Sunday, 22 April 2012
The Pleasures of Biofiction
I’ve been reading some some chapters of a PhD-in-progress by my very talented Belgian student Kirby Joris which deals with recent first-person ‘biofictions’ about Oscar Wilde. We don’t yet have any good contemporary biofictions (as opposed to biographies) of Morris, so I am borrowing Kirby’s accounts of her Wilde novels to suggest how Morrisian equivalents might go:
1. On his sea-trip to Norway in July 1896, the physically ailing Morris (who will die in October) keeps a journal in which he ponders – in the first-person, naturally - the great unresolved questions of his life. Did Jane Burden ever really love me? Was daughter Jenny’s epileptic illness from 1876 onwards my fault, genetically speaking? Why did I tolerate the Jane-Rossetti and Jane-Blunt affairs? How did I arrive at socialism in the years up to 1883, and was my ‘Kelmscott turn’ of the 1890s a retreat from all that? Are my last romances the literary result of a mind going soft? (cf. Peter Ackroyd, Last Testament of Oscar Wilde).
2. In 2011 a young American Occupy activist who is working on a PhD on fin-de-siècle British culture at Berkeley starts writing and sending a series of postcards to William Morris. To his astonishment Morris replies, from the after-life, and a detailed correspondence ensues in which the spirit of Morris advises on the global capitalist crisis since 2008 and offers some startling new political strategies for the Left in the new century (cf. C.R. Holloway, The Unauthorized Letters of Oscar Wilde).
3. An arrogant and politically right-wing doctor treating Jenny Morris’s epilepsy through both physical and psychological means tries in the mid-1920s, with Jenny now in her 60s, to delve back through her fragmented memories into the Morris family background in the 1870s when her illness first manifested itself. To what extent, he wants to discover (in order to discredit Morris), did class and sexual tensions in the marriage enact themselves through the elder daughter’s sufferings. (Cf. Clare Elfman, The Case of the Pederast’s Wife).
4. J.W. Mackail, Burne-Jones’s son-in-law and Morris’s future biographer, is drafted in to help Morris as detective to solve the mystery of the murder of a number of prominent socialists: chiefly those of his Oxford mathematician friend Charles Faulkner in 1892 (made to look like natural causes) and Sergius Stepniak (staged to look like a railway accident) in 1895. Sherlock Holmes might even lend a hand here too. (cf. Gyles Brandreth, The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries).