Edward Lear’s First Impressions of Malta (an unpublished letter)

[This previously unpublished letter to his elder sister Ann tells of Edward Lear’s leaving Italy because of the 1848 insurrections; he was on his way to Corfu, where he had been invited by G.F. Bowen. It also contains Lear’s first impressions of Malta and, as it is not used by John Varriano in his recent book, may serve to complete the picture of Lear’s attitude to an island he was never able to like.

I transcribe the letter from the surviving typescript, so the caricature of the Maltese poodle below was traced from Lear’s original.]

Dumford’s Hotel, Valletta, Malta

April 9th., 1848.

My Dear Ann,

You see by my beginning so high on the paper that I prepare to write you a rather longer letter than of late you have had. I am sure I hope you will not have been uneasy about me ― though the complete stoppage of all posts through Lombardy makes me rather apt to suppose you have not received my last 2 letters. I wrote from Rome, on the 18th. & 28th. of last month, & more than that I could not do. However, I trust you will get this, & learn that I am quite safe & sound & meanwhile I will tell you all I can of my doings since the 28th., & of my journey hither, ― & also of this place itself. Please be so kind as to keep these letters I now write, as they may be useful in after journalising; do not forget to tell me of the dates of all you receive; above all, never fret in the least at not hearing from me, as the last occurrences will have only convinced you how possible it is I should be perfectly well, & yet that you should not hear a word from me for ever so long ― through the stoppage of letters by unexpected events. I was truly glad to leave Rome at the last; every time poor old Giovanina came in to the room she said she was bringing this, or doing that, for the last time, & went out in tears; poor old lady ― she is a kind hearted creature & very sorry to loose [sic] me ― which after 10 years is not wonderful. On the Friday morning (march 31st.) I left very early ― & such a sobbing & crying never was! ― I sold her all my furniture at a mere nominal price, as she had been so good a landlady & did not like to take much money from her. My journey down to Naples by diligence was most extremely pleasant, ― though naturally most unlike any previous one I had ever made. It would be quite impossible to make you understand how a few short months have changed all things & persons in Italy ― for indeed I can hardly believe what passes before my own eyes. Restraint & espionage has given universal place to open speaking & triumphant liberal opinions. One of my fellow passengers was a Neapolitan noble, exiled for 16 years; when he saw Vesuvius first, he sobbed so that I thought he would break his heart. Naples, I found yet more unsettled & excited than I had left Rome. No one could tell what would happen from one hour to the next. The King still reigns, but I cannot think he will long do so. All the English were running away & the resident bankers etc. etc. frightfully harassed & uneasy as to the future. As usual, I found numbers of friends at Naples & had 11 dinner invitations for the 6 days I was o stay. Lord Minto[,] the Miss Tullons, Lord Napier, Lady Carmichael, Baring, Horton, Iggulden, Webbs, Roscoes ^[etc. etc.] The English fleet being there made a deal of gaiety. I was ready to leave by the French steamer on the 5th ― but it did not appear, ― & on the 6th only it came in sight, having been detained by bad weather. We left the harbour at noon on the 6th. & truly glad was I to be out of Italy ― I assure you ― not from any fear of danger, but because the whole tone of the place is worry, worry, worry ― & I am sick of it, having lived in it so long in quieter times. On board we had the Webbs, Ramsays, Sykes etc. etc. ― the Maronite Bishop of Laodicea, 2 of the late Neapolitan ministers, who, secluded for 2 weeks in one of our ships were smuggled on board ― flying for life to Malta etc. etc. The first day was truly delightful, & we were so merry a party that all things were charming ― but in the night an ugly breeze got up, & although we were off Stromboli by 5 a.m. on the 7th, yet we were all day long ― 14 hours namely accomplishing 12 miles ― & only got to Messina by twilight. The sea was very rough, & I confess to being most miserable. However I kept mostly in bed, where also passed all the night of Friday, & all Sat. the 8th on the evening of which we at last reached Malta. It is very unusual to have such bad weather at this time of the year, & you may suppose I was ill enough all the way ― & most heartily glad to land. And now I must tell you something of this place. First ― I have found (as usual) a multitude of friends; having letters to some, & discovering ancient acquaintances in others; so that, as it were, half Malta rushed to receive me with open arms. There is the good ^[natured] Lady Duncan & Mr. & Mrs. Webb who are in the same hotel ― & Col. Sykes & Col. Lockyer, & Mr. Bouchier ―whose family are particularly good natured. Yesterday I went to church twice ― & was much pleased with both the building & the service. You know Queen Adelaide built the church ― & it is a large & handsome one; the bishop resides here ― but his sister is ill, & he was not officiating. Malta itself, is an island all over rock & sand & a little soil, & crammed in every crevice with people & houses. Valetta [sic] is the city ― but somehow one never thinks of any other name than Malta. Such a strange place as Valetta I certainly never did see ― & as a town it is perhaps as beautiful as any existing. The houses all look as if built yesterday ― of a beautiful cream coloured stone, with green or white or painted balconies stuck about in every possible corner. The streets have all capital trottoirs, & there is no dirt to be seen. But the odd part of the character of the place is the mixture of nations; you see all the soldiers English ― English officers driving etc. etc. ― English policemen just as in Cheapside ― but all the bulk of the people are queer, bare footed Maltese ― mingled with blanketed, black faced Africans[,] turbaned Turks, Greeks etc. etc. etc. ― & the bable [sic] of tongues! Most however understand English, though they jabber Maltese which no one but themselves knows anything of. All round the town & two harbours the lines of fortifications are most surprising ― you walk in labyrinths, & when you have got outside, it begins all over & over & over again. ― Zig zag ― zig zag ― up stairs & down stairs ― sharp corners & half moons, moats, drawbridges, bastions & towers till you feel as if built up in Valetta for life. As for the country, there is none; stone walls & stone houses & stone terraces for miles, & villages as far as you can see ― so that you may say that all Malta is a great heap of stone in the Mediterranean with a little ground here & there for cultivation. Food ― pretty cheap fruit abounds. Oranges you know are famous here, & there is good fruit called Japan Medlar which I never before tasted ― Fish not much ― Goats numerous & fine ― milk excellent ― Cows live in cellars. About 18 or 12 trees on all the island I should think [―] yet the varying outline of the angles of forts contrasted with the vast harbours spotted with craft, ― the busy quays, ― & the long lines of public buildings make many an interesting picture. It is impossible to tell you how kind the people are to me; every day I have at least one invitation to dinner, & for some days ― 3 & 4.

April, 12th., Wed.

You see I snatch a bit of every day to fill up this sheet, & indeed ^[it] is no easy matter to find time, though I get up at 5 or 6. Yesterday, I went over early to Sheina, & sketched & walked about till 12 when I had to return here to arrange for money matters. After that, I had several calls to make ― & I drew, & walked round the ramparts till it was time to dress for dinner at the 97th. mess officers ―, a very large & fine dinner. Then came the opera, & a ball at the General’s, ― so I did not get to bed till 2. Of course I should not like this life long, ― but it is impossible not to be pleased with the continual kindness I meet with. I hope to start on Sat. the 15th. for Corfu ― & when there hope to find letters from you ― & I will answer them directly. I look to feeling quite quiet & at home there ― having some intimate friends with whom I hope to stay some time. The weather here is already tremendously hot; it is like India. I never saw such a pretty town as this; it has all the picturesqueness of southern places combined with the cleanness of England. Such beautiful goats are all about the quays & streets; ― I must try to get something Maltese for you. Here comes an invitation to dine with the Governor ―& 2 other dinners! ― which though I can’t eat, I must nevertheless reply to. I cannot read over this letter when written ― so you must excuse all blunders.

April 13th.

I must now wind up & post this today. I hope to send you a pair of lace mittens & something else truly Maltese ― some little ornament if I can find one. Perhaps you would like a Maltese poodle? ― But for fear you should not, I will not send it. I should like to send Eleanor one. They are very like hairy caterpillars to look at ― 2 feet long ― & 3 inches high about.


This morning with an old friend, Kirkpatrick, whom I unexpectedly find here, I walked to the English buying ground ― it is on the ramparts ― but is not so nicely kept as ours in Rome. The weather is most brilliant always. Yesterday the fleet came in from Naples, & no such magnificent naval spectacle did I ever see. They came close to the houses ― all the largest men of war, for the harbour is in the centre of the town. All the part of Valetta where I am reminds me of Brighton ― only it is so perfectly white & gay. But it will not do to look beyond the town ― as the “country” is too ugly. A whole crew of Arabs in blankets & scarlet turbans are just going by the window; one of them with a very long beard & leading a little blanketed boy ― might be Abraham with Isaac. I have a very nice little bedroom with a balcony ― paying 2 [] a night, which, with my breakfast is all the expense I am at. At Corfu I hope to stay with Bowen. I long to see Corfu & the mountains of Albania. The Webbs, who brought me letters in Rome, & who live over me are most kind; indeed I have too many friends, & wish I were more thankful for them. Pray name dates of all the letters you get, & write c/o G.F. Bowen Esq., University. Corfu, & believe me dear Ann,

Ever affect. yours,

Edward Lear


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3 Responses to Edward Lear’s First Impressions of Malta (an unpublished letter)

  1. Pingback: Edward Lear, Selmun Palace, Malta | A Blog of Bosh

  2. Pingback: Edward Lear in Malta | A Blog of Bosh

  3. Pingback: Edward Lear in Malta | Caroline's Garden Record

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