Friday, 20 June 2008

William Morris and Life-Writing

The very successful conference on ‘Victorian Life-Writing’ at the University of Keele on 17 June 2008 (held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Keele’s Victorian Studies programme) prompts one to think about life-writing issues in relation to William Morris.

J.W. Mackail’s 1899 Morris biography is a fine book, certainly, but suffers from the kind of ‘reticences’ familiar from Victorian biography in general: there is little about Morris and Jane’s marital difficulties, little about Jenny’s illness, and the treatment of Morris’s socialist politics is slight and unsympathetic. Years later (1954) R.D. Macleod actually felt obliged to publish a counterblast in the form of a small pamphlet polemically entitled Morris without Mackail!

Morrisian life-writing moves on from Mackail by a series of advances in content. E.P. Thompson gave us the full political story in 1955. Jack Lindsay (1975) and more recently John LeBourgeois (2006) emphasise the role of Morris’s affection for his sister Emma. Fiona MacCarthy, in her own ‘great ebullient portrait’ of Morris (to borrow a Yeatsian phrase), downgrades the role of Burne-Jones as the friend of friends, has plenty to say about Jane’s affairs with Rossetti and Blunt, goes fully into Jenny’s epilepsy and Morris’s painful sense of responsibility for it, and very effectively emphasises Morris’s strangeness and idiosyncracy.

But a recurrent topic at the Keele conference was the relation – indeed, the parallelism, the too neat fit – between biography as a literary form and the realist novel. Both are thoroughly wedded to ideals of narrative linearity, psychological complexity and development, organic plot closure. Given that Morris himself was for the most part distinctly hostile to the realist novel (Ellen speaks very powerfully against it in News from Nowhere), we might wonder whether Morrisian life-writing, to remain faithful to its subject, doesn’t need to advance beyond Mackail in terms of form as well as content.

Could we therefore imagine a life of William Morris written in the form of an Icelandic saga, that pre-realist genre which stirred him so deeply, both as translator and poet? We’ve had a rather crude first stab at this project in Edward and Stephani Godwin’s Warrior Bard: the Life of William Morris (1947), a generic experiment which they claim was endorsed by May Morris herself. Or could there be a biography of Morris written in that extraordinary new literary form which he himself invented late in life: the medievalising romance or ‘modern fantasy novel’ (from The Story of the Glittering Plain onwards) which proved so influential in the twentieth century, all the way to and beyond The Lord of the Rings?

In the early twenty-first century we are postmodern readers rather than realist ones, and while scholars will keep extending the boundaries of our knowledge of the content of Morris’s life, the onus is perhaps now on us to invent new forms of biographical narrative in which to present such findings. The Keele Life-Writing conference, which contained so many fine papers, helpfully offers a prompt in that direction.


Anonymous said...

New biographical forms, yes. In the reviews section of 'The Guardian' for 28.06.08 Giles Foden reviews Iliya Troynov's 'The Collector of Words', a novelised life of the Victorian explorer Richard Burton, and notes that the book is "a long but consistently satisfying essay in biographical fiction, which is rapidly coming to seem a new genre" (p.11)

Collector said...

The biography as a genre does seem to be pretty resistant to such innovations. I did read one recent attempt to break the mould -- Angela Thirlwell's joint biography of William and Lucy Rossetti -- which went for a thematic rather than a chronological approach. I have to say I found it pretty unsatisfactory. I do think that the 'realist novel' mode, with all its limitations, may just be the best we have for representing or re-creating a life with all its messinesses and contradictions. That is generally what we want from biographies. I'm not sure whether it was what Morris aimed at in any of his fictions, so perhaps Morris's preferred literary forms are not the best ones for biographical writing.

Anonymous said...

Have you actually read Mackail's biog of Morris? it's neither reticent nor unsympathetic.

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