Half berserker, half babe
WILLIAM MORRIS: A Life for Our Time by Fiona MacCarthy, Faber £25
Sunday 18 December 1994
Certainly the characters in his one attempt at a fiction set in his own time, "Frank's Sealed Letter," seem to have been got up from books, next to the pulsing knights and ladies of his Arthurian poems written in the same period. Yet what Fiona MacCarthycalls Morris's "disengagement from contemporary structures" was not simple escapism, but a reflex of the same passionate "hatred of modern civilisation" that was to lead him in his fifties into radical politics. If Morris counselled the readers of his poems to "forget six counties overhung with smoke," it's because he wanted to replace that image of London with something better, and couldn't.
For all that, even his fellows in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood liked to find Morris ridiculous - and not just for the boringness of his after-dinner readings that had guests sticking pins in themselves to prevent snoring. As you would never suspect from the calm patterning of his work in all media, he had an excess of hairy energy that would spill into absurd animal antics and outlandish "rages". The latter might now be diagnosed as a symptom of Tourette's syndrome, or of a mild form of epilepsy - thedisease which was to cripple his younger daughter Jenny - but they were only mocked by his friends, the best of whom, as G B Shaw observed, seemed to regard him as "much younger and less important than he really was". Scattered through MacCarthy's text are the many cartoons of Morris made by Edward Burne-Jones and D G Rossetti - the former's just about passable as fond, the latter's certainly
cruel. Yet Morris played up to his "half Berserker, half Babe" image to keep them chortling, carrying a coal-scuttle in his teeth, and signing himself by his undergraduate nickname, "Topsy", into his old age.
Rossetti's caricatures are particularly vicious when you consider that it was he who turned Morris's private life story - now told more candidly than before - into that of the cuckold. In 1859, when Morris was 25, the wealthy and pre-cociously successfulgraduate son of a city broker, he married Jane Burden, the silent, beautiful daughter of an Oxford stablehand, who had been modelling for Rossetti - though it was plain from their courtship, which she could hardly refuse, that his enthusiasms were aliento her (imagine them "ensconced in the sitting room reading from Barnaby Rudge"). Though they had two daughters, she never developed sexual feelings or an emotional attachment towards her inexperienced husband, and aspects of his clumsy, noisy personality seem to have repelled her. Before long, "Janey" took to the sofa with what MacCarthy judges an "illness of convenience", a withdrawal from which she was woken by the sinister, melancholy, practised southern seductions of Rossetti - who made his friend's wife the prevailing icon of Pre-Raphaelite art. Janey ended the long liaison, apparently for her daughter's sake, shortly before Rossetti's death in 1881, but soon after that, she fell under the spell of the second great philanderer of Victorian letters, Wilfred Scawen Blunt. (To prolong the curse, the marriage of the Morrises' elder daughter, May, was then destroyed by the third, Shaw).
From the start, Morris was temperamentally shy about his private woes and desires; he provided little direct written evidence of any, which makes his biographer's task the subtler. While humiliations multiplied in his household he went on producing lovely wallpaper and faraway fictions full of the despair of what MacCarthy calls, in one of many acute phrases, "the difficulties men and women have in timing their approaches to each other". At the moment of greatest crisis, he travelled north to Iceland, to sleep in a tent in the hail, and came back harder for it. But at times his subconscious reared up at the central malfunction of his life. He is said to have complained repeatedly about a noise in one of his London houses, "a beastly tin-kettle of a bell in a chapel close by, which, he said, went wank, wank, wank, until he was nearly driven mad."
From 1883, Morris could subsume his lonely regrets and his literary Utopian ideals in the new-born Socialist cause - the only political movement of his lifetime whose aims were radical enough to appeal to him. He often referred to this moment as a "conversion"; to his friend Burne-Jones, it was only another instance (and a regrettable one) of Morris hurling all his powers into some new thing, as he did every few years. For MacCarthy, it was a "re-orientation" to which "the sequence of events in his whole life had led on logically". And it is striking with how little modification his youthful church-and-manor visions of 14th-century England evolved into this garden-city project of a socialist future. Morris's late venture into politics can be understood- though not diminished - as the public manifestation of the extraordinary optical sensitivity which so amazed his first bio-grapher, U W Mackail: "There is a singular instance of this in ... `The Hollow Land'. `As the years went on,' says (X), `and we grew old, we painted purple pictures and green ones instead of the scarlet and yellow, so that the walls looked altered.' That this is what actually happens from the yellowing of the crystalline lens of the eye in advanced life was only discovered by specialists many years later. How did Morris know it, or divine it?"
It is not so much of a "conversion" that the owner of such a faculty should respond to the sight of the Manchester smokestacks by swallowing the remnants of his bashfulness and touring the meanest halls in the country on behalf of a new movement which promised - in his own inter- pretation - to arrest the removal of "the pleasure of the eyes ... from the world".
The modest reconciliations of Morris's last years - particularly with his whitening daughter Jenny, from whom he grew less apart as his energies diminished - are tenderly portrayed. The final relief from cuckoldry is transmitted through a passage in Blunt's journal, one which ironically has the flavour of something out of Malory. It was Janey's custom at Kelmscott Manor - the Morrises' beautiful, unhappy Elizabethan house in Oxfordshire - to leave a pansy on the floor of Blunt's room at night when she wanted to receive him. He would then have to pass through Morris's own bedroom - where he slept, or not, in a giant four-poster - to reach her. One night in 1893, as Blunt records, the pansy was there when he came upstairs to bed : but it suddenly seemed "too late, alas, and I slept soundly". But by then his host, though not yet 60, had only three years to live.
The range of Morris's activities makes heavy demands on a biographer, and MacCarthy has shirked nothing in making herself equally authoritative on Marlborough schoolboys in the 1840s and Hammersmith socialists in the 1880s, or the cathedrals of northern France and the geysers of Iceland, or the 40,000 lines of The Earthly Paradise and the mechanics of the indigo discharge process. Her writing is supple and exact throughout, her speculations cautious and soundly grounded, and her publisher has matched the scale of her ambition with 160 plate illustrations. The whole is a justly solid record of a life whose brilliance was spent, bravely if frustratedly, "between two worlds, one dead/The other powerless to be born", in Matthew Arnold's formulation. As Morris put it himself: "... I cling to the love of the past and the love of the day to be, And the present, it is but the building of the man to be strong in me."
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