For some reason we were drawn to choose quite a new spot for our villegglatura in the summer of 1870, a retreat in the Maritime Alps, of which till then I had seen very little. I think the train took us as far as Cour Mayeur, and from there we journeyed by carriage to the Certosa di Pesio, a huge monastery in the most lonely part of the hills, which had been converted into a summer hotel. The road ascended all the way through an almost unbroken forest of chestnut trees, their cool, deep verdure striking very pleasantly on the senses after the two days of hot, dusty railway travelling. Towards evening we skirted a torrent, rushing far below us, and finally crossed it by an ancient stone bridge to drive under the archway of the Certosa itself, a huge gray building with vast cloisters surrounding flowery courtyards. The bedrooms, wonderfully large and airy, all opened out of these cloisters, and of course the general dining-room was the former refectory. It was a particularly cheerful apartment, and when I came in to the midday breakfast on the day after our arrival, I was dazzled by the floods of light and rather confused by the noise of sixty or seventy persons talking the ear splitting Lombard dialect in the shrill Lombard voice. The language had no relation to any Italian I had ever heard, and carried as many “ngs” and “oüs” as Portuguese, together with sibilant “c’s” and “s’s” that emulated what foreigners call the hiss of English. Nothing gives me the blues like finding myself among people who speak a tongue I do not understand, and I slipped into my place beside my mother in deep dejection, which must have shown itself in my face, for when I looked up to take stock of our neighbours I became aware that a dear old gentleman on the opposite side of the long narrow table was regarding me with benevolent if amused pity. He had a long white beard and very bright eyes that seemed to be watching a pleasant comedy all the time. After a few minutes he found occasion to offer me some small table d’hôte civility, remarking at the same time, “It is rather confusing at first, but you will soon get accustomed to it!”
I never knew how musical an English voice could sound, till that moment. Before the meal was over we were the best of friends, and my new acquaintance, remarking that my small sister Daisy, who sat beside me, was in trouble with her big knife and fork, produced a bit of paper and a pencil, and a few seconds later pushed across to her a delightfully funny drawing with one of Edward Lear’s immortal nonsense rhymes written below! That moment betrayed him to us. We knew all the “First Nonsense Book” by heart already, and that summer saw almost all that went to make the “Second Nonsense Book” written and illustrated for my fortunate little sister. Never was there a man who could so live into the feelings of a child. Daisy was a turbulent little creature, always getting into trouble of some kind, and from that first day she learnt to take her disasters to “Uncle Lear,” as he taught her to call him, to have them turned into joys by his rhymes and pictures. A frightful bump on her forehead was the origin of the “Uncareful Cow” who got a similar one and was horrified to find It growing into a third horn which had to be rubbed away with camphor. The strange meats and unmanageable cutlery of the table d’hôte inspired the marvellous botanical specimen, “Manyforkia Spoonfolla” as well as most of the recipes for “Nonsense Cookery.” But Uncle Lear did not always wait to be asked for his rhymes. Day after day Daisy would find on her plate some enchanting, highly coloured sketch with an appropriate poem. We all felt enriched when “The owl and the pussy cat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat,” and the mystery of the disappearance of “The Jumblles,” who “Never came back to me!” had an alluring gloom even for us grown ups.
All through that summer, which grew sadder and sadder as the storm of war broke over France and crept down across the Alps to prepare the Roman tragedy, dear Mr. Lear was an unfailing source of comfort and cheer to us all. He was one of the few Englishmen not spoilt by almost life-long residence in Italy, one who gave the lie to the Italian proverb, “un Inglese italianato è il Diavolo incarnato.” And he knew his part of the world well, having travelled far enough from his home in San Remo to paint many delightful pictures of other places with pen and pencil. His big book on Corsica which he sent me later, was one of my most treasured possessions. For all his bubbling love of fun he had a fine sense of the stern and dramatic, and I have seldom seen anything grimmer than his picture of a Corsican funeral — the stark corpse in everyday clothes tied in an upright sitting posture to a kind of gibbet strapped to the saddle of a mountain pony, the animal shivering with fright as it was led by two men over the tumbled rocks and boulders of a pass so steep that they could hardly keep their footing, down to where it was possible to dig a grave and bring a priest to bless it.
But it was not for his serious work that we and the world loved Mr. Lear, not by that will he be remembered, but by the inexhaustible sweetness and spontaneousness of his fun, the blessed innocent delight which he brought into thousands of lives. One day he said to me confidentially, “My dear child, I’m sure we shall be allowed to laugh in Heaven!” He came to see us in Rome in succeeding years and grew to be so much our own that after his death I sometimes fancied his spirit crept in among us and added a note of gentle, ghostly mirth to our little gatherings. He had had heavy private sorrows, but they were never allowed to cloud the sunshine he so generously shed upon all who came near him.
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On Lear and Nonsense
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- How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear (1932)
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- G. Orwell, Nonsense Poetry (1945)
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