OWLS AND A PUSSY CAT

Peter Levi's new biography of Edward Lear is an appropriately untidy ac count of the poet-painter whose loneliness was matched by his omnivorous curiosity
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ANTHONY BURGESS was twice involved in failed attempts to make a movie version of the troubled, teeming life of Edward Lear - doyen of Victorian nonsense verse, populariser of the limerick form, "damned dirty landscape painter" (as he once, to his amusement, overheard two young Englishmen in Calabria dismissively describe him), voluminous diarist, indefatigable letter-writer and restless, adventurous traveller.

One of these abortive film projects had Peter Ustinov lined up for the lead; the other had secured Michael Powell as producer-director. The first scene, lifted straight from life, was to have been set in a railway carriage on the famous occasion when a group of children, laughing over A Book of Nonsense, were authoritatively informed by some pompous old party that its real author was Lord Derby, "Lear" being an anagram of "Earl". To refute the claim that "there is no such person as Edward Lear", Lear was obliged to emerge from his corner seat and display the inside of his hat, where his name and address were inscribed in large letters.

The life and work, according to Burgess, "cry out to be filmed" and certainly it is a puzzle as to why the relationship (pace Eliot) between the man who suffers and the mind which creates should have been explored so frequently (via speculative spin-off art) in the case of Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll and so rarely in the case of Lear. Despite his being in many respects a very different man from Dodgson, the link between the psychology and the publicised private mythology offers similar artistic opportunities.

"There are all the paintings and drawings," declared Burgess, itemising the subject's cinematic potential, "Lear's own songs with the composer at the piano, Alfred and Emily Tennyson, Queen Victoria [to whom Lear gave drawing lessons], the travels, the epilepsy, even... Lear's venereal disease and probable homosexuality." Indeed, since Burgess wrote those words, the Lear story could be said to have acquired a freshly fashionable edge, in that the coverage given to child abuse (whether real but unimaginabl e or intensely imagined yet quite imaginary) has sensitised the public to the truth that infanticide is not the only way an adult can destroy a child's life.

This might sound overly melodramatic applied to the experiences of the young Edward Lear, 20th child of a London stockbroker. But "the Morbids", as he termed those fits of acute depression to which he was prone from an early age, cannot have been greatlydeterred by the fact that his parents, who suffered a bankruptcy crisis when he was four, effectively washed their hands at that point of his upbringing. This devolved onto his admirable sister Ann, 21 years his senior. Hardly surprising, th en, that inhis nonsense verse happiness tends to be envisioned as an irrecoverable feature of the past: "Till the morning came on that hateful day/When the Jumblies sailed in their sieve away,/And the Dong was left on the cruel shore/Gazing - gazing for evermore..."

The detail, though, that is most calculated to set the contemporary nose sniffing suspiciously occurs in an enigmatic diary entry for 19 June 1871, by which time the 59-year-old Lear was at long last ensconced in a home of his own, the Villa Emily in SanRemo. The entry is a response to the news that Frederick Harding , a cousin, had recently died: "It is just 50 years since he did the greatest evil done to me in life - excepting that done by C: - which must last now to the end - spite of all reason andeffort".

The type of harm a cousin can inflict on a nine-year-old boy depends very much on the age of the cousin. One way of contrasting Peter Levi's new, likeable, bufferish life of Lear with Vivien Noakes's exemplary, less flabby 1968 biography (revised a decade later) is to register how Levi fails to satisfy a principled curiosity on this issue, while Noakes, who scrupulously avoids the least sensational suggestion, none the less provides facts that make you think: that the incident occurred on Easter Monday,8 April 1822, and that Harding, who was 19, had just been bought out of his regiment and was staying at Bowman's Lodge, the Lear family home. She also points out that the memory was sufficiently haunting as to warrant Lear's noting the

day in his diary for many years afterwards.

Being made to think is not the same as being forced to make up your mind. But Levi's withholding of information here puts a premature limit on thought, which is as presumptuous in its way as any knee-jerk modern certainty that abuse "must" be at the bottom of such cases. Given that part of the charm of Levi's book is his permissive, pile-it-on way with detail, this particular absence is all the more striking. Certainly, an author who thinks it worth recording that, while dining at Simpsons in the Strandon 9 September 1875, Lear heard someone behind him mention a name he knew and that this caused him to claim aloud (in error as it turns out) to have known that man's wife's sister, ought, you feel, to be able to squeeze in information that's arguably just a shade more earth-shattering.

Docking in Bombay in 1874 at the start of an arduous 13-month landscape-gathering tour of India, Lear went almost mad with delight at the "myriadism of impossible picturesqueness!!!". A salute to the multitudinousness of the sub-continent, the word "myriadism" also pays happy testimony to Lear's continued openness and omnivorous curiosity towards scenery, plants, animals, friends and phenomena of all kinds. He gratefully attributed this appetite for knowledge to his incomplete education (he didn't go toschool till he was 11). All the same, it is remarkable how it remained unsated and unsoured even in the face of severe inner turmoils: the secrecy and self-mistrust imposed by his epilepsy; the hellish attacks of loneliness exacerbated by his largely expatriate life; the Platonic crushes on males who were either unable to reciprocate or unaware of the intensity of his feelings; the dithering ad nauseam over whether he should marry protracted by a deep-seated sense of being damaged goods.

In its hectic, generous, untidy way, Levi's book incarnates as well as conveys some of Lear's avid spirit, while his enthusiasm for the caricatures and for the watercolours and oils of exotic places (the Masada, the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, etc) is informed by a shrewd awareness of Lear's awkward historical placement vis-a-vis the art market, patronage, and techniques of reproduction. Moreover, the entertainment value of the book (which Lear would, I think, have enjoyed) is only enhanced by the unabashed prejudices and minor snobberies with which the text is flecked.

In context, some of these come across as frankly bizarre. For example, the snooty reference to the intrusion of "the most horrible little dentists' villas" in present-day Shoreham sits a bit oddly in a biography which offers keen periodic reminders that,in the 19th century, the state of your teeth could still be a mortal matter - "Why did FL's boy die?" runs one diary entry, "Teeth. I nearly died of teeth..." - while on another page we learn that during one trip back to London in 1872 Lear bought "three sets of teeth for nine guineas". Perhaps those dentists' villas are a small price to pay.

Auden's famous sonnet "Edward Lear" was written just a month after the sonnet on A E Housman, another confirmed bachelor who wrote, inter alia, nonsense verses which do not disown his characteristic preoccupations. Both these works are sweepingly diagnostic in Auden's Thirties manner, but you don't have to subscribe to the Art-is-Compensation line to be struck by the implicit parallel (this being a Love that dare not speak the names) between Housman's unrequited love for Moses Jackson and Lear's for Franklin Lushington, the friend who became Judge to the Supreme Court of Justice on the Ionian Islands and in whose extended company on Corfu Lear gave way to what he called the "frantic-fanatical caring overmuch for those who care little for us".

Excessively anxious to "in" Lear, Levi writes much better, in fact, about the later, yearningly paternal infatuation with Hubert Congreve, the young son of a fellow expatriate neighbour in San Remo who, during the illness of his wife, persisted in sleeping with a servant girl. She had already been dismissed but, in a nice touch of farce, had been re-imported under another name. It is from the perspective of the relationship with the Congreve boy (which also coincided with a near-breakdown on Lear's part) that any play or film could fruitfully survey his life, as Lear the neglected son becomes Lear the would-be father.

Levi pinpoints well the tragicomic irony that if Lear was allowed, or rather forced, to stand in loco parentis to anyone, it was the sons of his Greek servant Giorgis, youths who led him an un-merry dance with their begging for money, declining of jobs, wanting to be bought cafes, whoring, desertion from the army and general reliance on his support. They would have been enough to bring out the Mr Bennett in Don Corleone, and you have to admire Lear's patience.

Levi is less than fair, though, to poor Hubert, who left San Remo for Kings College London, and who is more than once accused in these pages of the sin of ordinariness. True, the memoir he wrote when he was a 53-year-old engineer indicates that he must have been serenely unconscious of the effect his youthful self had had on Lear, and that he was naive to suppose that the rift had come about because he'd deserted art for engineering. Levi sees it as a case of life serving up Lear with a potential son who didn't have the nous for the job. But equally you could say that Lear was not some exam or course of study for which Hubert consciously enrolled himself, and that there are worse faults than being slow on the uptake.

A peculiar thing about Lear's nonsense verse is that its detractors (eg Kingsley Amis) are often more cogent than its advocates (eg Aldous Huxley). Those who find Lear's poems haunting tend to feel the force of what Christopher Ricks argues in his introduction to The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse: that the non-sense poetry of the period is "the very opposite of that escapism which is often laid at Victorian poetry's door" and that, like the dramatic monologue, it is an inaugurative form and helps heal the breach between satire and sentiment, wit and passion.

"He only said, I'm very weary/The rheumatiz he said,/he said it's awful dull and dreary/ I think I'll go to bed": Lear knew how simultaneously to avail himself of and to parody the musical melancholy of his friend Tennyson, as in that off-the-cuff mimic k ing (one of several in the letters and diaries) of The Lady of Shalott. The word-play could be just horseplay, as when the lines from The Lotos-Eaters "To watch the crisping ripples on the beach/And tender curving lines of creamy spray" turn up in distorted form as "To watch the tipsy cripples on the beach/with topsy-turvy signs of screamy play." But in poems like "The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-B" or "The Dong with the Luminous Nose", Tennysonian reverberations have a more complex effect, with the element of parody insulating the poem from the charge of engrossed self-pity even as it authorises a wallowing in just that.

Intent on emphasising Lear's debt to the old Mummers' Plays and traditional nursery rhyme (about which he writes interestingly), Levi is less forthcoming on the Victorian-ness of the nonsense verse: he could valuably compare Lear's efforts to other examples of the genre. His often perceptive comments don't build up to a case, and given that the book arose from his dissatisfaction with a lecture on the subject he had delivered in Oxford, this is disappointing. What his book does give you, though, is a marvellous sense of Lear's breadth and range. The irony that he is associated in the majority of minds merely with the limerick was wittily captured by Langford Reed, who can have the last word in a poem itself cast in limerick form: A goddess, capricious,is Fame; You may strive to make noted your name But she either neglects you Or coolly selects you For laurels distinct from your aim.

`Edward Lear: A Biography' is published by Macmillan, £20

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