Sometimes it seems to me that the lives of the Victorians show more color, more ambition, more brilliance, more eccentricity, more sheer energy, more strangeness than the cast of characters from any other historical period I know of. Perhaps it’s an illusion, a trick of hindsight. In some ways our own age and Victorian England have a lot in common. In science, both periods could boast of brilliant advances: ours has been the age of Einstein, theirs the age of Darwin. In technology, theirs was the Age of Steam, when railroads collapsed distances throughout the world, speeding the products of the industrial revolution to consumers, while in our Information Age, computers have altered practically everything about how we conduct our lives.

Though we may consider nineteenth-century British society rigidly stratified in contrast to our apparently more fluid, democratic culture, consider the distinguished career of the architect Sir John Soane, who built the Bank of England: he was the son of a bricklayer, while a close friend, the painter J. M. W. Turner, was the son of a barber and wigmaker. In contrast to our almost manic sexual permissiveness, theirs was an age of propriety, repression, and denial, at least on the surface. One could say that hypocrisy was their defining characteristic—except that no age excels at hypocrisy more than our own. Still, at least since the publication in 1966 of Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians, it has been clear that the subjects of Queen Victoria were people who made a fine art of compartmentalization. This Victorian attitude is captured in the rumor that spread about John Ruskin: many claimed his exposure to the female body had been limited to those sculpted in marble, so that the sight of his bride’s pubic hair on their wedding night unmanned him.

Our own era has produced no shortage of singular geniuses—think of Robert Lowell, Leonard Bernstein, and Francis Bacon, to name just a few. But for intellectual precocity, who can top the Victorian child prodigy John Stuart Mill, who wrote, “I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek. I have been told that it was when I was three years old”? (Up to that time, he had played with Hebrew alphabet blocks his parents had provided him.) And what could be much more peculiar than the terms of the bequest left by Mill’s teacher, the philosopher and political thinker Jeremy Bentham, who left his fortune to University College London? Bentham’s will specified that his body be embalmed and mummified, dressed in a suit of his best clothes, and wheeled out to sit in on meetings of the college’s governing board. The minutes would read: “Bentham present, not voting.”

Reading Jenny Uglow’s excellent Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense, one can hardly help considering why someone like Edward Lear (1812–88) was able to flourish during the Victorian age and why we have nothing like his equivalent today. I do believe this question may be answered partly by some of the Victorian characteristics I have already invoked. Lear’s attraction to other men would not have caused him many serious worries had he lived today, so perhaps the games of hide-and-seek that he played in his nonsense verse would not have come into play. It’s hard to say. All in all, I think it is the lack of high seriousness in our own culture that leaves little room for Lear’s brilliant nonsense. Since our art and literature, theater and music already embrace the ridiculous and the absurd—and I don’t necessarily mean that in a derogatory way—there is no need for a subversive agent provocateur to puncture an uninflated balloon. And Lear’s nonsense is never merely silly. He was a learned, questing man who read Homer in Greek, and his poems often borrow the rhythms and atmosphere of the great poetry of his day.

Most readers might be assumed to know one or two of Lear’s poems for children, “The Owl and the Pussy-cat,” for example, or some of the limericks at which he excelled. His limericks differ from the more familiar form of such classics as “There once was a man from Nantucket.” Rather than using the last line to cap the limerick’s brief narrative, he rounds his quatrain off less sensationally—sometimes with a cozy familiarity, sometimes disturbingly:

There was an Old Man who supposed,

That the street door was partially closed;

But some very large rats ate his coats and his hats,

While that futile old gentleman dozed.

When he started out, Lear had a reputation, in Uglow’s words, as “the young painter of birds and beasts: toucans with huge beaks, like his own big nose, flaming red parrots, the horned owl with ruffs round his eyes, the wildcat with its soft fur.” With British curiosity about exotic plants and animals piqued by the voyages of Captain Cook and other navigators who brought back specimens from the far corners of the globe, there developed a vogue for all things unfamiliar and strange. The young Lear set up his easel in the London Zoological Society in Regent’s Park and quickly found buyers for his brilliantly colored studies of parrots and other birds. Birds were close to Lear’s heart, and early on he began drawing himself as a strange and awkward bird, part human, part avian. In his limericks birds freely infiltrate people’s lives:

There was an Old Man with a beard,

Who said, “It is just as I feared!—

Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,

Have all built their nests in my beard!”

From his early successes as a painter of birds, he went on to become an astonishingly prolific landscape painter, traveling all over the Mediterranean from Italy to Egypt and eventually as far as India to make sketches from which he produced the serene, atmospheric canvases that were popular with his moneyed patrons. I was unfamiliar with these landscapes before looking at the reproductions of them in Uglow’s book, but I think they are very fine—atmospheric, serene, finished with impressive technique. Lear hated the rainy, cold English winters and managed, through hard work and resourcefulness, to live in places like Greece and the South of France, returning to Blighty only to sell paintings and visit old friends. In a letter he wrote, “if you are absolutely alone in the world, & likely to be so, then move about continually & never stand still.” Eventually he went beyond painting scenes from exotic locales and began writing narratives like his Journals of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania (1851).

Lear’s gift for friendship and for what we would call networking ran alongside a sometimes intensely painful private life. He was epileptic, so he would regularly have to withdraw into himself to endure the attacks he suffered. Uglow shows how deliberately he created a persona for himself, adopting a middle-aged affect even while he was young: “Lear began to draw a line around his own image, like a cut-out figure, a semi-cartoon.” While he was all business in the marketing of his art, there was also “the private Lear of his letters . . . a man lucky in his friends, happy in his travels but dreaming of domestic bliss—or at least of puddings and sharp pencils. Beneath this ran the admission that he was in essence a man who would live his life alone, and, perhaps, lonely.” A kindly uncle, and, in some cases, godfather, to the children of his friends, he wrote his nonsense poems to entertain them.

As he became well known, he made many friends among the wealthy and aristocratic classes who bought his paintings and drawings and entertained him as a house guest at their estates. The young Queen Victoria herself was a fan of Lear’s travel journalsand asked him to give her drawing lessons. A gaffe he made and later shared with others occurred when the Queen was showing off her display cases to him and he exclaimed, “Oh! How did you get all these beautiful things?” Victoria replied mildly, “I inherited them, Mr. Lear.”

The “domestic bliss” Lear dreamed of involved a years’ long fantasy of marrying, even though it was clear that his romantic inclinations did not lean toward women. Still, he had been raised and coddled by his sisters and was very close to several female friends. Partly, the impulse sprang from a feeling of being left out when many of his friends were marrying: “Every marriage of people I care about rather seems to leave one on the bleak shore alone,” he wrote. No doubt Uglow is right when she says, “It was the idea of marriage, not the woman, that he was in love with.” The wonder is that Lear toyed with the idea so long, carrying on a long, ultimately unsatisfactory courtship with a woman named Augusta Bethell. But in saying that, perhaps one is underestimating the power of fantasy in the emotional life of someone who lived to such a degree in a world of make-believe.

Lear’s mixed feelings about marriage are certainly reflected in one limerick:

There was an Old Man on some rocks,

Who shut his wife up in a box;

When she said, “Let me out,” he exclaimed,

“Without doubt,

You will pass all your life in that box.”

A rosier view can perhaps be gleaned from “The Owl and the Pussy-cat,” where these two very dissimilar creatures achieve married bliss:

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

They danced by the light of the moon.

One of the pleasures of this book is seeing how connected Edward Lear was with his age. He became close friends with a stalwart of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Holman Hunt, who taught him much about the use of pigments and precision in rendering natural details. We know the Victorians from a distance, through their writing and painting, and to read that Lear was present at a party the novelist Wilkie Collins gave for the painter John Everett Millais, who was about to marry Effie Ruskin (whose unhappy first marriage to John Ruskin I mentioned earlier) seems slightly surreal. Lear was, among his many other talents, a gifted musician. He made settings of Tennyson’s songs and liked to perform them in company. To meet and become friends with the Tennysons was gratifying for him, even though Tennyson was a difficult friend. One of the major projects of Lear’s last years was a series of paintings based on lines from the laureate’s poems. The real closeness was with Alfred’s wife, Emily, and when Lear built a house for himself in San Remo, he called it the Villa Emily.

My own favorite among Lear’s verses is his self-portrait, “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear,” an example of the persona he created which brilliantly mixes the self-deprecatingly humorous with seemingly trivial details, rounding out into a very affecting portrayal that is, at moments, personally revealing. We see both the mask and the face behind the mask. Over the years I have turned to this poem, by turns funny and sad, for pleasure and reassurance. Here are the first three stanzas:

How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!

Who has written such volumes of stuff!

Some think him ill-tempered and queer,

But a few think him pleasant enough.

His mind is concrete and fastidious;—

His nose is remarkably big;—

His visage is more or less hideous;—

His beard it resembles a wig.

He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,—

(Leastways if you reckon two thumbs;)

Long ago he was one of the singers,

But now he is one of the dumbs.

That third stanza, starting with its self-evident, seemingly idiotic recitation of features everyone shares, is reminiscent (to me anyway) of such comedic masters of deadpan as Jack Benny and Tommy Smothers. It moves surefootedly to the last, capping two lines of the third quatrain, their pathos reinforced by how they are set up. Few artists can mix comedy and pathos—Chaplin was perhaps the master—but Lear achieves it brilliantly in the poem’s last stanza:

He reads but he cannot speak Spanish,

He cannot abide ginger beer.—

Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,—

How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 6, on page 63
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