, but that he himself knew him well, had no effect beyond provoking a little temper. “I have it on the very best authority,” was the unanswerable retort to all he could say. Even when he produced a visiting card, and declared himself to be the man, it was evidently to be regarded as either a lunatic or an impostor. Considering the popular preference of fable, the wilder the better, to fact, it is really surprising that so first-class a myth as the identity of the Rupert of Debate with Derry-down-Derry should have failed to fix itself ineradicably in the public mind.

Lear’s friendship was an inheritance from generation to generation ; and after I came to London in 1863, never again to leave it, I seldom missed seeing him on any of his visits there. It was on his last visit that I saw him for the lasttime. My mature impression of him is that he was, in spite of any superficial evidence to the contrary, a melancholy man, weighed down by a sense of solitude. His innumerable friendships were, I think, too much in the nature of a crowd: and there is no such loneliness as is to be found in a crowd. His gentle and affectionate nature needed marriage, especially if it should give him children of his own instead of all the world’s. But to this there was the oddest of all odd obstacles. He had an ingrained conviction that he was too ugly for any woman to accept him. No doubt he was ugly. His impressionistic self-portraiture on the first page of the “Book of Nonsense” as the “Old Derry-down-Derry, Who loved to see little folks merry,” is scarcely a caricature: and his plainness of face was made the more emphatic by his nearness of sight, awkward slouch, and a style of dress which can only be called careless by courtesy. He may have thought that dress was no concern of one for whom it could do nothing. But though, as a true humorist, he could make himself his own butt, that perverse conviction of his unquestionably rankled. How absurdly, how pathetically perverse it was, experiment would soon have taught him: to say nothing of such precedents as those of Wilkes and Mirabeau to the effect that a man may be as ugly as he pleases—or doesn’t please. But then Lear was constitutionally shy: which is more than can be said of Wilkes and Mirabeau. He would, I am sure, have been a happier man could he have comfortably acquiesced in destiny, like a more than plain-featured but excellent friend of mine, beside whom I was sitting at a smoking concert when the splendidly handsome hero of a recent notorious scandal came into the room. “Ah,” said my friend out of his abundant charity, ” but just think of all the temptations that beset a handsome man like that! We don’t know anything about them—I and you.” I did not make the obvious retort of “Speak for yourself, if you please”: the reflection was so evidently meant, in all simplicity, to help me share his satisfaction in being—as he fancied—immune from the peril of pleasing ladies’ eyes.

But to return for a last moment to Lear. Had he been a veritable Apollo to look at, I do not believe that he would have been a whit different from what he was—one in whom nobody who knew him could imagine a deed, word, or thought that was not kind, generous, unselfish, and pure. I wish I did not fear that while giving so much pleasure and happiness all round, he somehow left himself out of the deal.

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One Response to Mid-Victorian Memories of Edward Lear

  1. Dear Marco, I’ve come by chance across your fascinating blog. And discovered in the process a truly multifaceted artist, for Edawrd Lear was indeed an outstanding representative of the great Victorian age – an age truly multifaceted and of “great experiments” as Chesterton said.
    I would kindly need to consult you with regard to a painting by Lear you posted (…in the Campagna romana) because our publishing house (fuorilinea) is about to publish a book of novellas by the great English writer Jonathan Keates where there appears an English painter who in southern Italy gets embroiled in the Risorgimento… I would be so grateful if you could kindly contact me at **** so as to exchange information and ideas… Thank you very much and three cheers to your wonderful blog.
    Franco I. Esposito-Soekardi

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