‘We would rather eat our cake than merely have it’

Rosemary Hill

  • A Circle of Sisters: Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin by Judith Flanders
    Penguin, 392 pp, £17.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 670 88673 4
  • The Hated Wife: Carrie Kipling 1862-1939 by Adam Nicolson
    Short Books, 96 pp, £4.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 571 20835 5
  • Victorian Diaries: The Daily Lives of Victorian Men and Women edited by Heather Creaton
    Mitchell Beazley, 144 pp, £14.99, February 2001, ISBN 1 84000 359 6

Frank Doubleday, the American publisher and friend of Rudyard and Carrie Kipling, once arrived at their house in Sussex to find Rudyard in a sweat in front of the hall fireplace shovelling a pile of his manuscripts into the flames. It was a horrifying sight, especially to a publisher. ‘For heaven’s sake, Rud, what are you doing?’ Doubleday asked. To which the answer came: ‘I was looking over old papers and I got thinking. No one’s going to make a monkey out of me after I die.’ But Kipling has been more caricatured in popular memory than most.

If he could not control his posthumous reputation he knew at least that he would have one. The subjects of these three books were his contemporaries, some his family, one his wife. None of them had any idea of such an afterlife. What they left in the way of papers and diaries was intended for their families or for those who would memorialise them incidentally because of the men with whom, as wives or mothers, they were associated. Although many of them lived into the 20th century most were essentially Victorians. As such they had long accepted that ‘ordinary’ people, the obscure, the poor, women, might be the subjects of art or literature and that these works might dwell as much on private as public life, on emotion as well as action. The same did not apply to biography. There only the heroic and exemplary mattered, biography was a kind of history painting in words, where, as in Longfellow’s verse, the ‘Lives of great men’ left ‘footprints on the sands of time’. Longfellow of course might be as surprised as the others by his treatment at the hands of posterity, for he has not left quite that imprint on literature that once it seemed he must.

It was during the course of these lifetimes that the conventions about what might be said in biography began to give way; and by the time Kipling died in 1936 he had reason to fear the worst. Yet if more could be said about some people nothing was said about most people. ‘Hidden lives’ remained, from biography’s point of view, just that. Even now, when biography is booming and social, oral and feminist history all thrive, part of the pleasure of Judith Flanders’s A Circle of Sisters is the novelty of the viewpoint.

As in F. Anstey’s Vice Versa, a novel that was, in its way, subversive of late Victorian ideas about authority, the world is turned if not upside down then round through many degrees. In the story of the Macdonald sisters Stanley Baldwin and Kipling are, for most of the time, children, little seen or heard. Ruskin is a recurring nuisance. We sympathise with Georgiana Macdonald, an independent woman tied by an early marriage to the demanding, fickle, hypochondriac Edward Burne-Jones, who first took sick on their wedding night – the intended honeymoon was in Paris, but they got no further than Chester.

The Macdonald family’s origins were modest. They were from Methodist stock, their paternal grandfather had been ordained by Wesley. Their father, George, was also a minister who, throughout their childhood, was sent from mission to mission in Birmingham, Sheffield and London. Flanders is good on the domestic implications of this and much else. It was their mother, Hannah, who bore the brunt of the struggle on a tiny income, the laborious process of moving, the new starts in strange houses, most of them undertaken in the course of one of her 11 pregnancies. The intellectually vigorous, self-improving culture of the Methodists made the children what they were. George had a library of a thousand books, which Hannah had to pack and unpack. These were the ordinary conditions of such a life. Indeed there were complaints from the congregation that she failed to do more in the way of the ‘religious and philanthropic’ work expected of a minister’s wife.

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