Thursday, December 20, 2018

Mr Lear – A Life of Art and Nonsense, by Jenny Uglow

“Lear’s great poems and songs are not about his life – they float free. But their gaiety and sadness feel even keener when set against the tensions he saw, and suffered” (Uglow, p. 380).
This exhaustive account of the life of Edward Lear (1812-88) is a great delight. I’ve been a fan of Lear since seeing his sketches on the walls of the Benaki Museum in Athens in my earliest travels with the Dr. They’re beautiful, briskly drawn things, conjuring a view, a feeling, in just a few lines and annotated with detail for when he came to paint his (to my mind less interesting) full versions in oil. When the Dr and I married in 2004 we chose “The Owl and the Pussycat” as a reading.

The most famous of Lear’s nonsense poems, was – Uglow tells us – written on 18 December 1867, for a troubled young girl called Janet Symonds whose father seemed less interested in Janet’s mother than in publishing his Problems of Greek Ethics, in which he sought to show that,
“what the Greeks called paiderastia or boy-love, was a phenomenon of one of the most brilliant periods of human culture” (quoted in Uglow, p. 377).
Lear was also gay, Uglow tells us, shrewdly sifting the evidence when nothing could quite be admitted to. It was part of his reason for constant restlessness and travel; perhaps it informed the gender of the pussycat and owl. His 30-year relationship with his servant, Giorgio, is rather moving - and ends with quite twist.

Uglow tells Lear's story through impeccable research, from his early days at Knowsley illustrating exotic animals and birds to his last, quiet days in Villa Tennyson, the house he had built in San Remo. He is a funny, kind and rather sad man and its a pleasure to accompany him throughout the world - just as his friends enjoyed his company. Despite my better judgment, I laughed at many of his old jokes, such as this one included in at letter to his friend Chichester Fortescue on 16 August 1863:
“What would Neptune say if they deprived him of the sea? I haven’t a n/otion.” (p. 265).
Lear wrote a lot - letters, diaries, even on his sketches. But where direct sources are missing Uglow quotes from others who were in the same place at around the same time, or whose comments can inform. In fact, the book is full of other people. I was drawn to Lear's friendship with Frances Waldegrave (1821-79), the "dazzling hostess" of Strawberry Hill whose various husbands Uglow dashes through on page 229, adding,
"Trollope allegedly used her as the model for Madame Max Goesler in his Palliser novels."
We learn to love her as Lear did, and her death - in a book where everyone is long dead - comes as a terrible shock.

Another extraordinary character is Charlotte Cushman (1816-76), a stage actress and contralto living in Rome "with her current lover, the sculptor Harriet 'Harry' Hosmer". Lear attended an evening she hosted on 28 January 1859, and Uglow quotes a letter from another attendee, US sculptor William Wetmore Story, to reconjure the "harem" and these "emancipated ladies":
“The Cushman sings savage ballads in a hoarsey, many voice, and requests people recitatively to forget her not. I’m sure I shall not.” (in Uglow, p. 276.)
If Lear's diary doesn't provide insight on that particular night, Uglow quotes his entry of 9 May the same year:
"Lear was astounded when the Prince of Wales commissioned one of her sculptures: ‘& one from Hosmer!!!!!!!!!!!!’” 
For all the exclamation marks, Lear returned to Cushman's for dinner in March 1860, where,
“the other guests were her new partner the sculptor Emma Stebbins, the diplomat Odo Russell … the archaeologist Charles Newton [the subject of the Dr's PhD]… and Robert Browning" (p. 281).
Or there's Gussie - Augusta Bethell Parker - the young, sweet girl who Lear kept thinking he'd marry and then thinking he would not. She might be the passive victim of his indecision and insecurities, had we not been told the first time we met her (on page 343) that Gussie was also author of Maud Latimer (1863), a novel about a naughty, adventurous heroine that suggests a more thrilling inner life.

There is plenty of name-dropping, not all of it because Lear was himself famous. On page 105, Uglow tells us that the young Lear had lodgings at 36 Great Malborough Street in London at the same time as Charles Darwin, who'd just completed his trip on the Beagle, and asks, "did they pass on the stairs?" But nor is it all celebrity encounters. Uglow notes, in brackets, a fun detail about protestant tourists attending mass at the Vatican.
"a few years later English ladies gained a reputation for whispering and eating biscuits, and the Vatican sent round a notice asking for decorum in Holy Week" (p. 114).
She is brilliant at following a thread. In noting, on page 253, Lear's horror at bigotry, she guides us through the religious debates of the day - in response only partly to Darwin. David Friedrich Strauss’s three volume The Life of Jesus, first published in the mid-1830s, set aside the supernatural to see Jesus as a historical figure, while Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841) stressed sympathy and love over vengeful justice. Both were translated into English by Mary Ann Evans (later George Elliot) - in 1846 and 1854 respectively.

She returns to this thread sometime later, in chapter 25 - titled "'Overconstrained to Folly': Nonsense, 1861". I wasn’t sure about Uglow’s earlier close reading of the first edition of Lear's book of nonsense, for all it helps explain the enduring appeal.
“The rhymes, ‘Hairy! Beary! Taky cary!’ or ‘mousey, bousey, sousey’, were the kind of nonsense words that parents speak to babies, often the first words they hear, and all the more alluring – and important – for that reason” (p. 264).
But when she returns to this close analysis for the second, revised edition of his book, the differences suggest Lear's changing character and mindset. It is brilliantly done. Then she moves straight into religion, and Darwin and the more pertinent Essays and Reviews, which caused a furore by seeing Jesus historically and doubting the truth of the miracles. It seemed a bit crass to link this to Lear's nonsense - but that's exactly what Lear does himself, addressing the debates in a letter to Lady Waldegrave on 15 March 1863:
"I begin to be vastly weary of hearing people talk nonsense, - unanswered – not because they are unanswerable but because they talk from pulpits” (p. 309). 
Who better than Lear to spot nonsense?

That's what so brilliant about this book: it doesn't bridge the nonsense books with Lear's career as a painter; there is no separation between these parts of him. Insecurties - his sexuality, his epilepsy - fed his travels and his nonsense; his travel informed his nonsense; especially in his later life, his travels were aided by the fame of and delight in his nonsense.

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