“They dined on mince, and slices of quince, Which they ate with a runcible spoon”: spirited biography of the often dispirited master of the nonsense rhyme.
Remembered mostly as a writer of limericks, a poetic form he made his own, and other frivolities, Edward Lear (1812-1888) had a much broader range: In the Victorian era, ushered in when he was still a teenager, he was widely regarded as an illustrator and, moreover, as a scientific illustrator with a particular gift for painting birds. According to British biographer and historian Uglow (In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815, 2015, etc.), he was also “an intelligent, self-aware depressive” who battled the black dog of melancholy during his long and productive life. Depression aside, Lear was the kind of man who threw himself into projects: He knew everyone who was anyone, teaming up with Tennyson for adventures and working off a considerable head of steam by writing. “Nonsense is the breath of my nostrils,” Lear confessed, but he was capable of much considerable seriousness as well. Throughout the book, Uglow turns up wonderful moments, as when Lear set to work contributing to the “great visual filing system” devised for a scientific collection assembled by the retiring Lord Derby and when he met with Queen Victoria a few times in order to teach her, at her request, how to draw: “A diligent pupil, she copied Lear’s drawing and he, hardly surprisingly, was pleased and encouraging.” Apart from the workhorse Uglow chronicles, Lear was also a peripatetic man of broad interests who seemed, at least outwardly, cheerful. He was, in short, a Victorian man of many parts: a scientist, artist, writer, and spiritual searcher who struggled to overcome what, in one of his “darkest negatives,” he called the condition of being “blank.”
A well-wrought life of an eminent Victorian who merits our broader acquaintance.