Brian Alderson reflects on one of the most original and accomplished children’s books of the 19th century.
In the summer of 1862
Edward Lear wrote jokingly to his friend, Lady Waldegrave, of the crowds he had seen assembled in the City when he drove there to pay £125 ‘into the funds’ so unusual was it to see an artist banking some money. The cash was in fact the fee that he had finally managed to get from the publishers Routledge, Warne and Routledge for the sale of his copyright for the third edition of A Book of Nonsense. (It was hardly a good deal from his point of view. The lithographic pictures were all converted into woodcuts and the [eventually] two publishers went on issuing reprints till the copyright ran out, Lear of course receiving nothing of the profits. They were also prone to label as ‘new editions’ volumes that were simply dodgily-dated continuances of an existing print-run.)
For about twenty years
Lear ‘s profession had been that of a landscape painter, working much in Mediterranean lands for his health’s sake and on occasion necessarily residing at hotels. While in Rome on one of these journeys he encountered the vacationing family of an American publisher, James Fields, whose children he entertained with comic verses as was his wont, and the publisher forthwith commissioned for his firm’s magazine anything that Lear might like to offer in the way of amusing verses. So it was that the February 1870 number of Our Young Folks saw the first publication in New York of The Owl and the Pussy Cat with two-line illustrations by an unnamed house artist. (‘Capital’, said Lear.)
if Lear were known at all as a writer it would be for the nonsenses of 1846 (see our last BfK) and for his accounts of his travels in Italy and elsewhere, illustrated with his own lithographs. But The Owl and the Pussy-Cat and two other ballads that Fields published in later issues of his magazine – The Duck and the Kangaroo and The Daddy Long-Legs and the Fly – would mark the presence of a new voice in English children’s literature. He worked up ideas from manuscripts that he had made for children and friends and for the Christmas of 1870 (but dated 1871) the publisher of his travel books, one R.J. Bush, put out a volume of Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets.
that Messrs Routledge and the now independent Warne had passed up on his ideas and thus deprived themselves of the distinction of publishing one of the most original and accomplished children’s books of the century. The Songs began it, with the three ballads done for Our Young Folks in the lead and these were followed by six others, most notably The Jumblies. The two stories – the only two that Lear wrote – The History of the Four Little Children who Went Round the World and The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple are barely that, being experimental illustrated comedies, betraying a fondness for utterly absurd situations and the persistent marrying of unrelated and sometimes invented adjectives: ‘sumptuous and sonorous’ ‘melodious and mucilaginous’…
In both Songs and Stories
the illustrations enhance what there is of narrative rather in the way of the drawings of the earlier nonsenses. There then follows a miscellany in which drawings tend to predominate. There are a couple of pictorial alphabets (one not illustrated by Lear) which are preceded by a brief comic interlude reserved for some curious culinary recipes taken from the ‘valued and learned’ contributions of Professor Bosh to the Nonsense Gazette (Amblongus Pie, Crumbobblious Cutlets, and Gosky Patties). The Professor also appends nine illustrations with their generic and specific descriptions of plants discovered in the valley of Verrikwier, down Orfeltugg way, along the lines of Manipeeplia Upsidownia:
as are all the textual and illustrative ideas here, the universality of the enjoyment of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat makes for sufficient proof of the genius of the Nonsense Songs themselves. Here is a mastery of the rhythms and vocabulary of poetry put to the service of the seemingly ridiculous. Domestic objects from daily life – a table, a chair, some fire irons, a nutcracker and sugar-tongs – make impossible expeditions. Ducks, kangaroos, sparrows and jumblies (whatever they are, we only know that their heads are green and their hands are blue) have more daring escapades, but they all occur only a short way across the border from reality. And that reality may have implications, as adumbrated by the Daddy-Longlegs and the Fly, that are anything but ridiculous.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The 100 Best Children’s Books is published by Galileo Publishing, 978-1903385982, £14.99 hbk.
Edward Lear, The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse is published by Penguin Classics, 978-0140424652, £14.99 pbk.