Sheets

Robert Bernard Martin

  • The Collected Letters of William Morris. Vol. I: 1848-1880 edited by Norman Kelvin
    Princeton, 626 pp, £50.30, April 1984, ISBN 0 691 06501 2

When he first heard of William Morris’s death, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt wrote in his diary, ‘He is the most wonderful man I have known,’ then added more equivocally: ‘unique in this, that he had no thought for anything or person, including himself, but only for the work he had in hand.’ This handsome new edition of Morris’s letters does not entirely answer our natural question of how a man so often apparently unmoved by other persons should have had the explosive creative energy to become famous as poet, artist, decorator, printer, manufacturer and socialist. As Jane Morris’s former lover, Blunt was not unprejudiced about her husband’s paucity of feeling, but his judgment underlines the troubling mystification that Morris’s personality induces.

In last year’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Gallery, picture number 94 seemed an alien in the surrounding canvases. It was Queen Guenevere, Morris’s 1858 oil of the guilty queen, for which Jane Burden was the model. In the midst of all those reformed prostitutes, thoughtful nuns, sailors home from the main, moribund young poets, drowning ladies, eminent critics splashed by turbulent mountain streams, and fugitive Christian missionaries panting from the chase, here was a painting taking as its subject textures, patterns and things, rather than personal histories and emotions. Most of the other painters found persons so important that even their untenanted landscapes finally seem symbolic states of mind, paysages moralisés.

Queen Guenevere perhaps sprang initially from some of the same impulses that made Holman Hunt paint The Awakening Conscience, for the Queen’s face has a pensive look that may be remorse, and in the background is a second figure – seated, male, and so diminished that the viewer might easily overlook him – probably intended as Lancelot. But what is startling about the painting is that none of this literary baggage is of much importance, for what matters is the texture of the bed-hangings, the sheets, the cloth on the bedside chest, and above all Guenevere’s dress, which is as minutely and sensuously painted as any of those in Gainsborough’s portraits. The material of each of these fabrics echoes all the others, so that the dress is only a more richly worked version of the draperies and bed-furnishings. The simple composition of a double triangle leads not to Guenevere’s face but to her hips and waist, then to the used, untidy bed. All this should underline the erotic element of the picture, but curiously it works the other way and turns Guenevere into part of the furnishing of the room, hardly more important than its other components. Her dark head, disproportionately small, is placed high on the canvas, and we notice it only at a second glance: and even then it tends to recede into the dark background, outshone by the sumptuousness of her dress. It is a beautiful picture, but oddly inhuman, and it is something of a shock to realise that it was a message of love to Jane painted only a year before their marriage. ‘In a moment of despair’ Morris scrawled on the back of the canvas: ‘I cannot paint you, but I love you.’ No doubt true, but his passion seems directed more to the fabrics than to the static, decorative human centre of the painting. (It is probably not wholly irrelevant that he rumpled the sheets of the bed – to make it look as if it had been slept in – by getting in and lying there smoking.)

Too much extrapolation from this single picture is dangerous, since it is the sole survivor of his oil paintings: but we have to do something of that sort with his correspondence because so much of it was destroyed, either deliberately or accidentally, that what remains is often an incomplete record. There are, for example, only 25 letters from the first 20 years of his life, and there are no known extant manuscripts for 12 of those, so that they have had to be copied from earlier publications. It is possible that one of his lost pictures, Tristram and Iseult on the Ship, was more concerned with passion, even with simple human interest, than his painting of Guenevere, and it may be that if we had the vanished letters a different Morris would emerge from them, one as consistently moved to deep emotion by persons as by things. On the basis of the remaining correspondence, it is hard to erect a credible figure of a man who was often deeply touched by feelings for other individuals: for society, yes, for persons, too seldom. ‘Figure painting was never his forte,’ according to the catalogue of the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, ‘and the attempt caused him nothing but frustration and disappointment. His true talents lay in the handicrafts that he was also experimenting with at this time – illumination, carving, embroidery.’ As in his painting, so in his letters.

Morris did not for long think of himself as a painter, he was not inclined to theorise about his poetry, and at the end of this volume his interest in socialism and printing lay chiefly in the future: this means that readers of these letters may have undue expectations of revelations about his emotional life and about his career as designer and manufacturer. There are more than seventy previously unpublished letters to Thomas Wardle, manager of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co, which prove exhaustively how careful he was about the dyeing and printing of their fabrics and to what lengths he went to get the colours right. He liked nothing better than putting on smock and sabots, then swirling the cloth through the vats, plunging in his arms until they were dyed indigo above the elbow. Designer, artisan and manufacturer were one in Morris. Even so, these letters are curiously impersonal, with little other interior detail about their writer than the fact that he had inherited some of his love of colour from his mother, as was indicated by the ‘rag from the bed which heard my first squeak’ that he sent to Wardle to show how it had been blocked with madder, yellow and indigo.

In his excellent introduction to this and succeeding volumes the editor tells us that the majority of Morris’s letters are about socialism, but by 1880 he had not yet formally accepted its doctrines, and a year later he was still comfortably and unashamedly describing himself as a member of the middle classes. Even after he called himself a socialist, his Ruskinian zeal sprang as much from his distaste for the visual ugliness of modern England as from the progressive brutalisation of workers and environment by rampant industrialism. It is the aspect of his thought that Engels meant in describing him as ‘a settled sentimental Socialist’. Of these attitudes there are plenty of prefigurations in this volume, both in his persistent efforts to break down the distinction between workman and master, and in his ardent letters on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (‘Anti-Scrape’), which more consistently lit up his correspondence than did either love or friendship. Some of his most impassioned letters are concerned with the threatened ‘restoration’ of Tewkesbury Abbey, St Cross Hospital, the cathedrals at Ely and St Albans, and St Mark’s in Venice. In September 1880 he told Georgiana Burne-Jones: ‘I have more than ever at my heart the importance for people of living in beautiful places; I mean the sort of beauty which would be attainable by all, if people could but begin to long for it. I do most earnestly desire that something more startling could be done than mere constant private grumbling and occasional public speaking to lift the standard of revolt against the sordidness which people are so stupid as to think necessary.’

Today few read the strangely pallid poetry that was his first claim to fame. We know from the accounts of his friends what lively, even brilliant company he was, that he had a mercurial temperament, deep sensitivity, and a good sense of fun: this was the ‘Topsy’ side of his personality. But somehow he never got much of it onto paper. When he finished composing his first poem at 20, he said: ‘Well, if this is poetry, it is very easy to write.’ It cost him little in effort or emotion; when he read aloud from his Earthly Paradise, Georgie Burne-Jones, who listened to him out of love, had to bite her fingers or stick herself with pins to stay awake. Some of his letters show why she found his writing soporific.

Probably the best of them, written when he was a young man, have been destroyed, for those to Cormell Price (‘Dearest Crom’) hint at enthusiasm that flashed out too rarely after he left Oxford. The first letter to Jane that has survived was written 11 years after their marriage, so that we have no indication of the intensity of young love that he must once have felt. His letters to her in this volume are gentle, considerate and sympathetic, but seldom more. What is never clear is whether Morris was so genuinely concerned about Jane’s happiness that he was willing to connive at her affair with Rossetti at whatever emotional cost to himself, whether he believed in what would now be called open marriage, or whether he had simply become so accustomed to her unfaithfulness that he had learned to ignore its hurt. The day after his death Jane told Blunt as they embraced in the room beneath which Morris was lying in his coffin: ‘I am not unhappy, though it is a terrible thing, for I have been with him since I first knew anything. I was 18 when I married – but I never loved him.’ According to Blunt, Morris was lamentably ignorant of the love of women: ‘Here he had no real experience and remained a child.’ Rossetti’s letters to Jane are so much livelier than Morris’s, so full of fun and passion that it is easy to understand why she had her children by the responsible Morris, her romance with the thoroughly undependable but exciting Rossetti, her sexual fulfilment with Blunt.

Occasionally the pain leaps out of the blandness of Morris’s letters. Near the beginning of Jane’s affair with Rossetti, he wrote with what seems indirect reference to their marital plight, trying to gulp down what he felt: ‘For me I don’t think people really want to die because of mental pain, that is if they are imaginative people; they want to live to see the play played out fairly – they have hopes that they are not conscious of.’ Normally he tried to forget disappointment, but even doing so depressed him because he felt his reaction should be more violent. In 1872 he realised that his loneliness rattling around their Queen Square house without Jane, and his irritation at seeing her sister there in her stead, stemmed ‘from some cowardice or unmanliness in me’. If, as has been guessed, he was referring to sexual failure here, it was surely emotional, not physical. It is typical that when Rossetti and Janey were living together in Kelmscott Manor, Morris stated his resentment of his loss in terms of the house rather than his wife: ‘another quite selfish business is that Rossetti has set himself down at Kelmscott as if he never meant to go away; and not only does that keep me away from that harbour of refuge, (because it is really a farce our meeting when we can help it) but also he has all sorts of ways so unsympathetic with the sweet simple old place, that I feel his presence there as a kind of slur on it.’

Morris’s chief women friends, substitutes for Janey, were Aglaia Coronio and Georgiana Burne-Jones to whom he confessed enough of his problems to make the editor of these letters wonder ‘whether there was physical intimacy between Morris and either or both of these women’. There is no proof either way, but there is little hint of the closeness that such relations might be expected to have brought. In The Leopard Lampedusa wrote of Angelica and Tassoni in middle age: ‘they had had a very short affair thirty years before, and kept the intimacy – for which there is no substitute – conferred by a few hours spent between the same pair of sheets.’ Nothing in this correspondence suggests that Morris had shared any sheets with Aglaia or Georgie except those on which they wrote their letters.

Morris was deeply affectionate, but it is an indication of the somewhat unfocused quality of his emotions that a tender letter written in 1876 to console someone in trouble was assumed by Philip Henderson to have been intended to comfort either Edward or Georgiana Burne-Jones, while Kelvin believes that it may have been sent to Jane to commiserate with her on the end of her affair with Rossetti. Perhaps the most moving of the previously unpublished letters in this volume is a brief note of apology to ‘dearest Ned’ Burne-Jones: ‘I am afraid I was crabby last night, but I didn’t mean to be, so pray forgive me – we seem to quarrel in speech now sometimes, and sometimes I think you find it hard to stand me, and no great wonder for I am like a hedgehog with nastiness – but again forgive me for I can’t on any terms do without you.’

This is an opulent book, with the uncluttered lay-out and handsome typography that we have come to expect of the Princeton Press. Professor Kelvin, who has written on Forster and is the author of an indispensable critical book about Meredith, has apparently been at work on this correspondence for a long time, and his familiarity shows, for the notes are admirably concise and relevant. Inevitably, in a book of this size, there are a few unimportant errors, such as the misspelling of the name of Mrs Humphry Ward; a pair of footnotes on page 378 so thoroughly entangled and misleading that nothing but beginning again could straighten them out; and two mentions by Morris of ‘grice’ sent as gifts just after the Glorious Twelfth which surely refer jokingly to grouse not to ‘Young pigs or pork’. But Kelvin elsewhere totally disarms criticism by his frank admission that one letter has been printed twice because his discovery of a mistake in dating came ‘too late to make a change’; it is the kind of candour about error that inspires trust.

This first volume of Morris’s correspondence contains some 659 letters or groups of letters, while, if my count is correct, Philip Henderson’s earlier generous selection included 127 for the same period. I can find no indication here of how many volumes the completed edition is expected to fill, but this comparison with Henderson suggests that it can hardly be fewer than four. The probable cost of such an undertaking to the reader is daunting, however welcome some of the new material is. It is the fault of neither Professor Kelvin nor the Princeton Press that the academic fetish for ‘complete’ correspondence has been elevated to the sanctity of moral law. There are many invitations, acceptances, acknowledgements etc here of a line or two, sometimes even less than a complete line, with no possible interest to 99 per cent of readers. As confirmation of a date or appointment they might conceivably be of use to a biographer or critic, but to no one else, and they inevitably make the collection seem waterish, which does Morris no service. If they were simply copied and duplicates were deposited in five or ten major libraries, they would be easily available to any specialist and might, by their omission, do something to reduce the price of volumes such as these for other readers, who cannot fairly be expected to subsidise the worship of ‘completeness’.