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  • Late News from the Torrible Zone
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Vivien Noakes , ed. Edward Lear: Selected Letters. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Edward Lear, laureate of Nonsense as he has been dubbed alongside of Lewis Carroll, is still not really well-known in the United States. Speak his name to someone and you generally get a blank look; but if you murmur, "The Owl and the Pussy-cat . . ." there is often instant recognition. For this reason among others, I found myself wondering, as I read these new Selected Letters of Edward Lear, how the book would strike the ordinary reader who, one hopes, will read it in addition to any literary experts, nonsense literature being in some danger of becoming academically fashionable.

The letters here collected cover the whole career of this many-sided man, from 1826 when as a 14-year-old he began to work at art for a living until a few months before his death in 1888. He was zoological illustrator; traveler round Europe and the Mediterranean and beyond, to Corfu, Albania, Jerusalem, Mount Sinai, India; journal-keeper; landscape painter and watercolorist; friend of Pre-Raphaelites; writer and illustrator of Nonsense limericks, songs, alphabets and stories; inventor of miniature mocking self-portraits, matching himself up often with his long-lived and short-tailed cat, Foss; writer of innumerable letters. Most of those in the present volume have never been published. The only available collections until now, both edited by Lady Strachey, have been Letters of Edward Lear, 1907, rare until republished in the United States in 1970, and the even rarer Later Letters of 1911. All those letters were to Chichester Fortescue, a close and lifelong friend, and his wife, Lady Frances Waldegrave. Vivien Noakes, who is responsible for this new, much wider selection, is the author of the standard modern biography of Lear, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, which first appeared in England in 1968 and which has been revised and reissued a number of times since then on both sides of the Atlantic. This present volume shares its excellences. Alongside the letters we have much interesting and helpful but unobtrusive [End Page 144] information: a chronology, a list of often-mentioned friends and connections, with brief biographies, just enough commentary to keep the narrative clear, notes which one can consult or leave alone as one chooses. In addition, the reproduction of the tiny sketches with which Lear embellished his letters, drawings sometimes no bigger than a postage stamp, is first-rate.

Why then this wondering about the book's effects on its readers?

Because I wish that into every copy a little note could be inserted, which would say to the reader, "Keep going: it gets better and better as you go on." In other words, I found the first third of this collection rather dull. That was a surprise, and induced puzzled self-questioning. There are, of course, delightful touches even in these earlier letters: Lear in his Roman lodgings having trouble with a small she-kitten who has "a naughty habit of playing with the window curtains"; getting sea-sick in a sedan chair in Constantinople; being chased by fervent Muslims in up-country Albania because he was sketching, i.e. making forbidden 'graven images.' But many of these letters seem to approach perilously close to travelogue, on and on. (The modern equivalent must be our friends' desire to have us watch their slides of foreign safaris.) With the gradual entrance of real friends, '40scue' as Lear often writes it, Holman Hunt, Emily Tennyson, everything picks up. Lear's brio, warmth of heart, grumblings, Nonsense play, poetry—"the same rose & crimson evenings, the same lilac & silver mornings," this in Corfu—carry all before them. Here, too, begin those inimitable caricature-portraits of himself, the spherical body, bearded head, glasses, little arms and legs waving about, mood and expression indicated with the utmost economy, subtlety and precision. What might account for the lesser interest of the earlier letters?

Perhaps it is due in part to the fact that many of them were written to his much older sister, Ann, and to his patron, the Earl of Derby. Devoted as he was to Ann...


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