Letters to the Caetani Family (1)

[This is part of a series of previously-unpublished letters to Margaret Knight, who was married to Michelangelo Caetani, Duke of Sermoneta, and to Ada Bootle-Wilbraham, married to Onorato Caetani, Michelangelo’s son, Prince of Teano and then Duke of Sermoneta.
The letters are in the Caetani Archive, Palazzo Caetani, via delle Botteghe Oscure 32, Roma.
An Italian version will appear as an Appendix to my essay “Prima di Gregorovius: Edward Lear, i Caetani, e Ninfa” in a forthcoming volume: Michael Matheus (ed.) Ninfa: Percezioni nella scienza, letteratura e belle arti nel XIX e all’inizio del XX secolo. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.]

Margaret Knight drawn by Franz Nadorp (on p. 55 of Isabella Knight’s commonplace book, British Museum, Prints and Drawings, 1938,0514.1.1– 41).

Villa Emily.     San Remo.
[The “Emily” is my sister Sarah’s grand-daughter ― my grand=niece.]

16. April. 1871.

Dear Duchess of Sermoneta,
Your letter of January 13 ought, I well know, to have been answered before now, but I don’t think it is worth making a lot of apologies to one who maybe saw my not writing I am sure would not attribute my non-writing to neglect. Yet I may say that ― (as people say ― of the season at Watering places,) “this has been an exceptional year” ― & I seem to have ^[had] nothing to do but to write letters, 408 of wh. I actually stamped with Italian Franco-bolli last year, ― whereby am I not a good Italian subject? (Bye the bye a German Lady or Gerwoman came into the Tobacconist’s where I buy mine yesterday & said, “Datemi un Franco bollito e subito!” ―) Then, the constant going to & fro from S. Remo lodgings to my new house here, & 3dly my waiting for a book I want to send to Charley[2] ―― all this, added to hard work in painting to keep my head above water, ― makes a sufficient bunch of apology, even if you needed any. (And I have left out the move up into & “fixing” in my new house.)
Charles wrote me a letter, dated January 2, which was a great pleasure to me: ― I had no idea till I received it how terribly ill he still was. And now I want you kindly to write & tell me if he is still at Geneva, & also his exact address ― for, bless the boy, he hasn’t put it in his letter at all. The copy of my “Nonsense Prose, poetry, & Alphabets”[3] has only just come out, & I want his children to have it. But I do not feel sure that he is still at Geneva; nor, if I learn he is, am I at all sure of how I can send it. I wish I could send you a copy, but I have none, nor does the book bring me any profit, so that I should have copies of my own ― for although it has gone to a sale of 3000 in 3 months, & has been reviewed in all sorts of ways, the expense of getting it up, woodcuts &c., swallows all the profit, & I am lucky in not having any debt over & above. (One reviewer calls me, “a pure benefactor of the human race,” another says ― “for true fun, Mr. Lear stands at the summit of humanity.” ― (Appropriate proverb, ― “fine words butter no parsnips.”) ― Will you, if you write to Charley, say that I have not answered his letter for these 2 reasons; first, it contained no address & I had lost or mislaid that you gave me: 2dly I waited for the book. And give my kind regards to him & Mrs. Charles. I will write to him, directly I hear from you. ― Another old Roman friend I see is gone: Mrs. Caldwell. I believe you & Isabella liked her ― & possibly she was a kind-hearted person: but she always seemed cold & antipatica to me. I pity poor Col. Caldwell: & after all, I could hardly judge much of Mrs. C., & moreover was always a crotchety cross-grained brute myself, so I don’t see why she should have been pleasant to me if she could have avoided being so. I suppose they are very Papaline: but I cannot fancy your not seeing much of them if they are still there, for they were always fond of you all, & particularly of Miss Isabella, whose death even now I cannot thoroughly realize, ― so vivid an impression did her character leave on the minds of those who knew her. When I begin to write to you, so much “crops up” as to memory (to use a geological expression,) that I go on without stopping, & possibly leave out all I most want to say. I should like to see you & Don Michele again. His exertions ― at his age, & afflicted as he is, will endear his memory to Italians: I suppose his ^[general] health generally is pretty good, or he could not do so much. I am sorry to know from your letter that your own health is always so comfortless. It has however this bright side, that such constitutions live frequently to gt. old age ― which if you do, it will be all the better for those who are around you, ― always ^[supposing] if you suffer less rather than more in years to come. I should like to know where Mme Kanitz is ― wh. was Miss Helen.[4] It’s odious to think how lonely & scattered the friends of earlier days become ―: you, I think are among the happiest, ― having so many you care for. I hope Charley’s children will be a comfort to him. As for me I am like a Pelican in the wilderness or an Owl in the desert,[5] ― or, as I really once heard a Devonshire parish clerk say, ― “I am become as a Pilgrim in the wilderness, with Oil for his Dessert.” ―― Have you met with a Mr. Montrith at Rome? He came to me here from Professor Lushington, & is a friend of many of mine, A. Tennyson &c. &c. But he is pro=papal to an indefinite amount, so tho’ well known in certain circles in Rome, you may know him not after all. I cannot but hope that all this downfall of French power will work well for Italy in the long run. And anyhow, even their enemies must (or should) allow that the Italians have acted well & wisely throughout this wretched year, or half year past. I am much more sensible than I was, of the difficulties of Italo=Roman politics, & confess that I rushed in where angels &c. I have left little space for myself or my doings ― the less the better. I have moved into my new house, wh. is beautiful to behold, & really well built, though large for what I want, ― but I had to think of what would sell if I couldn’t manage to live in it. My painting room is perfect & I suppose unique, & painting is really fun in it, so good the light ― so large the space. Besides doing a painting of Corfù for Lord Derby, & one smaller for Lushington, I am at work on one of the Campagna from Cervara, & am daily carried away to those places; ― on the hill sides I make the Villas of Poli ― the heights of Guadagnolo, the slopes & incidents of Tivoli; ― on the plain, the towers by the Anio, Lunghezza &c. &c. I must really try & do a small work on the Campagna before I exit ― for none living or dead have collected such material. I am also going on with 112 (!!!) illustrations of A. Tennyson’s poems ― all landscapes descriptive & poetical. So you see at nearly 59 I have a deal of energy if not of common sense, left me.
Meanwhile, the old servant who has come with me going on 16 years makes me very decently comfortable, & as yet I have not begun to eat the mice & snails. Later I trust to get somewhere southward in Italy ― but all is more or less uncertain. Please give my best remembrances to the Duke, ― and hoping to hear from you very soon with Charley’s address, ― believe me,

Dear Duchess of Sermoneta,
Your’s sincerely,
Edward Lear.

One would like to live in Rome if the climate weren’t so beastly. Yes I say, Beastly: for it is so. Here, except 2 months bad weather, we have been always fine.

Michelangelo Caetani, Duke of Sermoneta, Margaret’s husband from 1854.


[1] In a different handwriting, probably by Margaret Knight.
[2] Charles Knight, brother of Margaret. He travelled with Lear in the Abruzzi in 1842.
[3] Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets, 1871.
[4] The youngest of the Knight sisters, who in 1860 had married Karl Friederich Ernst von Canitz und Dallwitz, Prussian envoy in Naples.
[5] Psalm 102.6: “I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert” (KJV).

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