“Twentieth of Twenty-one”: Edward Lear and his Siblings (1)

“Twentieth of twenty-one children” must be the most-often-repeated phrase in discussions of Edward Lear’s early life: no biographical sketch omits the snippet; but, did Jeremiah and Ann Lear really have so many children? Families of such size were not uncommon at the time, and Lear himself was responsible for spreading this idea; in a letter to Chichester Fortescue of 18 July 1859 announcing the death of his sister Harriett he wrote:

There are only now 7 of us left living out of all the 21. ― My eldest sister is staying in Sussex, & we are anxious about the effect this sudden news will have on her (Letters of Edward Lear 144).

This was not always the version Lear used, however; according to Edward Lear on My Shelves (p. 17), which relies on a letter of 28 March 1880, he was “the last born of a family of twenty-one.” A few years later, however, the number changed as E.C. Selwyn, who first met him in Mendrisio in 1882 (Later Letters of Edward Lear 242), was told that he “was the youngest of a family of nineteen children, of Danish parents, and he owed what education he had to the loving care of one of his sisters. His name was originally spelt Lör.” (E.C. Selwyn, “Later Letters of Edward Lear.” The Cornhill Magazine, n.s. 28.3, March 1910, 389-398. 396. Posted here in full.)

Ann Clarke Skerrett Lear, Edward Lear’s mother.

Back of the above photograph.

A simple mathematical calculation confirms that, in theory, it would be possible to have 20 children in the 275 months between January 1791 (when Ann, the eldest, was born) and November 1813 (when the second Catherine, and last recorded child, was born); however, after examining several relevant documents, I feel that the total number of children in the Lear household should perhaps be considered one of the unsupported statements Edward liked to repeat, like the one about the family’s Danish origins. He probably believed it after hearing it from someone else in the family, but this does not make it historically accurate. Biographers have found the meme irresistible; of course, writing that poor Ann Clarke Skerrett is to be excused for giving little attention to her twentieth child in 22 years, especially with another one in the making and when financial ruin was on the point of crushing the family (if not a myth, another event that seems to have been greatly exaggerated by Edward) provides a good way to start the story of the life of a highly idiosyncratic individual.

A later portrait of Ann Skerrett Lear, executed 7 months before she died. I have posted a portrait of Jeremiah Lear here.

The documentation passed down in the family does not support Edward’s statement, at least until the early twentieth century; none of the surviving documents can be dated with precision, but one of the earliest must have been a “List of Birth days,” now in the possession of the New Zealand branch of the family; it opens:

In the year 1830
Mr Lear will be {born 1757} 73 years old May 6
Mrs Lear {born 1769} 61 August 5

The list contains the names of the siblings still alive in 1830 with their ages and dates of birth. On the left are numbers running from 1 to 21, clearly corrected in several places, with initials presumably referring to children who died in infancy; only two of the names are written in full, Jane ― who died in 1822 ― and a Catherine; the person who inserted the numbering was evidently not sure where to place the dead infants and appears to have tried ― unsuccessfully ― to fit the numbers wherever there was a free year with the aim of obtaining a total of 21. This is the only document assigning a non-surviving Henry (“HY”) between Sarah (“Mrs. Street”) and Mary (“Mrs. Boswell”), probably because there was a full year (though actually only 16 months and 10 days, hardly enough for two full-term pregnancies) without children.

The second source listing 21 children is bound in the collection of typescripts of Edward’s letters to Ann, also from the New Zealand branch of the family; the manuscript ― headed “Family tree of Brignall Esq of Durham” ― is either an “improved” copy of MS L. 3/39-1985 discussed below, or its original. It states:

Ann Clarke
[J]eremiah Lear Esq
of Holloway Middx
& had 17 children (said to be 21.
of whom

and then comes the list of 21 names in the same order as the previous document; here however the mysterious “O” appearing twice in the 1830 list (positions 11 and 17) is spelt in full as “Olivier” (between Jane and Harriott).

This Olivier Lear ― who should in any case be placed before Jane, in 1800 ― is a mystery in the mystery: if he existed, he was so despised by the family that they never mentioned him ― as far as I know, this is the only place where the name appears. However, both Susan Chitty (p. 10) and more authoritatively Vivien Noakes (p. 6) accept his existence; according to the former he was twelve when Edward was born, which confirms 1800 as a possible year of birth ― but consider that Chitty also sets Henry’s age at sixteen in the same year even though he was only fourteen.

Chitty’s treatment of the Lear brothers deserves to be considered, apart from the obvious fact that her statement that Edward never mentioned any of his brothers is false:

… strangely enough, Lear never mentioned a single one of his four brothers, Henry, Olivier, Frederick and Charles were ignored as if they had never been. Henry and Olivier admittedly left home young, shamed by their father’s bankruptcy. Henry attempted to make money the quick way, while Olivier joined the army. When the one was accused of forgery and the other deserted, both left the country. Fat Frederick, however, seems to have been a jolly enough figure. He used to chase Ann around the room for calling him a “Norfolk Biffin,” because, like the apple, he suffered “constant increase in circumference.” Charles and Frederick both eventually emigrated, but under respectable circumstances. Frederick went to colonize America and Charles to convert Africa (p. 15).

The idea of two of the brothers having problems with the law comes from Edward’s Diary, 27 April 1881, where he tells of meeting a lady (Mrs. Hansaw),

who was a Miss Burnèll, & met me 30 years or 40 at Mrs. Jourdains in Holloway. In one respect this woman was agreable, inasmuch as she took a real interest in the drawings &c. – & admired the little picture of Mt. Hermon above all. Bur her memory being wonderful, & her gossipry odious, she was more or less particularly disagreable. “Your Father lived in a large Square House called Bowman’s Lodge” – (& no doubt she equally well remembered that he was imprisoned for fraud & debt, & that 2 of my Brothers suffered for deserting the Army, & for Forgery. Then she fell on “deformed Betsey Nevill…

We know from the Diary, 8 October 1860, that the brother who deserted was Henry:

H. enlisted & was 7 or 8 years as a foot private: ― then he deserted, to a Cavalry regt. ― whereon, being sent into a Condemned regt., he wrote to his Father: ― & the D. of Yk, then Commander in chief, ― allowed him to be bought out, on account of his not having wished to desert H.M. service, but only to change his position in it.
At that time he was at Carisbrook, & then our father & mother went to see him, & brought him back. ― What a bargain!! ― This I never knew till last night, (I am writing on the 9th) when, on our looking over Sarah’s letter from the Isle of Wight, Ann & Ellen spoke of it.
I must then have been 7 or 8 years old: anyhow the following Easter Monday came on the 8th of April ― i.e. that following after H.J. returned.
(According to this entry there might be a connection between Henry and what Frederick Harding did to Lear on 8 April 1822; see Levi, Peter. Edward Lear: A Biography. New York and London: Scribner, 1995. 180.)

Chitty’s statements seem to be derived from Lilly Bowen’s “Edward Lear Notes” of June 1935 for Angus Davidson, in which she states:

The 4 eldest sons who before the crash, had lived gay lives, and never worked at all, were so crushed that they declared they could not remain in England where they were so well known, and leaving their Mother and sisters to help the father, they departed (Henry and Frederick) to America. Charles to West Africa, Uncle Edward never forgave them for this, but Ann wrote to them always…

Notice that she starts with “4 eldest sons” but actually lists what happened to only three of them. On the other hand, she had written that of the 21 children only five were boys, which, counting the Henry who died in infancy, is correct and leaves no room for an Olivier. Later in the memoir she writes that “of the 4 sons who lived, 2 went to America, … The 18th son Charles had an interesting story …” The fourth is presumably Edward.

The general impression one gets from the memoir is that the ultimate source of Lilly’s information was Edward’s sister Eleanor, who “corresponded regularly with my mother Emily Gillies (née Street).” Emily then reported orally to Lilly; it is not difficult to imagine the latter, and all the documents discussed here passed through her hands, trying to reconcile Edward’s statements in the published letters she knew with a few documents and a lot of probably half-remembered oral narratives.

[Part 2] [Part 3]

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3 Responses to “Twentieth of Twenty-one”: Edward Lear and his Siblings (1)

  1. Pingback: “Twentieth of Twenty-one”: Edward Lear and his Siblings (2) | A Blog of Bosh

  2. Pingback: “Twentieth of Twenty-one”: Edward Lear and his Siblings (3) | A Blog of Bosh

  3. Pingback: And What About Charles? | A Blog of Bosh

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