Edward Lear: 12 May 1812 - 29 January 1888
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'How pleasant to know Mr. Lear,
Who has written such volumes of stuff.
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few find him pleasant enough….'
If you ask a child to tell you a poem that they know by heart, there’s a good chance that they'll start ‘The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat’. Dear Edward Lear, I do hope that in some blissful nonsensical afterlife he knows how loved he still is, and I hope he dances by the light of the moon - just like the owl - who is of course the bespectacled Lear himself.
It is Lear the creator of nonsense verse that most people think of, but during his lifetime Lear was also a well known painter of landscapes. He painted the exotic places the Victorians wanted to see, but without the palaver of actually going there.
I’d always assumed he came from a well to do family but he didn’t. He was the twentieth child (!) of an unsuccessful stockbroker and his terminally exhausted wife. Lear’s mother made little or no attempt at all to care for him and from an early age he lived with a spinster sister twenty years his senior. There was a dark secret too, because Lear was seriously epileptic. He had about twenty episodes of grand mal every month and almost no one knew. The aura that presaged the fit meant that Lear had time to remove himself from company and undergo the horrible attack quite alone. How isolating and how tragic.
Lear was a hard working jobbing artist, he needed patronage and determination to keep him going and he was always worried about money. He started painting for a living in his teens and his first serious work was a beautiful set of parrots in London Zoo.
From his early twenties Lear was either travelling or living in Greece or Italy, returning to London to sell and exhibit his work and then heading off every winter to a warmer climate. He had a weak chest and terrible eyesight and he hated spending time in foggy cold Victorian London. Often in his hundreds of letters to his friends and his sister, Lear wishes he had a best-beloved to share his life, but of course it was not to be. His emotional attachments, such as they were, were to pretty or unattainable young women or rather dense and uptight young men.
For years Lear wanted to propose marriage to Gussie Bethell the daughter of a friend. He wrote in his diary ‘dear little Gussie who is absolutely good & sweet & delightful - BOTHER’. But marriage would have meant revealing the epilepsy and Lear knew it was hereditary and he might pass it on to his children, so he hesitated – who wouldn’t? Eventually Gussie got tired of waiting, and married a man not dissimilar to Lear – many years older and invalidish. Years later when she was widowed, like the owl - Lear still tarried, and then it was too late. In the poem (written the year after he first failed to propose) the problem is solved because the pussy (- rhymes with Gussie) reverses convention and proposes to the owl. Unfortunately for Lear, Gussie didn’t.
There is a strong suggestion from a diary entry he made, that Lear was abused as a child, and when you know how unhappy his emotional life was and realize the degree of his self-loathing then ‘How pleasant to know Mr Lear’ becomes almost unbearably sad. In his old age Lear said, 'Life is an ill fitting shoe’; but what humour! After a nasty attack of pleurisy he wrote; ‘As for my ‘elth, it ain’t elth particularly – but rather pheebleness and now I can hardly doddlewaddle as far as the pestilential po-stoffis’
So for Lear, the nonsense verse was both a defence and a smoke screen and as well as charming millions of children and adults it has been amazingly influential on later poets. T.S. Eliot and W.H Auden were both fans.
So what to cook? Well it has to be the owl and the pussycat’s honeymoon feast. ‘They dined on mince and slices of quince which they ate with a runcible spoon….’
At the risk of rambling too much, there is a dish of mince and quince paste, it's a type of kibbeh from Syria called kibbeh safarjaliyye. I wonder if Lear ate it on one of his journeys in the Middle East? I wouldn't be at all surprised. Anyway quinces are there none in May, so we'll have to make do with quince paste...
The Owl and the Pussycat's Honeymoon Tart
This is loosely based on something called paradise slice my Mum used to make ( I think from the Be-Ro book) with a dash of Moro thrown in.
You will need a pre-baked sweet pastry shell and I baked mine in a square flan tin - an 8" round one would be fine ( or you could just buy one - why not?)
130g of membrillo - quince paste
1 tbsp water, 1 tbsp lemon juice
80g ground almonds
150g desiccated coconut
finely grated zest of half an orange and half a lemon
40ml Marsala or sweet sherry
115g soft butter
100g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp baking powder.
Icing sugar to decorate
Over a low heat melt the membrillo with the water and lemon juice and set aside. Put the almonds, lemon and orange peel, BP and Marsala in a bowl and leave to stand whilst you beat the butter and sugar together and add the eggs, the mixture will split but don't worry. Tip in the coconut mixture and fold together with a metal spoon.
Put the melted quince paste into the bottom of the tart shell and spread out thinly. Cover with the coconut mixture and spread out evenly. Bake for 30-40 minutes, cover with a pice of parchment if the pastry shows signs of getting too brown.
Leave to cool then decorate with icing sugar, I cut a stencil of a paradise desert island but the old paper doily trick would be pretty as well.
His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big;
His visage is more or less hideous,
His beard it resembles a wig.
He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
(Leastways if you reckon two thumbs);
He used to be one of the singers,
But now he is one of the dumbs.
He sits in a beautiful parlour,
With hundreds of books on the wall;
He drinks a great deal of marsala,
But never gets tipsy at all.
He has many friends, lay and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.
When he walks in waterproof white,
The children run after him so!
Calling out, "He's gone out in his night-
Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!"
He weeps by the side of the ocean,
He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotion,
And chocolate shrimps from the mill.
He reads, but cannot speak, Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger beer;
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!
Posted by Liz Woods