I interviewed Sara Lodge whose book about Edward Lear celebrates how “… he created an identity that allowed him to be funny and sad, to play straight and be queer at the same time.” In her interview Sara, who is the Senior lecturer at the School of English, University of St Andrews, also talks about the contemporary influence of 19th literature and culture. Sara, who is a painter, a jazz singer and short story writer, wrote ‘Inventing Edward Lear’ as her third book, and is currently researching women Victorian detectives.
Leslie: Tell us about the less well-known sides of Edward Lear that led you to write a book about him. What is deep and important about his themes and his creative work?
Sara: Edward Lear is now best known as a nonsense poet. But in his lifetime, he was better known as a painter, first of animals and birds, then of landscape. He was also a talented musician and composer. I wanted to write about the fact that all of his poems are really songs, which originally had music, and which he performed in mixed company. I became really interested in Lear’s musical background and influences. I was keen to bring out Lear’s performative side and to think about the ways in which he created an identity that allowed him to be funny and sad, to play straight and be queer at the same time.
Leslie: What were the most interesting and revealing anecdotes you came across about Edward Lear’s performances?
Sara: Lear used sometimes to perform to friends for over two hours at a time (!) He loved to sing and play the piano after dinner, sometimes in the moonlight. The drama comes across, as does the deep need that his performance conjured both in Lear and his audiences. Performance allowed him to socialise and harmonise across different social classes and to combine pathos with comedy. Often these qualities, in Lear, form an emotional feedback loop where what is absurd is funny, but can shade into tragedy – then tragedy can become hilarious again.
Leslie: How did you go about reconstructing Edward Lear performances? What were the difficulties and how did you (and others) overcome them?
Sara: when creating a concert series with songs that Lear sang, I particularly wanted to have the concerts in houses that – as we know from his diaries – Lear stayed in and sang at. So we performed at Ightham Mote in Kent and Gunby Hall in Lincolnshire, and at Gilbert White’s House in Hampshire. It was wonderfully atmospheric singing in rooms by candlelight in the exact place where Lear once sang his songs. I created a programme that went from Lear’s early work (spoofs of popular songs by Thomas Moore and Thomas Haynes Bayley) to musical versions of his limericks, then his evocative settings of Tennyson, and finally his longer nonsense songs. I hope people grasped the musical connections between these seemingly very different musical oeuvres. We know that Lear himself liked to improvise at the piano, modulating from impassioned ‘serious’ Tennyson settings such as ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ to comic songs (a bit like a modern jazz pianist). Often his songs in different moods are in the shared key of E – for Edward.
Leslie: What fascinates you about C19th literature and culture? What have been the most interesting hidden histories that you and others have uncovered?
Sara: I’m fascinated by the variousness of the Victorian. It’s such a long, winding, rich river to trawl: with all manner of unexpected, colourful and odd fish. When investigating Lear, I was thrilled to discover letters and pictures in private collections that had never been published before: a whole heap in a garage in Wales, among other places. Now, I’m writing a book about Victorian female detectives, in myth and reality. And that has also led me to uncover lots of surprising lives.
Leslie: How far are the Victorians part of the ecological, climate and equity problems we have today. and how far have we misinterpreted their legacy?
Sara: The Victorians were absolutely part of an environmental crisis rooted, as ours is, in gross inequality and corporate greed. Lear left Britain to live in Italy partly because he was asthmatic and couldn’t breathe the London air, with smog the colour of chocolate. He saw and bemoaned beautiful landscapes being built over by insensitive, profiteering developers. He didn’t face the kind of existential crisis that climate change poses now. But Victorians did imagine, via science fiction, what might happen. Richard Jefferies, for example, in After London (1885) considers how humanity might survive after a cataclysmic event such as apocalyptic flooding. In his vision, the factories of industrial society have been swept away, to be replaced by an agrarian society where humans live closer to the land and its wild creatures. Here’s hoping!
Next week I interview Smith Barry Berry about environmental action in Cameroon.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.
- Ways to be Equally Human tells the inside story of coming out as a non-binary person, from being ‘othered’ in gendered toilets to stepping up on stage & radio and taking action with Extinction Rebellion. Full of lyrical writing, humour and quirky insights, this is a book for lovers of language, nonconformists and passionate thinkers. Due out Jan 2024. Preorder your copy here.