Margaret Terry Meets Edward Lear

The summer of 1870 we spent in the mountains south of Turin. …

That summer was memorable to me for my first experience in hero worship. Those were the days of the table d’hôte. The guest assembled and sat together at long tables; one talked with one’s neighbour; occasionally the chance acquaintance ripened to friendship. Perhaps the travelling public was more homogeneous then than it is now, people were less on the defensive against fellow travelers, and we never dreamed of asking for separate tables in the dining room; there were none.

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One day there appeared at luncheon sitting opposite to us a rosy, gray-bearded, bald-headed, gold-spectacled little old gentleman who captivated my attention. My mother must have met him before, for they greeted each other as friendly acquaintances. Something seemed to bubble and sprkle in his talk and his eyes twinkled benignly behind the shining glasses. I had heard of uncles; mine were in America and I had never seen them. I whispered to my mother that I should like to have that gentleman opposite for an uncle. She smiled and did not keep my secret. The delighted old gentleman, who was no other than Edward Lear, glowed, bubbled, and twinkled more than ever; he seemed bathed in kindly effulgence. The adoption took place there and then; he became my sworn relative and devoted friend. He took me for walks in the chestnut forests; we kicked the chestnut burrs before us, the “yonghy bonghy bos,” as we called them; he sang to me “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” to a funny little crooning tune of his own composition; he drew pictures for me.

I still have a complete nonsense alphabet, beautifully drawn in pen and ink and delicately tinted in water colors, done on odd scraps of paper, backs of letters, and discarded manuscript. Every day Arthur and I found a letter of it on our plate at luncheon, and finally a title-page for the collection, with a dedication and portrait of himself, with his smile and his spectacles, as the “Adopty Duncle.” The drawing is much finer, more masterly, than would appear in th rough reproductions in the published copies of his work, for he was a professional painter. He had been drawing master to [p. 30] Queen Victoria and her children. His health had suffered from the English climate and he had come to Italy for the sunshine. He published some delightful books of travels in Italy, with very carefully drawn illustrations. These have been forgotten and overlooked. His immortal nonsense is part of English literature — some of it, indeed, part of English poetry. I never saw him again, but he has never faded from my memory — a fixed star twinkling across the waste of years.

Chanler, Margaret Terry (Mrs. Winthrop Chanler). Roman spring: memoirs. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1934. 29-31.

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