Items of Interest

James Williams on Michael Montgomery’s review of “Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry”

I am grateful to Michael Montgomery for giving my and Matthew Bevis’s book Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry a notice on the website of the Edward Lear Society. There are many points in his review with which I disagree, but principled disagreements are a natural part of literary scholarship.

Mr Montgomery is evidently frustrated that many critics have not found his arguments for a straightforwardly heterosexual Lear to be persuasive. He writes that “Vivien Noakes first hinted at [Lear’s homosexuality] in The Life of a Wanderer, but then retracted it in later editions and in his 1995 biography Peter Levi finally put it conclusively to rest. It is high time that academia did likewise.” This is not quite true: Noakes considerably toned down the references to homosexuality in the 2004 revision of her biography, in the wake of sensational treatments of the subject by e.g. Susan Chitty, but she did not simply “retract” them (compare p. 221 in the 1968 Life of a Wanderer with p. 189 in the 2004); and Peter Levi adds no new evidence that would have persuaded anyone not already of his opinion. Indeed, if the issue were “finally … conclusively” put to rest in 1995, one wonders why Mr Montgomery saw the need to write his own book on the subject over a decade later.

One point on which Mr Montgomery and I are in complete agreement—and what prompts me to offer this brief reply—is that the price of the hardback puts it out of the reach of many Learophiles. I am happy to report that a paperback edition, priced much more modestly at £27.99, is forthcoming in April (a rare accolade for an essay collection published by an academic press). “Academia”, whatever its faults, is quite good at tolerating variety of informed opinion on complicated issues, and I hope that the appearance of the paperback Play of Poetry will make it easier for members of the Society with an open-minded interest in this question to read Peter Swaab’s exemplary, judicious essay and come to their own conclusions.

James Williams
University of York