I read Angus Davidson’s biography of Edward Lear and Andre Maurois’ biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley was of course a poet, and Lear an artist and a writer of nonsense verse. Quite different. But what they had in common is that they were both, in very distinct ways, eccentric Englishmen.
They were both odd kids, preferring seclusion to companionship and living a life based on fantasy. Shelley was the extravert, and Lear the intravert. Shelley rebelled against his family; Lear was too shy to do so. Shelley railed against marriage, and kept getting married. Lear thought family life very important, but never married (was he gay? probably but in those days that would not have stood in the way of a marriage, it appears). Lear’s family lost its money; Shelley was cut off by his father.
Neither liked life in England very much, and spent time traveling (when traveling was hard) and living in Europe. Each was associated with another writer – Shelley was friends with Lord Byron (Shelley’s sister-in-law seduced Lord Byron, or was it vice-versa, although Byron ran away from active parenting). Lear was friends with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. And of course one of Shelley’s wives wrote “Frankenstein”.
Shelley died at a very young age – his small boat capsized at a summer outing. Lear, never in good health, lived to be 76, but was in pain and ill much of the time, although it did not seem to hinder his travels.
I am not a poetry fan, so I can’t appreciate Shelley’s poetry, and Lear’s nonsense poems and stories are a bit over the top for me. Lear also created cartoons to illustrate his stories, but they seem rather amateurish. What I did not know was that Lear’s nonsense, created to amuse his friends’ children, was never in his mind to become the success that it became (and it was very successful, at least until Lewis Carroll happened along). But he was also a painter, and an extraordinarily good draughtsman, whose first job was making detailed drawings of animals, and who used his travels largely to sketch (and published a number of travel books). He was a water colorist, and also painted in oils, although it was the water colors that showed the most talent. The oils was to make money (which he had a hard time doing); Shelley eventually received a monthly income that allowed him to do pretty much what he wanted.
Both were very well known to the general public, to the nobility and to the royal family. They would not have liked each other at all.
Both books are relatively easy reading (I am sure more detailed biographies have been written), and both quite enjoyable. My copies are Penguins.
One further point: Wikipedia says that Lear was an epileptic from the age of 6 on. This would explain a lot. Why doesn’t Maurois mention it?