Virginia Barton

Bitter-sweet Lear letters from abroad

Catholic Herald, 19 April 1991    


Review: Edward Lear, Selected Letters, edited by Vivien Noakes (OUP, £6.95)


The first printed page that I consciously recall is from Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense. This must be true for many of my generation. The queer drawings and curious vocabulary intrigued the child but never frightened. (Unlike Alice: the hideous portrait of the Jabberwocky had to be hastily turned over).


Unnamed, Edward Lear, published in Book of Nonsense (1846)

Judging from this fine collection of letters, the sensitive, genial Lear wouldn’t have harmed a fly, let alone alarm a child. Published two years ago, these letters are now available in paperback complete with their original illustrations.

The letters are an obvious companion to the first-rate biography of Edward Lear by Vivien Noakes published more than 20 years ago. Not that the letters aren’t a treat on their own – indeed they are, and notes, introduction, biographical register and chronology flesh-out the letters themselves very satisfactorily.

Many are written from abroad, with telling descriptions of scene and character. Few of Lear’s correspondents knew that he suffered from epilepsy. Frequent travel brought some ease to his condition; and he made his living by painting “foreign parts” as well as writing.

Lear knew most of the beau monde of his day and the book includes letters to patrons, politicians, artists, and members of his family. But essentially was a lonely man.  Foss, his beloved cat, was his companion for more than 30 years and when Foss died, Lear survived him for only a few weeks.

These are bitter-sweet letters, funny with a hint of the tragic, informative but always personal. More than just a glimpse of many people’s favourite author.



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