An Edward Lear Letter to Wilkie Collins

The friendship between Edward Lear, the Victorian poet of nonsense verses, and Wilkie Collins, the novelist, has long been well-known. Yet, strangely enough, it was a friendship of which, as Collins’ biographer tells us, “hardly a trace remains.”{1} We know that Lear, ill and depressed, wrote at the end of 1881 to Hubert Congreve that he would continue to correspond in the future only with those “I have been in the habit of writing to since 1850 ― 32 years.” Among those he named was Wilkie Collins.{2} That Collins had written at least once to Lear is seen in a single reference in a letter written by Lear to Lord Carlingford on January 7, 1884, in which he said he had received a “long and very nice letter from Wilkie Collins. . . .”{3} We are told that Lear sent to Collins a copy of John Ruskin’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette praising the nonsense poet,{4} and that Lear sent to Collins a manuscript copy of his last nonsense-poem ” Uncle Arly.”{5} In view of all this, it is extremely odd that in the two volumes of Lear’s published letters not one to Collins appears. In the J. Pierpont Morgan Library there has been for some years an autograph letter from Lear to Collins; so far as I can ascertain this letter has never been published. For some unaccountable reason those who have written on Lear and on Collins have seemingly been unaware of its existence. If it is, as seems very probable, the only letter from Lear to Collins in existence, it should be of interest not only to students of both Lear and Collins but also, because of a reference in it, to those of Ruskin. This letter of two and one-half pages may very well be the one in which Lear enclosed the copy of ” Uncle Arly,” for that poem may be the “absurdity ” which he mentions in the first paragraph. An exact transcription of the letter follows:

7. March 1886
Villa Tennyson
Sanremo.
My dear Wilkie,
“Ee’n in our ashes live” &c &c ― so, ― though I have been in bed some 14 weeks, I have nonetheless written an absurdity which I fancy you may like ― whereby I send it.
The acute Bronchitis which I began with, Dr Hassall I am grateful to say has pretty well abolished. Not so the congestion, which with its dreadful cough ― is trying enough. Yet many thousands suffer more, & I may be very thankful that only increasing weakness is my greatest drawback.
One of my oldest friends, Fortescue, (now Ld Carlingford) was here for two months & with me almost all day daily. And other friends come & are coming from Cannes, Hyères ― &c. & I have lots of books, (many by one Wilkie Collins,) & most attentive & able servants ― to feed me or lift me in or out of bed. Of what is called the “Colony” here I know ― I am happy to say nothing. Neither perpetual church services ― (high or low ― candlestix or cursings ―) are to my taste, nor are balls & Lawn Tennis among my weaknesses.
Mr Ruskin (vide Pall Mall Gazette Febr 15 ―) has of late greatly exalted me, & he is now taking much interest, he writes most kind letters, ― about yeverlasting & never terminated AT or Alfred Tennyson illustrations ― still let us hope ― to come out in Autotype ― about the year 4810. Meanwhile, if I go off in one of these terrible phitz of coughing, this may be the last note you will ever be bothered by from, Your’s affly,
Edward Lear{6}

David Shusterman
University of Kansas
{1} Kenneth Robinson, Wilkie Collins (New York, 1952), p. 93.
{2} Later Letters of Edward Lear, ed. Lady Strachey (London, 1911), p. 34.
{3} Ibid., pp. 296-297.
{4} Angus Davidson, Edward Lear Landscape Painter and Nonsense Poet (London, 1938), p. 265.
{5} Robinson, p. 93. [See a MS of the poem]
{6} Quoted by permission of the J. Pierpont Morgan Library

Modern Language Notes 71.4, April 1956, pp. 262-264.

Catalogue entry for this letter at the Pierpont Morgan Library. They have another Lear letter to Collins, of 25 May 1887 “concerning his poor health, and the sale of his large ‘Argos picture’ to Trinity college, Cambridge― ‘a matter of high honour & pleasure to me’.”

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One Response to An Edward Lear Letter to Wilkie Collins

  1. Pingback: Mrs Jayfer, Millais, Dicky doyle and Wilkie Collins in an Edward Lear Letter | A Blog of Bosh

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