Monday, January 15th, 2018...8:00 am

Aspects of Edward Lear (Part II)

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word backstories enters the language in 1982. But it would seem that Edward Lear invented the word over a century earlier (it appeared in his diary entry for 19 March 1876). The diaries themselves—a mixture of confession, bewilderment, recollection, and fantasy—contain a range of backstories that take us beyond the received, public image of Mr Lear as gently quirky, or inoffensively nonsensical, or merely pleasant to know. Biographers and researchers have drawn on the diaries (30 volumes of which survive, all housed at Houghton), and Marco Graziosi has provided invaluable transcriptions of some of them. A microfilm of the whole collection is now available online, and it offers a fresh opportunity to listen in as Lear talks to himself day by day, night by night, over three decades. ‘How wonderfully strange are my feelings!’, he exclaims. The more of the diary you read, the stranger things get.

Sometimes the diaries simply allow Lear to be enjoyably rude about friends and acquaintances behind their backs. Having dined with John Gould, he admits that he found him ‘less disgusting than sometimes – but he is always a hog’, and having been treated to a tune from a lady, he observes: ‘Mrs Alderson sung – sung? – the last rose of summer – & I had rather have had a tooth taken out . . . Fir the laaaa Roo,ooo,ooo,ooo,o,ooza saa – r’. Elsewhere, though, he touches on more ambiguously painful feelings. Thinking of two women who bring out particularly strong emotions in him, he scribbles down: ‘Wrote to Gussie Bethell: a long letter — but beside the mark: also to Emily Tennyson – much more besiderer: — but it is not possible to write as one would’. For Lear, the diary becomes a space to gesture towards the unwritable—and the unspeakable.

Recurring fits of temper, passion, and depression may be accompanied by other kinds of fits. Lear’s epilepsy—a condition he kept secret from everyone outside his family circle—is painstakingly atomized and itemized, with an X marking the spot for each attack: ‘XXX a horrible night of suffering’; ‘XXX No words can depict this misery’. Sometimes he descends—or rises—to seriocomic riffs on the misery:

          24 October 1850:

 Off the rails again       X Bah!

                                        X Bah!

                                       X Bah!

As ‘again’ might suggest, this particular backstory went way back:

Lear's diary entry for August 15, 1866

Lear’s diary entry for August 15, 1886. Houghton Library, MS Eng 797.3 (9).

15 August 1866:
XX5/ Very unwell all night.
Therefore, rose late, more or less stupefied all day. But, before I rose – reflected on days long gone – when I was but 8 – if so many years old. And this demon oppressed me then “I not knowing” its worry & misery. Every morning in the little study when learning my lessons—: all day long: & always in the evening & at night. Nor could I have been more than 6 I think – for I remember whole years before I went to school – at 11 . . . Thus, a sorrow so inborn & ingrained so to speak, was evidently part of what I have been born to suffer — & could not have been so far avoided willed I never much so to do. And this is at times a great consolation to me – in this life struggle of strife.

A consolation—at times. Which is to say: not always a great consolation.

To read these diaries is to sense how thoughts—like moods—are frequently subject to revision during the very process of composition. A couple of sentences from the entry for 5 April 1861, for example, were reprinted in Vivien Noakes’s biography of Lear as follows:

Perhaps after all, the less one stays in places one likes the better — & so one escapes some pain. – Therefore, wander ——

On consulting the relevant page from the diary at Houghton, however, one discovers that the word ‘some’ came as Lear’s quietly poignant addition to the sentence, a second thought that qualified the self-administered consolation. And it often feels as though the diarist’s private Notes to Self can’t quite practise what they preach. Although Lear tells himself that ‘to look back is worse folly than any other’, the diary form recommits him to this folly, keeps driving him back—back to ‘the physical horror of my early life’, to the sexual abuse he suffered (‘Frederick Harding. It is just 50 years since he did me the greatest Evil done me in life . . . excepting that done by C. – & which must last now to the end – spite of reason & effort’), and to other shady appetites and ailments (‘I myself in 1833 had every sort of syphilitic disease’).

We are perhaps inclined to think of Lear as a moony writer (his Jumblies sing ‘a moony song’, and the Owl and Pussy-Cat dance by the light of the moon), but the diary tells of less comforting forms of lunacy. Some of Lear’s contemporaries, after all, still referred to epilepsy as ‘the disease of the moon’, and in one entry he is to be found staring at the moon until he fears ‘it will drive me quite mad’. In September 1861 he speaks of a ‘Pale cold moon: yet now, as in 1823 – ever strangely influencing me’ before he drifts off into memories of past sorrows. Elsewhere, he moons about in images as well as words:

Lear's diary entry, February 22, 1871. Houghton Library, MS Eng 797.3 (14)

Lear’s diary entry for February 22, 1871. Houghton Library, MS Eng 797.3 (14)

These doodlings would appear to combine Lear’s memories of a beautiful scene he painted a few years earlier (‘Manfaloot, March 4 1867’) with some lines from Tennyson which would continue to haunt him, and to which he would give pictorial expression in more finished form:

Lear drawing to illustrate Tennyson’s poem “The Palace of Art.” Houghton Library, MS Typ 55.7 (36).

In ‘The Palace of Art’, Tennyson had imagined:

                                                                             a tract of sand

                                And some one pacing there alone,

                                             Who paced for ever in a glimmering land,

                  Lit with a low large moon.


Perhaps the words spoke to Lear’s image of himself as an endlessly itinerant artist, or as a solitary figure who couldn’t wholly shake off the influence of the moon. In the diary entry, one notices the ever-present ‘X’ in the bottom right-hand corner, and also that eerie figure in the background who casts an unnervingly long shadow. Maybe the figure is another of Lear’s selves, or demons, or backstories, stalking him down even as he tries to keep on the move so as to escape some pain. The diary becomes yet another form–or ‘tract’—in which someone walks alone, putting themselves through their paces.


Post contributed by:

Matthew Bevis, Professor of English Literature, Keble College, Oxford University

For the next installment, Aspects of Edward Lear (Part III), go here.

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