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«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»

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From straight parody, to parody utilizing nonsense devices, and finally to the genre of literary nonsense, Lear and Carroll demonstrate the often problematic confluence of parody and nonsense. While ultimately nonsense as genre does not parody its models, it does come quite close, not so much to the standard OED definition, but more to the expanded use of parody found in critics such as Hutcheon, Bex, and Phiddian. If nonsense is a parody of anything, it is parody in a much broader sense, reaching far beyond its anterior texts. Cammaerts (p. 15) and Eliot (Tigges, p. 12) have described nonsense as a parody of sense in general, while Ann Colley has seen it as parody of the "metaphoric impulse" (pp. 294-95), deconstructing the very basis of this most vital tool of sense-making. Literary nonsense marks one of the many divergent progressions away from the simple ridicule of parodic imitation. By abstaining from the critical and ironic, even in the face of its "parodic impulse," it presents an alternative relationship between source and referential text. In the end, nonsense cannot, and does not wish, to separate itself completely from its source; instead, it uses that source as an additional point of tension, contributing to the endless play of nonsense.

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A n illustration in Mamma 's Pictures, or The History of Fanny and Mary (ca. 1818), shows a girl and a boy at the dinner-table with their mother. The girl seems to have put her

fork down, and her complaint is described in the caption:

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Below the caption an indignant reader, in adult handwriting, has written, "What a set of noodles!" expressing an impatience with this typically fatuous illustration from an early A Moral Alphabet, in Cautionary Verses: The Collected Humorous Poems of H. Belloc 1 o7Hilaire Belloc, (London: Duckworth, 1 39) children's book.108 In this rare occurrence of reader feedback, we glimpse the impatience which many parents and children alike must have fel t at yet another children's volume displaying the old motifs in dreary engravings. The booming children's book market of the early-nineteenth century, dominated by publishers like Harris and Darton, was under pressure to produce more inexpensive books, which often meant choosing speed and cheapness over quality, in both text and illustration. The result, as the reader of Mamma's Pictures implies, was often less than inspiring--even humorous in a way unintended by the publisher. This type of illustration, and those far more crude from the previous fifty years or so, were reprinted frequently into the 1840s. l09 A young artist with an eye and hand to match any of his day, Edward Lear also probably had little patience for such illustrations.

When we compare illustrations like this to Lear's nonsense drawings, which he began in the early 1830s, we begin to see how Lear's were drastically different from his dour predecessors, yet at the same time not entirely unrelated. His characters seem to leap off the page, whether in joy or rage, drawn with great economy of line and, as Belloc was later to write about his own illustrations, more "verve" than attention to the conventions of realism. Lear kept his interest in realism to his serious painting, which was his livelihood.

Breaking all rules of perspective, ignoring all but the essential details, he began a popular trend in children's book illustration, sometimes called "na"ive, " which has survived since then and can still be seen in the illustrations of James Thurber (though not for children) and Shel Silverstein. Kirby Olson, who explores Lear's relationship with formal art, comments on his contribution to comic art: "Lear combined his love of DUrer's straight line with some aspects of the picturesque to create a hybrid form which immediately swept England and its colonies.... [His] was a founding act of genius.... "110 While Olson and others have discussed Lear's nonsense drawings in relation to formal art trends of the early-nineteenth century, few have looked at their relationship with what they resemble far 108Broome, Charlotte Ann, Mamma's Pictures, or The History o/Fanny and Mary (London: Darton, Harvey, and Darton, rca 1818], in Early Children's Books and Their Illustration (New York, London: The Pierpont Morgan Library, OUP, 1975), p. 76.

1 09Joyce Irene Whalley and Tessa Rose Chester, A History 0/ Children's Book Illustration (London: John Murray with the Victoria & Albert Museum, 1988), p. 5-1-.

11 0Kirby Olson, "Edward Lear: Deleu~an Landscape Painter," Victorian r:oetry, 31.~ (1993), 347-62 (p..

357). Lear was familiar with many artIsts, both famous and obscure, as his many references to them 1I1 his travel jOlrrnals demonstrates.

more: the more "lowly" art of children's book illustration. 1 II Critics have also usuallv separated Lear's illustrations from the mainstream in his day, claiming that his drawings had "sprung from whims"112 which developed outside the industry, but I would argue that Lear's illustrations are better understood by looking at their relationship with the industry.

While his originality cannot be denied, his technique and the effects he achieved emerged partly from both the old, rough woodcuts as well as a reaction to the newer, more "artistic" children's book illustrations.

Children's book illustration of the early-nineteenth century was often not far removed from the first woodcuts used commonly for children's books from the mideighteenth century. I 13 Of course, children have always enjoyed book illustrations, and for much of the eighteenth century they often had access to illustrations in "adult" books which they appropriated. From as early as Caxton's Aesop (1484) and various fifteenth-century bestiaries, to the fairy tales of Perrault, which reached England around 1729, children have had to get illustrations where they could find them. Children were particularly drawn to The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Gulliver's Travels (1726), all of which came out in illustrated (and altered) versions in the eighteenth century. The majority of the common population, however, was rarely able to see complete, unadulterated versions of most books; instead, they took advantage of what amounted to the popular people's press, or the chapbook industry. The chapbooks, having 12, 16, or 24 pages and some rough illustration, were only able to contain drastically cut versions of these and other works, but were popular because of their cheapness and accessibility.

Aside from reduced texts, chapbooks contained a great variety of popular entertainment, from news, to cookery, to nursery rhymes. Originally aimed at adults, chapbooks were soon equally the domain of children, who could occasionally afford to buy half-penny 111 For more on Lear's fonnal art in relation to nonsense, see also Cammaerts, pp. 60-70, who discusses nonsense technique and Colley, "Edward Lear's limericks," pp. 285-299, who shows Lear's nonsense art to be the opposite of his formal art., 112William Feaver, When we were young: Two centuries of children's book illustration (London: Illames and Hudson, 1977), p. 10.

1 13 Often these woodcuts were leftovers from even earlier publications, relegated to the lowest level in publishing: chapbooks and children's books (often indistinguishable until the mid-nineteenth century).

chapbooks themselves, though chapbooks for children were not as common until the beginning of the nineteenth century.114 Illustrations accompanied books specifically for children's entertainment from their beginning in the first half of the eighteenth century, but the illustrations were used quite differently from those in adult publications. Because early children's books and chapbooks were expected to be cheap in all ways, they were produced with little regard for the illustrations. Copperplate engraving, the more costly method of production popular in adult books, was rarely used in the children's market, though it became popular briefly in the beginning of the nineteenth century, most notably in Roscoe's The Butterfly'S Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast which had engravings after Mulready. Copperplate engraving produced a far higher quality illustration than woodcuts, but it was too expensive and also not well-suited for children's books, as it could not simultaneously be printed with text.

To cut on expenses, therefore, antiquated woodcuts, often twenty years old or more, were frequently used. 115 Furthermore, these illustrations often had little or no connection with the text. In The Christian Alphabet, or, Good Child's First Book (no date, but probably early-nineteenth century), for example, we find the carelessness so common in the treatment of illustrations. The text, which also appears in other chapbooks, is illustrated by woodcuts for the earlier alphabet, A was an archer. 116 In this case, the result is complete

disparity between text and picture. For the letter "H" we find the following:

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The rough woodcut, inappropriate and unrelated to the text, is of a huntsman on horse, a hound at their feet running in a chase. Such disparity between verse and illustration was not so uncommon. This type of woodcut, surviving from the eighteenth century, would be 114Whalley and Chester, p. 94..

115Percy Muir, Victorian Illustrated Books (London: BT. Batsford, 1971, rensed 1985), p. 20..

116 A was an archer (Derby: Henry Mozley and Sons, [n.d., not before 1815]). Thi~ alphabet, sometImes called 'Tom Thumb's Alphabet," can be traced back to the reign of Queen Anne (Ople, p. 49). Chapbooks were rarely dated. I therefore use the cataloguer's best guess when available.

1 17 The Christian Alphabet, or. Good Child's First Book (London: Ryle and Co., [n.d.]).

used throughout most of the first half of the nineteenth century in various children's publications.

Around twenty years after Newbery began the successful mass production of children's books, the art of illustration began to develop from the crude, general-purpose woodcuts. Newbery's The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes Otherwise called, Mrs.

Margery Two-Shoes (3rd edition, 1766, commonly attributed to Goldsmith) represented a progressive step in illustration. Its illustrations were made exclusively for it and worked with the text, an almost unheard-of practice at the time. I18 Shortly after this volume appeared, the young Thomas Bewick entered the trade. Beginning in the 1770s with works like A New Invented Hornbook (1770) and The New Lottery Book of Birds and Beasts, for children to learn their letters by as soon as they can speak (1771), Bewick quietly revolutionized children's book illustration. During his career he perfected the technique of "white-line" wood engraving which allowed for greater depth and detail, even in the small spaces allotted in children's publications. 119 In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, copper was often replaced by steel in engraving, but Bewick's methods ensured that wood engraving eclipsed both kinds of metal. Bewick not only showed great care and artistry in his work, but also gave a greater digni ty to the profession. 120 Indeed, by the end of his career his methods were widespread, as can be seen, for instance, in Children's Tales or Infant Prattle (1818), a small volume which contains anonymous illustrations full of detail and artistic attention. He also trained many apprentices who would carry his tradition through much of the nineteenth century. Eaton remarks that Bewick's illustrations demonstrate "truth to nature, and humor; a sense of beauty, a love of detail and skill in using it. "121 As we shall see, many of these "innovations" would be willfully undermined in Lear's illustrations.

118Anne Thaxter Eaton, "lllustrated Books for Children Before 1800" in Illustrators o/Children 's Books:

1744-1945, compiled by Bertha E. Mahony and others (Boston: The Hom Book, 1947, repr. 1%1), pp. 5p. 15).

lI9For brief descriptions of Bewick's career, see Eaton, p. 16-18 and Whalley and Chester, pp. 27-29.

120Whalley and Chester, p. 28. Because.of Bewick, nineteenth-ce~tury children' s ~k illustrato~ would achieve unprecedented distinction. Only III the second half of the nmeteenth century did Illustrators commonly sign their names to their work. Around 1850 il~ustration began to dominate the children's market, and illustrators often became more famous than wnters.

121 Eaton, p. 18.

While the children's book industry was providing progressively higher quality and more realistic illustrations, Lear, among a few others, chose a different artistic direction.

By the 1830s children's illustrations were considerably better than those of thirty years before, but at this point the children's book market became somewhat stagnant. Production was higher than ever, but little new material appeared. The rich detail and improving overall quality of the earlier two decades, along with more expensive metal engraving, ga\'e way again to the cheaper wood engraving and woodcuts. Many of the older works were reprinted, often with the original woodcuts which had worn their way down to the bottom of the market, in children's books. 122 Such aging illustrations had other ramifications, as Whalley points out: "Many of the reprints were issued with the original illustrations, which must have seemed very archaic to the child, since fashions, especially in clothes, had changed considerably" (p. 54). The antiquated illustrations, used because of the publishers' conservatism, cheapness, or sheer laziness, were thus noticeable whether for their outdated fashions or for the outmoded fashion of the illustration's style. Children's libraries of the 1830s stocked both the Bewickian examples of improved wood engraving alongside some of the older examples of ornate metal engraving, but most illustrations were dictated by thrift rather than quality. It was during this period of creative stagnation that Edward Lear drew his "nonsenses" for the children at Knowsley Estate.

Lear's Book of Nonsense was a throwback to an earlier time, to the older woodcuts before Bewick and the arrival and awareness of artistic conventions in children's literature.

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