Throughout researching Victorian Culture this week, I have been thrilled when links and connections between varying material present themselves. to exemplify, I was reading about the Victorians’ curiosity and fascination with the “strange”, and the way in which this materialised into the phenomenon of circuses. Exotic animals were shipped from faraway colonised countries such as India, into the bustling docks of London and Liverpool. From there they were bought by dealers such as Charles Jamrach, a leading wildlife dealer in the 19th century, and sold to circuses, artists, and aristocrats who owned menageries. The link here is that Mr. Jamrach provided birds and animals for Sir Edwin Henry Landseer to paint, an artist I have become well familiarised with due to the extent of which his art features in many Victorian books and periodicals.
Rossetti, founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, owned a menagerie, from which his favourite animal was an Australian wombat. Surrounding this area, I also discovered how the Earl of Derby, between 1806 and 1851, developed an impressive menagerie in his home at Knowsley Hall. This information caught my eye with Knowsley being only six miles from Liverpool. As I had guessed, the Earl’s menagerie is what inspired and led to Knowsley Safari Park opening in 1971. I visited the park with my family many years ago and a monkey pulled the window-wipers off my uncle’s car.
Recalling this memory is what sparked my idea for the next part of the blog. Reminiscing of sitting in the backseat of the car at the safari, prompted another memory of being sat in the car as a child, but this time with a purple book on my lap. The book was a collection of bedtime poems, all entirely bizarre and eccentric. It was from this book that I first heard the tales of The Owl and the Pussycat and The Walrus and the Carpenter. It is only now that I am realising who the creators of these funny rhymes are: Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.
Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll are, among many other cultural and artistic things, 19th century children’s writers. They are both famous for popularising the genre of “literary nonsense”, although it had been channelled before in nursery rhymes such as Hey Diddle Diddle. It is understood however, that literary nonsense became an officially recognized genre due to Lear’s 1846 collection of limericks aptly entitled A Book of Nonsense.
To add definition to a concept so undefined in content; literary nonsense is a form of fiction that defies common sense by creating characters and scenarios that appear seemingly illogical. To use a modern word, literary nonsense is “trippy”. If you are unsure what I mean, just imagine Lewis Carroll’s most famous work Alice in Wonderland and the weird and wonderful events that occur such as The Mad Hatter’s tea party. In literary nonsense you can expect to come across an eclectic mix of objects, activity, and personalities, as well as entirely new “made-up” words that have been invented by the creators of the nonsense! Despite how erratic it sounds, there is talent and charm in this style.
The wit of literary nonsense lies in its ability to appear as nonsensical, yet it often harbours profound meanings and moralistic messages open to interpretation. This genre perfectly demonstrates how arbitrary the semantics of language can be. Through it’s humour and silliness, children’s attention is captured to then get the cogs of imagination turning and immerse them in their own personal wonderland! (grown-ups too as I have discovered since returning to all my old favourites!)
Aside from its randomness, a defining feature of literary nonsense are personified animals. To use Alice in Wonderland again, we have The White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat, March Hare, Caterpillar, and Mock Turtle. In The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, the title characters’ sail away to marry “in the land where the Bong-tree grows”. As far back as when time was measured as BC, people have used anthropomorphism as a way of communicating abstract concepts and emotional intelligence. This can be seen with Aesop’s Fables such as The Tortoise and the Hare. There has always been a special place for animals in the area of the arts.
Although fables incorporate anthropomorphised animals and humour, works of literary nonsense remain in a unique world all to themselves. This world is accessible to minds that are willing to have fun, be silly, forget the status quo, and believe in alternative times and spaces where cows jump over the moon, caterpillars smoke hookah, and newlywed owls and pussycats dance hand in hand by the light of the silvery moon.
To finish off, I thought it would be nice to feature some literary nonsense itself, in the form of Lear’s 1871 poem.
PS. To refer back to the “links” I come across, after writing this blog I read that Edward Lear was also an artist and visited Knowsley menagerie on request of the Earl, to draw the animals there. (I don’t expect you to get excited by that like I did).
Thank you for reading.