Discovery of Edward Lear manuscripts explored

Hand writing in note pad in the sun

Examining how previously unpublished manuscripts by famous nonsense poet, Edward Lear, were discovered in the British Library.

In summer 2019 I was lucky enough to be on a research trip in the British Library.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Doctoral Training Partnership, Midlands4Cities, I travelled to London to access manuscripts for my thesis. An edition of the letters of the overlooked Scottish romantic poet, Thomas Campbell.

Exciting findings

After producing a letter of permission, I was allowed to turn the hefty pages of the four-volume Charnwood collection. The collection contains a multitude of letters from literary figures including:

  • Jane Austen
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • William Wordsworth.

I was aware that I was holding a volume that is key to literary history in my hands.

Whilst searching for one of Campbell’s letters, I came across a page filled top to bottom with looped handwriting. It had a particularly intriguing title: ‘Lays of the Octopods’. Reading on, I was enthralled by the hilarious mentions of:

  • ‘curried owls’
  • elephants with ducks strapped to their backs
  • intriguing creatures called Pofflikopps.

Turning the page to keep reading the poem, I caught sight of the signature written at the bottom of this piece, Edward Lear.

As a Lear fan who grew up reading his famous nonsense verse, such as the whimsical ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, I was absolutely astounded to see this manuscript in front of me.

A search of the catalogue attributed this piece to the addressee, Mary Theresa Mundella. Mundella was the daughter of a Liberal politician named Anthony Mundella whom Lear had met whilst holidaying in Italy. After doing some research on the internet, I became convinced that this poem was something special: an unpublished verse by Edward Lear.

Publication

Further research uncovered that the ‘Lays of the Octopods’ was in fact a lost poem by Lear, which was mentioned in his diary, but never located until now. In one of his diaries, currently held in Harvard’s Houghton Library, Lear wrote that he:

Came to [his] room and wrote out ‘Last of the Octopods’ for M. Mundella. But [he] became very unwell and slept.

My colleague, Dr Edmund Downey, who was also working in the British Library at the time, was as amazed at this find as I was. Together we searched the rest of the volume for further pieces by Lear. We also discovered:

  • a shorter limerick, ‘There was an Old Man on a Bicycle’
  • a letter by Lear containing a new self-caricature of the poet that had never been published before.

My intention after finding these pieces was to share them with the wider world, as Lear is such a significant and exciting figure whose work resonates with many people. Dr Downey and I were thrilled when all three pieces were finally published in June 2021 in the Times Literary Supplement.

Media attention

To my excitement, the story garnered a lot of attention. After the University of Nottingham Press Office shared the story this discovery was reported on by:

  • BBC News Online
  • Daily Mail
  • Daily Express
  • The Times
  • Metro.

I was also thrilled to be invited to speak on numerous radio programmes including:

  • BBC Radio 2
  • BBC Radio 4
  • BBC Radio Nottingham
  • BBC Radio Ulster
  • with Mariella Frostrup on Times Radio.

The highlight was being interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Video credit: University of Nottingham
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript is available on YouTube.

I was particularly delighted that this discovery interested so many of the general public. I had people approach me in my local shop to discuss Edward Lear. And friends messaging to say their parents had heard me on the radio and were thrilled as they enjoyed Lear’s nonsense when they were children.

This was perhaps my favourite part of this whole experience, as I saw first-hand how the arts excites people and brings us together, as well as in Lear’s case, making us laugh.

I hope that in the future more wonderful discoveries will be made in this way, as a result of curiosity and passion for the arts.

I would like to thank Midlands4Cities and AHRC for their support in my current and ongoing research.

Top image: Credit: bingokid/GettyImages

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