Book Review: Mr Lear, by Jenny Uglow

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Jenny Uglow’s biography provides many insights into the life and works of poet Edward Lear, best known for his poem The Owl and the Pussycat.

Lear was born in 1812; the sixteenth of seventeen children. He was rejected by his mother and so brought up by his much older sister, Ann. He remained close to Ann all his life. He had a difficult childhood experiencing depression, epileptic fits, was extremely short-sighted, and was bullied, spending only 1 year in school. At around 12 he experienced some unspecified abuse that had such an impact that he recorded the date of it every year in his diary.

Always short of money, Lear began his artistic career selling sketches to passengers in coaching inns. An association with London Zoo led to Lear’s brilliant paintings of animals and birds, particularly parrots. He was somewhat overly ambitious and went into debt when he produced a lavish book of his beautifully coloured parrots.

This was typical of Lear throughout his life. He wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and even taught drawing to Queen Victoria, but he relied on friends, patrons and connections to be able to pay his way. At times he had to literally ‘sing for his supper’ producing serious and nonsense songs and poems. The comic words and images are wonderfully integrated into the narrative by Jenny Uglow.

This biography shines a light into the, sometimes, dark places of Lear’s life through his writing and painting. I had always envisioned him as quintessentially English so it was a surprise to read in Mr Lear that he spent much of his life travelling in Europe, writing, sketching and painting for which he had displayed a precocious talent.

The shadow life of a gay man in Victorian times made life especially difficulty for him and contributed to his loneliness. Lear seems never to have had a fulfilling relationship with a man although he was in love with Frank Lushington, a young friend with whom he travelled. Frank’s marriage was devastating and for years Lear spoke in a jocular manner about getting married himself.

Of his nonsense poem The Owl and The Pussycat, critics have suggested it represents the freedom Lear never had. The incongruous yet happy pairing of a cat and a bird perhaps signifying the desire the poet felt for a similar happy pairing which was forbidden by a disapproving society – identified as ‘They’ in other verses from Lear.

Perhaps it relates back to his unsettled early life or being an outsider in society but it wasn’t until very late in life that Lear stopped his restless travelling and settled down in San Remo in northern Italy. Whatever drove him, it is somewhat ironic that the man who dedicated his life to being seen as a serious artist is better known today for nonsense poems and limericks.

Mr Lear is a beautifully produced book with wonderful illustrations, images of paintings and sketches, plus examples of Lear’s writing. However, for my taste Uglow’s biography is overly detailed as many of Lear’s travels abroad were very similar and, at over almost 600 pages, including notes and an index, it is a little too much of a good thing.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  8

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: November 2017
RRP: $49.99

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Illuminating

Mr Lear is a beautifully produced book with wonderful illustrations, images of paintings and sketches, plus examples of Lear’s writing. However, the biography is overly detailed, making it a little too much of a good thing.

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