A friend indeed in a time of need

The Collected Letters of William Morris - The William Morris Chronology
January 31, 1997

The final volume of Norman Kelvin's splendid edition of William Morris's letters appeared appropriately enough in the year of the centenary of Morris's death. We now have the full set - four volumes, the second, covering the years 1881 to 1888, divided into two substantial parts. The chronology edited by Nicholas Salmon and Derek Baker offers a day-by-day account of Morris's life, annotated where necessary with brief explanations but with neither comment nor analysis and provides a useful companion to the letters and to any serious study of Morris.

The volumes of letters are beautifully produced, end papers and dust jackets adorned with Morris designs and the text interspersed with black and white blocks of designs, drawings and portraits. Reading the clear texts and turning the pages of printed and annotated versions of all the extant correspondence of a great English genius, one wonders whether this may be one of the last of such productions. With the rapid development of electronically stored facsimile documents it may well be that scholars in future will rely on such technology to gain access to this kind of material. In his introduction Kelvin points to the problems of translating manuscript letters into print - the importance in the original of such things as spacing, rewriting, the appearance of the words on the page which inevitably get largely lost in the transition to print. Accessible electronically scanned papers will almost certainly be seen by scholars as having greater authenticity, and it seems unlikely that there will be a large enough general readership to justify the printing of such a large set of documents as this. The fact that they may be some of the last of their kind is perhaps an additional reason for welcoming these volumes.

Business letters, personal letters, letters concerned with the socialist organisations in which Morris's later years were spent are presented in the order in which they were written, or as nearly so as first-rate editing can achieve. The notes are illuminating without ever being pedantic, and indeed a reader with at least an idea of Morris's biography is plunged into a kind of personal contact with him that even the best biography can never provide.

With the chronology as a guide and point of reference, a few hours spent reading through the letters gives some understanding of and reasons for the enormous and continuing fascination which Morris has had for our century. The recent centenary outbreak of Morris designs on shopping bags, coffee cups and T-shirts is only the apex (or nadir) of a continuing interest in his designs, while his socialism, if not always in a form which he would have recognised, has been part of the rhetoric of the modern British labour movement since its inception.

Of course, Morris's dismissal of parliamentary politics and his belief in a revolutionary moment of change have not been part of the political programme of any but a small minority of the socialist movements since his death. But the values which he held - of fellowship, of the dignity of physical labour and of the possibility of a more egalitarian society, organised to work with the grain of the land and the environment, which would preserve and protect the best of the old and complement it with new structures - can be found at the heart of most of the movements for social and environmental improvement in this century.

The chronological arrangement of the letters demonstrates the ways in which his beliefs actively affected the way he lived. A long letter to an aspiring young worker-poet (Fred Henderson of Norwich) is followed by one to a chemist concerning the lead content of some of the paints being used in the production of the firm's papers, and after that a letter to his daughter Jenny giving her his latest personal news - the story of an attack of gout, of meetings attended and meetings missed and of his daily routine at Kelmscott House. Affectionate letters to his daughters and close friends interweave with organisational and political discussion with fellow-socialists and with business letters concerned with the ink to be used at the Kelmscott press, the colours of textiles or paints, and with designs and material. The rare qualities of the man himself emerge, and the richness and variety of his life.

Many of the most moving letters are those to his close friends and associates, men and women. The complexity of Morris's relations with Jane, his wife, and with two women friends, Aglaia Coronio and Georgiana Burne-Jones have been the subject of speculation by many biographers. Most of the letters to Georgiana have been reprinted from the first biography of Morris by the Burne-Jones's son-in-law J. W. MacKail. Extracts from these letters were published in the biography and the originals then for the most part destroyed. What emerges from the extracts nevertheless is that, whether or not Georgie and Morris were ever lovers, and the probability seems to be that it is unlikely, they were very close friends.

Throughout the volumes runs a strong thread of the great importance which Morris attached to friendship - a quality which enriched his relations with the people around him. Writing, at the age of 30, to Edward Burne-Jones who had decided after the death of a premature son not to join the Morrises in an additional wing to be built on to Red House, he spoke of his disappointment and of his sympathy but went on: "As to our being a miserable lot, old chap, speaking for myself I don't know, I refuse to make myself really unhappy for anything short of the loss of friends one can't do without . . ."

On the death of Dante Gabriel Rossetti he wrote in 1882: "What can I say about Gabriel's death, but what all his friends or almost all must feel? . . . he has left a hole in the world which will not be filled up in a hurry."

But in picking out the weakness in Gabriel's character, Morris made clear his own attitude to genius and to life:"He had some of the very greatest qualities of genius, most of them indeed, what a great man he would have been but for the arrogant misanthropy that marred his work and killed him before his time; the grain of humility which makes a great man one of the people and no lord over them he lacked, and with it lost the enjoyment of life which would have kept him alive and sweetened all his work for him and us."

In all Morris's work and in all his letters this quality emerges - the ability to see himself in a human environment in which cooperation between different kinds of ability and different human qualities could produce a society which rejected the ugliness and self-seeking which disfigured the era in which he lived. A number of the recipients of the letters lived well into our own lifetimes and spoke of the kindness and lack of any patronising tone with which Morris treated the younger and usually less experienced people in the early socialist groups.

It has taken 100 years for this volume to become possible. Some of the material in it was protected by the terms of bequests to libraries, some has only surfaced comparatively recently among commercial or political collections or after the death of owners. In any case, a century is probably a good interval to allow for posterity to judge whether such an extensive collection is worth presenting to the public. Reviewers of the early volumes had no doubt about their value, and their judgement is reinforced now that the work is complete. The strengths and weaknesses of Morris's ideas are more accessible than they have ever been. He was himself suspicious of the hagiography found in so many biographies. "Usually," he wrote to Georgie, "I find biographies dull to extremity, I suppose because generally they are a mass of insincerities and platitudes." His own letters allow the reader to make an assessment of the various biographies which have been written. The letters, spelling mistakes and all, bring alive a personality who still provokes wonder and many of whose ideas are still at the centre of our preoccupations. The editor's work in preparing, annotating and introducing them is a model for any such project and deserves the gratitude of scholars and general readers alike.

Dorothy Thompson is at the institute for advanced research in the humanities, University of Birmingham.

The Collected Letters of William Morris

Editor - Norman Kelvin
ISBN - 0 691 06501 2
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - various
Pages - 4 volumes

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