Every inch a Lear

EDWARD LEAR Peter Levi Macmillan £20 Lear styled himself King Lear the First. `I see life as basically tragic and futile,' he wailed, `and the only thing that matters is making little jokes'
In the kingdom of Lear, where all is whimsy and calculated eccentricity, no middle-class nursery is without its Jumblies and the Yonghy-Bonghy- B. I confess an aversion to them. My childhood dignity was offended when I was cast as the Dong with the Luminous Nose in a school play. Yet as W H Auden wrote of Lear: "Children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land."

Built like a bear, with a great spade of a beard, Edward Lear was an eminent Victorian. He gave Queen Victoria drawing lessons and his pince- nez would mist with emotion during piano accompaniments to Tennyson's poems. British as bread-and-butter pudding, Lear does not travel well. When Anthony Burgess in New York proposed a film of Lear's life, the potential backers had never heard of the limerick man. "Wasn't he a king of sump'n?" As for "The Owl and the Pussy Cat", there was already a movie like that. With Barbra Streisand.

The 20th child of a London stockbroker, the "old Derry down Derry, who loved to see little folks merry" suffered from depression and epilepsy. In his fattish fifties, Lear styled himself comically as King Lear the First; but "the Morbids", as he termed his fits of gloom, worked deeper with the years. "I see life as basically tragic and futile," he wailed, "and the only thing that matters is making little jokes." It has long been suspected that Lear harboured some dark emotional guilt. Perhaps the underlying melancholy of his Book of Nonsense - all those mournful limericks - derived from a frustrated sexuality. In his essay on nonsense poets, George Orwell guardedly said of Lear: "It is easy to guess that there was something seriously wrong in his sex life."

Peter Levi will have none of this. If Lear preferred the company - not necessary sexual - of men to women, this was scarcely unusual. Levi ignores Susan Chitty's 1988 biography of Lear which gossiped on about a probable homosexuality. Chitty made much of Lear's friendship with the tubercular aesthete John Addington Symonds (known to Swinburne as Soddington Symonds). She was also interested in Lear's Albanian manservant Giorgis Kokalis, who went globe-trotting with his master to Calabria, Corsica, Egypt and India. For 25 years Giorgis was a secretary, valet, dragoman and general mother-in-law to Lear. Yet there is no evidence that Lear's affection for either Giorgis or Symonds was anything other than Platonic. Lear, like Ruskin, was probably asexual: when it came to physical love he remained the veriest tiro. And that was his sadness.

There is little in this new biography which is not already in Vivien Noakes' diligent Edward Lear: Life of a Wanderer. Sadly, this has been out of print for years; and Levi's is not as good.

His book is sometimes rambling and flabby, rather tweedy in tone ("gay" and "queer" are frequently used in their pre-war sense). But Levi is right to concentrate on Lear the travel-writer and artist. His 1851 Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania is one of the great unacknowledged classics of travel. None other than Disraeli had already captured the wild and brooding landscape of Albania in his novel Rise of Iskander. Edward Lear wanted to exploit the growing interest in this remote country with the publication of "Moslem- Macedonian" water-colours.

Lear's "topographical landscapes", the delicate products of a dawn or dusk sketching, were clearly influenced by J M W Turner. But his posthumous reputation as a water-colourist is rising; Peter Levi thinks Lear's painting was of such modernity that it makes Whistler look old fashioned. In a strange way, Lear's gobbledegook was curiously modern too; in India he found a "myriadism of impossible picturesqueness". Yet Lear never went the whole linguistic hog: he stopped short of attempting to produce the Jabberwock vocabulary of Lewis Carroll. Instead he remained a genial Englishman, happy to divert us with that Dong with the lurid proboscis.