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Jenny Uglow interview

Jenny Uglow interview

The Baillie Gifford Prize 2017 longlist

Our longlisted author Jenny Uglow tells us she’s loved Lear’s poems since childhood and describes the most unexpected detail she discovered whilst researching for Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense: his lifelong involvement with music.

What does it feel like to be longlisted?

I’m thrilled, as it’s such a cheering recognition – and I do hope people love Lear.  

What inspired you to write this book?

I have loved Lear’s poems and limericks since childhood, and was fascinated to learn later that he was also a stupendous natural history artist and landscape painter, and wonderful writer of travel journals, as well as being a lovable, funny, but deeply emotional man.  At many points his life touches the crucial movement of history in Europe, at a time full of turmoil. I wanted to find out, if I could, how these lives ran together, to explore the puzzles and to show how strange and brilliant he was.

How did you research? 

I plunged into Lear’s letters to his countless correspondents, and read the thirty years of his vivid diaries, which are all at Harvard. Another task was to hunt down his natural history works, and his many landscape watercolours and oils.  The archives I used varied from the wonderful World Museum at Liverpool, which still has the skins of birds and animals that Lear painted for the Earl of Derby at Knowsley, to the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln, which holds his letters to the Tennysons, and much-thumbed copies of early nonsense books that he made for their sons. I also travelled to ‘Lear places’ in Britain and abroad, especially Corfu, where he lived for many years, and San Remo, where he ended his days. 

For anyone who wants to explore the subject further, which book(s) would you recommend?

Edward Lear The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse, ed. Vivien Noakes (Penguin Classics 2001), Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry, ed. James Williams and Matthew Bevis ( 2016) and The Natural History of Edward Lear (2016) by Robert McCracken Peck. Also Marco Graziosi’s splendid A Blog of Bosh | Edward Lear and Nonsense Literature.

Could you describe the most unexpected detail you discovered about Lear’s life and work?

Lear is full of surprises.  Perhaps the most unexpected was not his epilepsy, or his suppressed homosexuality, or his spirited defiance of bigotry, but his lifelong involvement with music. His ability to play the piano, guitar and flute, to sing, and to compose songs, helped him to make friends with everyone, from aristocrats and patrons in polite society, to peasants in the remotest places in Southern Italy and Albania.

What are you working on next?   

That remains to be seen… 

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