‘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.

Seven of the children survived to adulthood. There were two boys, on whom much hope and all the spare money were expended. Henry turned out the Branwell of the family, a drinker who went to America and was erased from family history. Frederic led a quiet life as a minister. It was the sisters who were exceptional and the four eldest, Alice, Georgiana, Agnes and Louisa, who made up the ‘circle’. The youngest, Edith, was that necessary figure in every 19th-century family, the unmarried daughter who stayed at home as a general factotum, her only prospects to become a maiden aunt and to be more or less bitter about it. Edith was pretty bitter.

Georgiana (‘Georgie’) was the first to be married, in 1860, to the struggling young painter Ned Jones, who turned himself eventually into Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Agnes married Edward Poynter, also an artist, as conventional as Jones was innovative. That his first big success was Faithful unto Death says all that need be said here about his work. Alice married John Lockwood Kipling, a sculptor who went to teach art in India, and became the mother of Rudyard. Only Louisa made what seemed at the time a good match from the material point of view, becoming the wife of Alfred Baldwin, iron founder and, later, MP. Their only child was Stanley, the Conservative Prime Minister.

A Circle of Sisters tells their story as a family, as individuals and as Victorian women who were both typical and exceptional. When young they were turned by Burne-Jones, who was perhaps a little in love with all of them, into that exceptional type, the Pre-Raphaelite stunner, an artistic, if not a liberated alternative to conventional femininity. Unlike Janey Morris, whose remarkable appearance was so close to Rossetti’s pictures of her that Henry James was unsure whether she was an original or a copy, the Macdonald sisters, though strikingly attractive, were not in the heavy-eyed big-haired vein. If they were, as suggested, the models for Burne-Jones’s The King’s Daughters then a great deal must have been in the eye of the beholder.

Exactly how much is suggested by Georgie Burne-Jones’s exchange with Ruskin, whose very worst side Flanders shows us. Ruskin thought Georgie a ‘little country violet’ who would be shocked by a ballet but who might be encouraged to take up wood engraving ‘without too much disturbance of feminine thought and nature’. She retaliated in a letter written after her first visit to Italy: ‘Ned and I agree in liking our pleasure hot and strong, thick and fast, we would rather eat our cake than merely have it any day. I cannot imagine feeling as you do, that you would rather go without your cake.’ It’s a retort that suggests shrewd insight into the nature of Ruskin’s difficulties with girls. Even so, as Flanders laments, nothing came of the wood engraving. Once the first baby arrived, Philip, destined to be another disappointing son, Georgie was exiled from the artistic life. Outside the studio she heard ‘through its closed doors the well-known voices of friends . . . while I sat with my little son on my knee and dropped selfish tears’.

Flanders rather overstates the case when she describes Georgie as ‘hurling herself’ against convention and the insufferable condescension of her husband and Ruskin. She seems to have done little more than knock politely and then, receiving no answer, turn away. She can hardly be blamed for not saving her soul at the expense of the whole world. The alternatives were grim whether one took the conventional or the unconventional route. On one side, Georgie saw Edith; on the other, the pitiful figure of Lizzie Siddall, drug-addicted, suicidal, looking, as Georgie noted, all too like Rossetti’s Ophelia, for which she had been the model, crying by the empty cradle of her dead baby: ‘Hush Ned, you’ll wake it!’ Better to be a reluctant madonna than the tragic heroine, dead before the last act.

At the same time, compared with her mother’s life, or her own as a daughter, with its routine of housework and nursing, the early years of Georgie’s marriage were blissfully independent. The visits abroad, the modest rooms in Bloomsbury, the cheap restaurant suppers with friends, the visits to William and Janey Morris at their new country home: it must all have been thrilling. The sisters led lives of freedom and fulfilment unimaginable to Hannah Macdonald. They had more money and fewer children, a fact on which Flanders, who is generally good on medical matters, surprisingly makes no comment.

With the passage of time the sisters disperse, and the interweaving of their stories becomes more difficult and the material somewhat uneven. Flanders makes no attempt to patch the gaps in her evidence. Sometimes they make their own points. The Kiplings, who seem to have had the happiest marriage, are distant from the others not only because they were often in India but because, Flanders suggests, there was a certain alienation. She is good at teasing out the nuances of family relations, the tensions that grow from invidious comparisons and imagined slights. Lockwood Kipling, of all the husbands, was the least obviously successful. Hence, Flanders suggests, the ‘difficulties’ that prevented him and Alice from leaving their children with the family when they brought them to school in England. Instead they were put into lodgings at Southsea.

It is another Vice Versa moment to see the famous trauma of Rudyard Kipling’s childhood, fictionalised in ‘Baa Baa, Black Sheep’ and analysed by biographers ever since, told from the parents’ point of view. Flanders makes a convincing case for Lockwood and Alice as thoughtful, if conventional parents doing their best, missing Rudyard and his sister Trix. They looked forward to bringing them home to India and had no idea what damage they had done. Flanders suggests that while Rudyard’s misery was real enough, the facts were somewhat different.

The way the generations misunderstand each other and their different kinds of cruelty is another theme in this narrative. Agnes Poynter, vivid as a girl, fades from the story almost without trace into the stuffy life of her oppressive husband, whom she irritated. She was the first of the sisters to die, in 1906, whereupon Edward, now Sir Edward, Poynter displayed more emotion than ever in his life before. His sister-in-law Alice gave him the benefit of the doubt: ‘He could not tell her, or by manner show dear Aggie his love for her – but he can show his grief now she is gone.’ Philip Burne-Jones was sceptical. ‘Now she’s gone he behaves as though they had been the most devoted couple . . . which heaven knows they weren’t.’ There was probably truth in both views and by including them Flanders brings into three dimensions this long-forgotten marriage. Throughout, she shows how in biography, as in fiction, attention to detail deepens the picture.

Agnes and Louisa (known as Louie), like Janey Morris, took the other option open to middle-class Victorian women: the sofa. They were ill, on and off, for decades, though just as Janey (like Burne-Jones) was always well enough for love affairs Louie was able to career all over Europe at a hectic pace looking for cures. So much has been written on hysteria and its relation or non-relation to organic illness that Flanders cannot be blamed for adding little to it and honestly stating the difficulties of retrospective diagnosis. The passive power wielded by the invalid, of which Florence Nightingale was so effectively taking advantage at the time; the boredom of the female condition; the desire to avoid pregnancy and to be cherished all played a part. So of course did physical disease.

On her only adventure, a visit to the Kiplings in Lahore, where for once she was not expected to nurse anybody or keep house, Edith packed in a lifetime’s worth of attention-seeking illness. Her fever was real enough but the force with which she fought it, ‘bossed’ it, Trix said, and everybody else in the house was astonishing. Even the kindly Lockwood wished she would lose consciousness while Rudyard later wrote that receiving the last rites was ‘one of her diversions’. She certainly had few others. Louie, however, suddenly got better, a fact which startled more than it pleased young Stanley, who had seldom seen her up and about. In later life she produced a succession of mediocre novels about which Rudyard, at the height of his fame, wrote her dozens of tactful but constructive, unpatronising letters.

Sometimes Flanders turns the tables too far, dismisses the ‘great men’ too smartly and the result is another kind of distortion. This is especially true of her treatment of the Burne-Jones’s circle. G.E. Street, whose office was the nursery of the Arts and Crafts Movement, appears merely as ‘an Oxford architect’, William Burges is ‘also an architect’ and William de Morgan ‘Edward de Morgan (a ceramicist)’. The Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement were not feminist, even by the standards of the day. Yet they encouraged the feminisation of art and culture. It was a reaction against muscular High Victorianism, an attempt to put the idea of the domestic at the centre of life and to restore the applied, or ‘sister’ arts to harmony with painting and sculpture.

Stunners may have been doomed to be artefacts: ‘Georgie wears a chintz dressing-gown,’ her husband wrote, ‘and looks like a part of the furniture, and as if you could order any number of her in the Tottenham Court Road.’ All the same they wore ‘rational’ dress and were not suffocated with corsets, unlike Agnes Poynter, whose clothes were as stiff and conventional as her husband’s pictures. The same ideals of life and art, translated to India, informed all of Lockwood’s Kipling’s work. He died in England in a house that he loved, Clouds, designed by Morris’s friend, the architect of the Red House, Philip Webb. Flanders does not seem interested in these connections, yet if Alice and Georgie had, as it would appear by her account they did, more fulfilling lives than their sisters, might it not have something to do with this culture? It is a pity to leave the question unasked.

To the extent that A Circle of Sisters has a hero it is Georgie Burne-Jones, admired and liked by almost everyone except her husband, who continued to fall in love with other people and could admit, to one of them: ‘I have been a bad man and sorry for it, but not sorry enough to try and be a good one.’ The reverse was true, Flanders points out, of Alice’s daughter-in-law Carrie Kipling, who was liked only by her husband (and by Georgie). Although she makes no particular case for Carrie, Flanders gives a more sympathetic account of her than Adam Nicolson manages in his ‘short life’.

Revisionist biographies can be brief if they are meant to debunk. One well-aimed brick will shatter a plate-glass front. To make a subject more sympathetic, however, means re-creating nuances of character and circumstance which require time and detail. Nicolson is thrown back on devices such as this reading of Carrie’s portrait by Philip Burne-Jones: ‘Only in the eyes, which are somehow . . . distant, does Burne-Jones portray the concealed reality of loss and hopelessness.’ Flanders, who brings her onto a scene whose tensions and peculiarities the reader by now knows well, has a great advantage. She is more down to earth and convincing about the mismatch between the younger Kiplings that rubbed, in time, into an unhealable wound. ‘This is a summary of the marriage,’ she writes. Kipling ‘couldn’t manage without her; she could manage, but not manage to enjoy managing.’ It was an emotional vicious circle that made her less likable with each revolution.

The authors of Victorian Diaries were not overshadowed by the famous: they lived in the uniform shade of complete obscurity. Heather Creaton has brought together a remarkable collection of journals spanning the period and chronicling the lives of a curate, a Nonconformist headmaster, a stonemason, a nurse, a middle-class ‘young lady’ and so on. It is like being set down in the crowd in one of Frith’s paintings and being able to hear the conversations. The diaries are full of interest and surprise but they are smothered by the editing and design of the book, which give a new boost to the notion of the ‘condescension of the present’.

Covered in faux marbled laminate and illustrated in sepia, Victorian Diaries looks like a Past Times catalogue. The editorial tone is that of the cheery National Trust guide who surges over, determined to tell you what you already know, ‘Like us, the Victorians were a mixed bunch,’ while leaving out the real information. The caption to the frontispiece reads: ‘Several generations of a Victorian family pose for a photograph in their garden.’ We have no idea when or where or who they are, they are merely charming little people from the past. I have, I confess, a special interest, as one of the diarists, George Pegler, was my great-grandfather and I do not like to see him sepia-ed up and made a monkey of.

The biographer’s obligations, Galen Strawson once remarked, are both ‘heavy and delicate’. Great men will always find champions to rewrite their lives, the smaller the subject the more care is required.