Another biography of Edward Lear!
One could be excused for reacting like this at the news of Jenny Uglow’s new book, after all there are at least five other easily available. Even though I had enjoyed all the books by Uglow that I had read, I was also a bit sceptical about the possibility of improving on the late Vivien Noakes’s Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, first published in 1968 and last updated in 2004.
Let me state straight away that there was no reason for concern; this is a wonderful book providing what will presumably be the definitive story of Lear’s life and one of the best interpretations of his works for many years to come. All my worries were dissipated from the very beginning, Lear’s infancy and youth are explored in great depth, adding details not in the previous biographies or presenting them in a clearer way, while at the same time dispelling a number of recurrent myths, often propagated by Edward himself, about the Lear household, such as the number of children and the nature and consequences of Jeremiah Lear’s bankruptcy.
Uglow’s Edward Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense, a very traditional biography starting with Lear’s birth and proceeding chronologically to his last years and death, does not try to impress the reader with picturesque descriptions or entertaining episodes, though there are lots of course. The historical, political and social context is less in evidence than in her previous books, probably a consequence of Lear’s limited interest and non-existent participation in the great events of the age, unless they concerned his acquaintances or family. Also, as his friend Evelyn Baring wrote, Lear was “too warm-hearted to be satirical” and his nonsense, especially the later, longer poems, were concerned with his feelings rather than with the external world. The existence of a daily diary, starting in 1858, also leaves very little to be inferred about his opinions, though Uglow perceptively observes that it is not necessarily always a reliable guide:
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 feeling about words, his creative process – all these lie deep beneath the diary-words (p. 415).
These latter are the things we really want to know and that Uglow tries, convincingly I think, to extract from Lear’s limericks, poems and stories, as well as paintings and travel journals. What mostly distinguishes the volume from the other biographies is the attention devoted to the nonsense works, with chapters discussing each of the four canonical volumes and others on specific genres; I was particularly fascinated by the one about Lear’s early poem caricatures and picture stories (“Make ’em laugh”) and the one on the alphabets (“A was an Ass”), a kind of composition I have never fully appreciated: after reading Uglow’s observation that they “let us hear how Lear spoke” (p. 265) I will have to go back and reconsider them. Uglow’s readings are always convincing and often original and enlightening.
The book is also strong on the connections of Lear’s work with the ideas of other great Victorians, such as Alfred Tennyson, Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill, as well as on his position on the theological debates of the age, in particular those following the publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860. Lear’s debt to other painters is also discussed and the book contains the best analysis I have read of his brief affair with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and his life-long friendship and admiration for William Holman Hunt.
Praise is also due to Faber & Faber, as the volume itself is wonderfully produced and for once the large number of well-chosen colour and black and white illustrations, often pictures only rarely seen, instead of being grouped in one or two blocks are evenly interspersed in the text and placed in relevant positions; I suppose this is no easy feat for a publisher.
Reviews so far:
Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Sunday Times.
Robert McCrum in The Guardian.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst also in The Guardian.
Lybdall Gordon in the New Statesman.
Eileen Batterby in The Irish Times.
Craig Bown Event in the MailOnline.
Jenny Uglow will talk about Edward Lear at The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on Friday, October 13 cheltenhamfestivals.com,