Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Kelmscott Book of Ghosts

We now have Helen Elletson’s excellent guide book A History of Kelmscott House, beautifully illustrated and very reasonably priced at £5-00. She gives a lively account of the three major inhabitants of the House: Sir Francis Ronalds, who constructed the first electric telegraph there; George MacDonald, who wrote some of his best-known fantasy novels in it; and of course William Morris himself.

Elletson acknowledges some of the practical problems of the house as a dwelling place (though one she doesn’t record is Morris’s complaint to Georgiana Burne-Jones that ‘the soil of this garden was composed chiefly of old shoes and soot’); but overall, as one would expect, her account of the Morris family in the house is very positive, encompassing such social events as Boat Race parties and boisterous post-lecture socialist dinners, as well as such creative activities as tapestry-weaving and the Kelmscott Press.

But we do have a radically different perspective on Kelmscott House from one who was, after all, very close indeed to Morris during these years. For as Edward Burne-Jones noted in a letter to his friend May Gaskell: ‘I come away from his [Morris’s] house sadder always ... when I am there which is once in two years at most I come away gloomy and depressed – the house feels full of ghosts to me – a Wuthering Heights feeling about it all’.

What are we to make of such a chilling observation? Certainly Burne-Jones had a sensitivity throughout his career to the eerie and the occult which his more robust friend Morris gives little evidence of. His series of ‘bogey’ drawings is testimony to that, and when Morris and Burne-Jones went to a séance together one imagines that the latter rather than former was the main instigator of the experiment.

So are we not perhaps now, in the light of Burne-Jones's remark, under some obligation to re-imagine Kelmscott House in Gothic mode, as a place of hauntings and sinister secrets, of doppelgängers and troubling coincidences? Could not a whole alternative guidebook to both the House and the area, in fact, be concocted along these dark lines - a Kelmscott Book of Ghosts indeed?


Jan Marsh said...


I suggest that the sadness was occasioned by the catastrophic effect on the household caused by Jenny Morris's epilepsy - a sort of pervasive dread of the next seizure, plus a grievous memory of the bright, energetic girl she had been when playing with/leading her sister and the Burne-Jones children. so a haunting feeling of what-might-have-been together with the real zombie-like person Jenny became, and the very heavy but seldom spoken of fear absorbing her parents

Tony Pinkney said...

Jan, That is indeed a moving acount of the impact that Jenny Morris's illness must have had on the Kelmscott household, and would certainly account for much of the unsettling 'ghostliness' that Burne-Jones sensed there. Does that eerieness extend to the neighbourhood too? In his essay on 'Speech Sites' at Kelmscott House Alan Read speaks of 'the paupers' graves beneath Furnivall Gardens',so much wretchedness and suffering has existed on what can often seem, today, an idyllic sunny Thamesside scene.