Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Treasured Possessions

“March 3rd 83

Dear Sir

Thanks for your note; the gout sticks to me so that I am still unable to make any appointment, but I will come on the very first opportunity. Yours faithfully.”

“March 20th .83

Dear Sir

I have just received your note as I am setting off for the country till Easter is over: I have sent it on to our works & will see on my return that the sketch is done and all estimates duly made. I am Dear Sir Yours Faithfully”


They’re not much for two of my most treasured possessions, are they? Two short notes, business-like, hurried, revealing little of the writer. The reason they are treasured is that they were written by William Morris. Morris is a great hero of mine; one of the chief deities of my personal pantheon; a genius. I love him for his art, his poetry, his politics, and his novels. The Well at the World’s End is one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read, and as a devotee of narrative verse I’m bowled over by epics like The Earthly Paradise and The Life and Death of Jason.

These inconsequential notes, written when Morris was 49, have been glued into two books in the eighth, four-volume edition of Morris’s poem The Earthly Paradise, published by Ellis and White in 1880. The note dated March 20 1883 is in Part II and the note dated 3 March 1883 is in Part I. They have both been awkwardly folded and badly trimmed; some of the lettering in the note of March 20 1883 has even been cut off.

Whoever did the glueing was a great lover of paste. At the front of Part I they also affixed a short newspaper biography of Morris, who “lives, with his wife and two daughters, in a pleasant house near the Thames at Hammersmith”. (Reassuringly, the author adds “The socialism of his later days has scarcely alienated any of his older friends”.) This is the address from which Morris wrote the notes I have – Kelmscott House, Upper Mall, Hammersmith, and now home to the William Morris Society. The biography is signed The Prompter and – more careless work from our gluer – the date of the cutting and the title of the publication have been removed by the scissors.

But how much is suggested by these little scraps of paper – how many stories could we make from them! Clearly Morris meant something to our scrappy scrap collector. Were the notes addressed to him? Why else would he be in possession of them? But then how did he know Morris? Was he a client? A friend? An importunate acquaintance? (Cue stalker novel.) A gay man in love? (Cue gay history novel.) Or was he obsessed by hatred for Morris? (Cue Victorian serial killer novel.)

Really, though, spinning tales about the letters doesn’t really add to their value for me (and these are all terrible ideas!). They are by William Morris, they are in my study, I can see the books when I’m sitting here writing and feel brushed by the spirit of that great, gouty artist who wrote two ordinary letters in March 1883.

NB Unfortunately I was unable to include images of either note; one was simply illegible when scanned and the other is too fragile to scan.

For more information about Morris see The William Morris Society - http://www.morrissociety.org/index.html

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