More than any of the five previous Lear biographies...Ms. Uglow’s nearly 600-page book miraculously takes wing, soars higher and provides a more inclusive bird’s-eye view of almost every aspect of Lear’s life ... At various moments throughout this avian journey, Ms. Uglow swoops down to examine and explicate with hawk-like acuity the ludic complexities of Lear’s writings. She brilliantly elucidates the interplay between the drawings and words in Lear’s limericks ... Mr. Lear is lavishly produced and resplendently illustrated with color and black-and-white reproductions of paintings, drawings, sketches and photographs—many of which have been rarely seen. For me there is just one word to describe Jenny Uglow’s book, a word that Lear used to describe a sumptuous dinner party ... splendidophoropherostiphongious.
...capacious and astute ... Among the many pleasures of this biography are its frequent quotations from Lear’s journals and fanciful letters ... Among Uglow’s most valuable and personal chapters are those devoted to Lear’s fantastic, in all senses, drawings and verse. Some of his later poems, such as 'The Dong With a Luminous Nose,' can be decidedly pensive or bittersweet, but as Uglow writes, the limericks in his first collection, A Book of Nonsense (1846), are 'comprehensible as both the foolery of childhood and the foolery of carnival, turning the world upside down.'
Uglow’s approach is more or less to try to cover the waterfront. There is a lot of it to cover ... What redeems the constant travelogue is Uglow’s sympathetic and perceptive view of her subject, as both person and artist. She is well aware of the masks Lear was forced to don as a sexually fluid man in the 19th century...and finds beneath his wit and friendly humor 'the admission that he was in essence a man who would live his life alone, and, perhaps, lonely.' This seems right: The desire for understanding, however unlikely its achievement, is a strong theme in Lear’s writing; has there ever, for instance, been a more tenuous pairing than the Owl and the Pussy-cat? ... If a cat and an owl can be joined, the poem quietly suggests, then surely there is hope for anyone. Lear’s gift is to find his own thirst for companionship echoed in the sense-making elements of language.
The astonishing thing is that Lear’s serious paintings and nonsense verses were produced by the same person, but Uglow makes a convincing case for thinking that he needed both. His was a life of art and nonsense, the sublime and the ridiculous ... Uglow’s writing is equally good at switching lenses, interspersing generous overviews with intimate details such as the fact that Lear sailed to Corfu in 1855 carrying in his pocket a conker given to him by Tennyson’s son Hallam. The text is also full of memorable word-pictures ... Uglow’s triumph is to show how his most famous works brought these contradictions together and struck sparks of creative life from them.
Jenny Uglow’s moving biography of Edward Lear reveals a tortured, unfulfilled soul for whom nonsense was a necessity ... Uglow shows that the life of the Victorian gay man, even in progressive circles, was excruciating ... Only abroad could Lear and Lushington enjoy a semblance of marriage – as Uglow puts it – 'without the sex' ... Uglow has written a great life about an artist with half a life, a biography that might break your heart.
How pleasant to know Mr Lear! Jenny Uglow certainly thinks so. Before reading this biography I could take or leave Edward Lear’s nonsense poems ... In a charming preface, Uglow describes her undertaking as setting out 'in my sieve of words', rather like The Jumblies ... Crammed with Lear’s delicate drawings and paintings, this must be one of the most beautifully produced books of the year.
By page 4 of this vast biography, I liked Edward Lear. By page 21, I pitied and cared about him. By page 90, I loved him. By page 521, I’d slightly had enough of him ... I liked him because, from the start, Jenny Uglow brings out Lear’s self-effacing, eccentric and rather girlie sweetness ... Uglow, who has written biographies of William Hogarth and Elizabeth Gaskell, takes us, month by month, year by year, through his adult life. This is impossible to do, I’m afraid, without causing a degree of tedium ... What could Uglow do? If you are writing Lear’s biography, you’ve got to say what he did, but by the page 300s I was finding that my least-favourite opening sentence of a paragraph was: 'The tour was not altogether finished' ... We’re up against the uninterestingness of Other People’s Holidays. In England, we’re up against the uninterestingness of Other People’s Friends ... The friends often die. When Lear is heartbroken yet again, when his young Italian gardener dies of suspected typhus, I found I had compassion fatigue.
Jenny Uglow, a social historian and biographer of rare empathy, has written a glorious study that not only does full justice to the kindly, vulnerable outsider who pursued a child-like and elusive idea of love; it conveys the sensibility and the heartbreaking mixture of hope and despair that drove him.
Mr Lear is far more than a beautiful book – although it is that. It is an alluring, extremely perceptive doorway into the 19th century ... Poignant and unexpectedly exciting, Mr Lear is a rich delight, while Edward Lear proves endearing and heroic, a man who wanted to love and failed, yet certainly used his gifts well.
Sumptuously produced, with a handsome cloth spine and printed on thick glossy paper with numerous illustrations, Uglow’s biography is richly detailed and astutely empathetic, a splendid portrait of this remarkable man — a landscape painter of only middling talent, it must be said, but a peerless creator of nonsense.
When it comes to Lear, Uglow’s disability, if there is one, is that she is such an enthusiast that her enthusiasm crowds out, a little, her urge to explication. That nursery nationalism kicks in. She takes Lear’s greatness for granted, piling on limericks and sketch drawings as though we, too, had known them since infancy. Her enthusiasm can become a velvet rope separating us from her subject, more than an invitation to the dance ... What is eloquent and astonishing in Uglow’s biography is her demonstration of how embedded Lear was in Victorian art and culture ... Throughout, Uglow patiently traces the contours of a closeted gay man’s life.
Uglow is excellent on Lear’s poetry and its oblique conversations with life, not least because she realises the dangers of thoroughness. His nonsense makes you unsure of what – or how much – you should say about it, and Uglow often handles this difficulty by tactfully drawing attention to what doesn’t quite happen in the poems ... Uglow’s book is the best biography of Lear yet written, not because it always avoids the boring, but because it finds ways to let boredom shed light on – and provide opportunity for – other things. I doubt her readings of the poems would be as imaginative and revealing if she hadn’t been so willing to give herself up to the ‘excessive immensity’ of the life story.
With careful attention Ms Uglow gets to the heart of a man who found joy in the absurdities of life and whose enjoyment of people and the world around him saved him from 'the morbids'. In 600 pages, her tome never tires the reader. As she unpicks Lear’s layers, at points she seems to inhabit him. His love of language bubbles through her own, leaving a striking and memorable portrait of the man she describes as 'an eerie, queery, sometimes weary, sometimes cheery Edward Lear'.
...if her book had been, as it ought, a living portrait of Lear rather than a doomed attempt to narrate his life, she would have produced the best kind of literary biography, even if the best in this kind are but shadows ... Well before the end of Uglow’s narrative, I no longer cared about which country Lear was travelling in, who he was with, what he ate, what comic misadventures befell him, or how many drawings he made. Far from reinforcing the significance of travel to Lear’s life, the repetitive account of trains and steamers, roads and rivers, mountains sketched, perils avoided, friendships strained, leaches meaning out of the narrative. Uglow’s usually crisp prose wilts, and she resorts to a tourist guide’s patter ... Uglow has something interesting to say on almost every facet of Lear’s life and work, taken individually. When she gets off the chronological treadmill her gift as a storyteller is evident, and her assessments of character and motive are almost always sensible and convincing. As a critic she is lucid, clever, conversable; she doesn’t talk down, and her readings are excellent, the heart of the book.
Throughout the book, Uglow turns up wonderful moments ... Apart from the workhorse Uglow chronicles, Lear was also a peripatetic man of broad interests who seemed, at least outwardly, cheerful. He was, in short, a Victorian man of many parts: a scientist, artist, writer, and spiritual searcher who struggled to overcome what, in one of his 'darkest negatives,' he called the condition of being 'blank.' A well-wrought life of an eminent Victorian who merits our broader acquaintance.