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

Monday, January 10, 2011

Creating a monster

To Oxford last week to see the Bodleian Library’s exhibition Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family. The exhibition looks at the way in which Shelley’s posthumous image was created by the careful control of how documents about and by Shelley and his circle were published – in edited form, not at all, or with restricted access. Shelley’s son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, had no interest in literature and it was his wife Jane who was the main architect of the Shelley image. She even set up a shrine to Shelley in her house, which contained items such as his watch, a plate from which he ate, and a collection of locks of hair from Percy and Mary Shelley and their friends. These people were big on collecting hair: there is an entire necklace made from Mary Wollstonecraft’s tresses from which hang two lockets containing more hair.

Shelley’s reputation certainly needed protecting. There was and still is an unsavoury air to him, even if some of the scandals don’t bother us so much these days: atheism, illegitimacy and infidelity do not perhaps cause so much shock as they once did. It’s easy to rake up the dirt on him, and covering it up was quite a feat. Another generation might broadcast the particulars of his life in order to depict him as a pioneer of sexual or spiritual freedom. But no matter how you judge his behaviour – if indeed you think it relevant to judge it at all - the exhibition cannot fail to move.

It’s quite interesting to see the plate Shelley ate his raisins from, but nothing like so fascinating as his notebooks full of doodles and scribbles, or the much-crossed out and reworked drafts of Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, or Queen Mab. Shelley and his circle lived for and by their writing. The only reason we pore over their lives at all is because they were poets, novelists, essayists. So it’s the pages that matter, the product of the moving hand, the living mind, that connects us to their lives. The exhibition’s many treasures enables many such connections. There are pages from Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein showing some of her husband’s amendments: a disquieting object, given the lingering assumption that the book’s real author was Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley’s transcriptions of her dead husband’s poems bear witness to her editorial effort, and make you wonder if she got her own back with a few subtle changes to his work here and there.

For me the exhibition’s greatest treasures are contained in one page and three small notes. The page is from the manuscript of Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay On Poetry, and the three small notes are the last she wrote to Godwin while she was awaiting the birth of her daughter, Fanny. It’s exciting enough to see work in a writer’s own hand; when that writer is a hero of yours it’s incredibly moving.

The exhibition runs until 27 March 2011 and admission is free, but if you can’t get to Oxford you can view it on line at http://shelleysghost.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

Read Germaine Greer on the argument about who wrote Frankenstein in The Guardian, Monday 9 April 2007: Yes, Frankenstein really was written by Mary Shelley. It's obvious - because the book is so bad http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/apr/09/gender.books