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A Victorian Eminence Revisited

ISSUE:  Spring 1996
William Morris, A Life for Our Time. By Fiona MacCarthy. Knopf. $45.00.

MacCarthy states at the outset what she intends to do in a biography of one who has already inspired other, similar efforts. She wanted to capture his multifaceted personality and the impact of his work on his contemporaries as well as upon us, a hundred years after his death. Recent books have tended to take one specialty for its focus, or they have considered Morris from a special point of view, i.e. the Marxist Morris, or the Jungian Morris. Environmentalists have taken him as their early champion for his energetic attempts to save a building or a valley from the encroachment of “development.” MacCarthy wants to uncover the “whole personality.” She gives credit to his first biographer, Mackail, but points out his tendency to ease around Morris’ involvement with questionable political drives such as his vigorous support of the Democratic Federation and the Socialist League. By using his lectures, letters, and the minutes of Socialist meetings she shows that this interest was not an aberration, but a unified part of his lifelong goals toward preservation of what he viewed as a better life, for people, for the environment, and for work. She thoroughly describes his many endeavors which included poetry (on a good day, it is said, he could write 1,000 lines of verse), his interest in Icelandic and the English classics (he designed a production of Chaucer bound in white pigskin); he revived and improved upon lost arts of stained glass, embroidery, illumination and calligraphy, textile dyeing, printing and weaving, and high-warp tapestry. An intimate associate of the pre-Raphaelite group that included Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, who became a lifelong friend, Morris found a common cause with them in his antipathy for the growing materialism of industrial England. Most of his endeavors can be seen to reflect his passion for reviving the arts of handicrafts and avoiding the evils, as he saw them, of mass production. MacCarthy gives clear credit to his faults and his blind spots. For instance, he proclaimed loudly in speeches and in his writings, for fellowship and equality, but his factory was not “A Factory as It Might Be.” He supported the lifestyle of the middle ages, but was blind to population growth and the need for new technologies. As she says, the central terror of his message was the abandonment of capitalism itself and its replacement by more equitable, humane social structures. This generous and sweeping challenge still reverberates in British politics, as William Morris provides the voice of inner conscience. The biographer must try to find a balance between her subject’s contribution to the arts, for instance, and his contribution to humanity’s social progress. With Morris, this is an especially vital issue. A Morris “arrives only once or twice a century, in the sense of someone of their time and yet beyond it.” We know from this biography what his response would be to events he did not survive long enough to see. “Morris called himself a Communist, but communism as developed?> in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe would never have been what he envisaged.” We think he would have seen through Lenin and Stalin instantly, and he would have looked on the Thatcher years in Britain as amongst the worst he could imagine in terms of human destructiveness and capitalist greed.

To quote in part, “Craft Fayres? Business parks? Garden centres? Sound bites? Opinion polls? Chat shows? Designer clothes? Executive phones? . . . Market-oriented society? . . .’Damned pigs! Damn’d fools!’ “Morris would have pulled out his beard at such pretensions (one hair at a time).

How should Morris be remembered? For his contribution to the arts and literature or for his polemics for greater equality in life and living? This biography dispassionately dissects his life goals, his letters, his relationships with his wife, children and friends, and we see as much of the whole man as seems possible. The biography is thoroughly researched and equably written. In fact, the tale moves with a good pace throughout, moving from place to place, telling in personal detail of his vision which brought him often into conflict with the status quo. Morris was a man of appeal and challenge, whether he was working at his desk, entertaining guests, speaking to an audience of workers, or spinning at his loom. The book brings him alive.

What is his influence today? Much of it is around us but unseen. MacCarthy brings this out with no drum beating. His influence on furniture style is present today—toward more comfort and less “fussiness.” Wallpapers today and textiles as well as chintzes are often directly descended from the patterns designed by Morris— sometimes exotic tropical and sometimes delicate vines with tracery you can see through. His painted glass designs (often executed by Burne-Jones) can be seen in churches throughout England. While his poetry is not often read today, it could well be, and his Icelandic tales could be the subject of modern drama. His vision of a future more palatable to the needs of the human spirit lives both in Parliaments and Congress. William Morris lived hugely and worked with enormous energy. His life and vision are well presented in this book.


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