Wednesday 23 August 2017

The Beguiling of Merlin

 Despite having lived in the North-West of England for thirty years, I made my first-ever visit to Port Sunlight only the other day.  And what a spacious and architecturally inspiring village it is, though Morris, I imagine, would have scornfully seen it as merely an instance of benevolent capitalist paternalism, an attempt to buy off genuine workers’ democracy by throwing them a few ‘palliative’ crumbs.

In the middle of Port Sunlight is the wonderful Lady Lever Art Gallery, with its fine collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ (c.1877).  Looking at that painting, in which the elderly and entrapped Merlin glares dolefully out at the young woman Nimue, who has seduced the secrets of his magic out of him and turned his own powers against him, I found myself instantly thinking of Old Hammond’s words to William Guest in News from Nowhere: ‘the inexplicable desire that comes on a man of riper years to be the all-in-all to some one woman, whose ordinary human kindness and human beauty he has idealized into superhuman perfection, and made the one object of his desire’ (ch. IX).

Those words in turn look proleptically forward in the book to Guest’s own fixation on Ellen in the last third of the text, as he, Dick and Clara travel up the Thames to Kelmscott; ‘riper’ is certainly the correct adjective for Guest in relation to the young Nowherian, since he is no less than 36 years older than she is (56 to her 20).  May it not be, then, if we bear the Burne-Jones painting in mind, that Ellen is ‘beguiling’ her Victorian visitor, draining his magical powers  (which in this case means his firsthand knowledge of history) from him, to the point where - having achieved the upper hand over his besotted self - she can then so painfully expel him from paradise in the Kelmscott church feast at the close of the book?  So whether ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ was or was not any sort of direct influence on Morris’s conception of the Guest-Ellen relationship, it vividly sketches out a sexual and narrative model that can sensitise us to darker possibilities in the love interest at the very heart of his utopia.