The Perfectionist

William Morris: A Life for Our Time

by Fiona MacCarthy
Knopf, 780 pp., $45.00

The Collected Letters of William Morris

edited by Norman Kelvin

Vol. I, 1848–1880

626 pp., $90.00

Vol. II, Part A, 1881–1884

424 pp., $60.00

Vol. II, Part B, 1885–1888

566 pp., $75.00

Vols. III and IV forthcoming

Princeton University Press

William Morris may seem too large and various a character for a single book. It is possible to write about the craftsman (or, rather, the stained-glass, textile, and furniture designer, weaver, calligrapher, illuminator, gilder, and typographer) without saying anything about the poet, novelist, and translator. Then there is Morris the political activist, social reformer, conservationist, and businessman. In this century, dozens of books have dealt with specific aspects of his career, but until now the most comprehensive full biography was still J.W. Mackail’s two-volume life, which appeared in 1899.

Mackail was writing three years after Morris’s death, and under the watchful eyes of his widow, Jane, and daughter May. Though he did justice to the artist and man of letters, he was outright disingenuous about Morris’s politics and private life. Following the line established by his Times obituary, he presented Morris as a romantic idealist temporarily seduced into the folly of Socialism.

In fact, Morris joined the Marxist-influenced Democratic (later Social-Democratic) Federation in 1883, leaving it less than two years later because he had no belief in parliamentary democracy. Although he referred to himself as a Communist, many of the ideas expressed in his later political writings are indistinguishable from those of his Anarchist comrades in the revolutionary Socialist League, which he helped to form in 1884 and left in 1890, when its leaders began to incite British workers to violent insurrection. In playing all this down, Mackail failed to convey the extent to which Morris’s extreme political position isolated him from middle-class Victorian life. Morris himself was more honest, “I stink in people’s nostrils,” he said.

What is more, Mackail could hardly write frankly about his subject’s private life, since he was married to the daughter of the woman with whom Morris had been in love, Mackail’s mother-in-law, Georgiana, Burne-Jones. The impossibility of alluding to Jane Morris’s affairs with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Wilfred Scawen Blunt also forced Mackail to leave out of his story the loneliness and humiliation which were as much a part of Morris’s experience as his manic creative energy. As he sifted through the Morris papers, Mackail uttered words that will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to write about a great man whose relations are still living: “How extraordinarily interesting one could make the story, if one were going to die the day before it was published.”

Fiona MacCarthy has told that extraordinarily interesting story remarkably well. She is the first biographer to have had access to all four volumes of Norman Kelvin’s edition of the Collected Letters of William Morris, and has made good use of Charles Harvey and Jon Press’s recent study of Morris as a businessman, the most important and original book on him to have appeared in thirty years. If her own research has not revealed much more about the outlines of Morris’s life than we learned in Kelvin’s preface to the first …

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Letters

Half-Full Use May 23, 1996