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PhD Student Discovers Edward Lear Manuscripts!

Drawing of a man on a bicycle and a handwritten limerick.

Image © British Library

Three previously unpublished manuscripts by Edward Lear have been discovered by PhD Student Amy Wilcockson!

Edward Lear (1812-88) was the author of "The Owl and the Pussycat" and is considered one of Britain's finest nonsense poets. The three poems were discovered within correspondance between Lear and a friend, Mary Theresa Mundella, who later gifted those letters to her niece, Dorothea Mary Roby Benson (later Lady Charnwood) where they became part of the Charnwood Autograph Collection, now held at the British Library. Lady Charnwood described Lear's letters to her Aunt as "so numerous, so deliciously funny, and in many cases so brilliantly illustrated that it is difficult to select from such riches". She published three of them and the pieces are now widely read, but further manuscripts in the Charnwood Collection have escaped notice until now.

Amy Wilcockson is a PhD Student in the School of English studying the work of Thomas Campbell (1777 - 1844), a Scottish Romantic Poet, and is also a Keats-Shelley Association Communications Fellow. Amy told us about finding the poems.

"Whilst on a research trip to gather materials for my thesis, I was perusing the British Library's Charnwood Collection. I was flicking through, searching for the folio I needed when I came across a poem, 'The Last of the Octopods'. Drawn in by the odd title, I read the poem and laughed out loud, it was humorous and nonsensical. Imagine my joy when I read the signature of the poem's author - Edward Lear, the artist and poet famous for his whimsical limericks and poems, including 'The Owl and the Pussy-Cat'. My colleague Dr Ed Downey was working alongside me in the BL, and I called him over to take a look at the poem. After a hasty online search, we realised we could have something special on our hands - particularly as further perusal of the collection revealed another unpublished Lear poem and letter!

We published 'Last of the Octopods' initially in March 2020's Notes and Queries, and now have all three of these previously unpublished Lear finds published together for the first time in the TLS. I think this is a really major find for nineteenth century literary studies, and also for a wider audience too - who can say they haven't read 'The Owl and the Pussy-Cat' as a child?"

 Amy, along with a colleague Dr Ed Downey, wrote about the discoveries for the Times Literary Supplement's June issue, you can read the piece here. Amy was also interviewed by the BBC about the findings, which you can read here and you can find out more about Amy and the discovery here.

Posted on Monday 5th July 2021

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