Tag Archives: Victoriana

William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, Pt. 1

detail_256_William_morris150(1955, 1976, 2011) E.P. Thompson, PM Press

A book this size (810 pages!) is always daunting to start, long to finish, but it feels like you’ve really accomplished something by the end of it. Of course there is no way to condense or summarise the contents. Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, near Epping Forest, went to Cambridge, studied medieval history and wrote poetry. Ruskin was the great influence of that period and throughout Morris’ life, but he’s on my list of things to read so I won’t discuss him too much here. This is also the period he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, believed Rosetti when he said to paint was the thing, and so he painted. Romance was also the thing, romance and authenticity, and somehow Morris was given the nickname of Topsy which he never lost amongst his friends from these days. There was revolt of a kind in his life and art, but a revolt of what? Thompson pulls out key phrases:

‘Truth to Nature.’ ‘Stern facts.’ ‘Flight of little souls in bright flames.’ ‘Maisons damnees.’ ‘Mystery–the main thing required for the surprise of the imagination’ (54).

Morris writes:

When an artist has really a very keen sense of beauty, I venture to think that he can not literally represent an event that takes place in modern life. He must add something or other to qualify or soften the ugliness and sordidness of the surroundings of life in our generation (56).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Black chalk on paper, dated 1865, 31.5 x 34.5cm, Private collection
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Black chalk on paper, dated 1865, 31.5 x 34.5cm, Private collection

He was to meet his wife Jane Burden here in this circle, a model for Dante Rossetti and daughter of a stable worker. She’s someone I want to read more about — as in this tale as it is told, her last name is particularly apt for their relationship. E.P. Thompson isn’t the best on gender issues, and it is certainly clear that they were not very compatible together and in a rational world would have split, but there is little sense of her here apart from a woman firmly committed to her own comfort and distant from any of Morris interests. He seems to have fallen in love with the ideal that he wrote in his romances, the same ideal that Rossetti painted, all surface and yielding and mystery, no living breathing woman (for an interesting view on this from another model, see Will the Real Jane Morris Please Stand Up). They seemed to have come to an open-marriage arrangement over the years, Morris seems to have had a very practical and what I think of as a modern view of it — in a society where there can be no divorce. This is echoed in  views from his fiction, like News From Nowhere, and important in shaping his views on ideal gender roles and relationships under socialism. But it’s hard to tell what the reality was, Jane’s own biographies beckon. What is certain is that Rossetti remained very much in her life long after he and Morris ceased to agree on anything. The William Morris gallery has an exhibit devoted to her image and what they call Rossetti’s obsession with her until January 2015.

But meanwhile Morris was embarking on a revival of the decorative arts — and the relation of arts to society remained central to his thinking throughout his life. In my own ignorance, I associated his wonderful designs with the Victorian era — which of course they are — but were in fact part of a revolt against so much of what characterises the Victorian. I love the distinction between the superficialities of gothic style and feature employed by so many Victorian architects, and Morris own focus on process, the way in which medieval workers created and crafted and the materials and tools that they used. This would become the essence of Morris’ own craft. He consulted archives, interviewed old craftsmen, experimented with his own weaving, synthesised his own natural dyes. I’m much more fascinated by that stuff than Thompson was I’m afraid. I was surprised just how much of the book tries to come to grips with his poetry and prose instead. His poetry isn’t really stuff I like much, the book opens with a discussion of Keats as an influence — whose work I really don’t like either. But it’s a good reminder of how important his poetry continued to be, so much that Thompson writes that the weakness of his middle period ‘reveals much of the change of attitude from revolt to disillusion in his personal outlook during these years. And it marks a stage in the degeneration of the English Romantic movement’ (114). Harsh, but I am inclined to agree.

It was a slow movement to socialism, and he never left behind this love of the medieval past, the goodness of the country and the evil of the big city, the value of work and craftsmanship. Part of the journey was the foundation of ‘Anti-Scrape’, a society to protect and preserve old buildings from demolition or ‘restoration’ into something essentially new. Of course any work to put alternative values or aesthetics above profit or desire to make a show of wealth will bring you ‘directly into conflict with the property sanctions of capitalist society (231).’ I think a lot of things will do this, but the work around the preservation of ancient properties is also very tied up in conservatism, in the maintenance of the past, feudal, inequalities and oppressions that created these buildings. Ruskin, for example, writes

It is…no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings pf past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong, partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead still have their right to them…What we have ourselves built we are at liberty to throw down, but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death… (234 – from the Seven Lamps of Architecture)

But if we do not have the right, than who? How does society grow, improve, change? This seems a bit mad, pushing to an extreme this veneration for what has come before. I much prefer Morris’s approach, and how he believed that ancient architecture:

bears witness to the development of man’s ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what he may hope for in the time to come (236).

In the end Morris becomes an important voice for socialism, Thompson writes of it as almost beginning a new life at the age of 50. He leaves the disillusionment and depression behind to enter wholeheartedly into this cause he believes can transform the world. Thompson writes:

The Socialist propaganda brought to such people as these exactly what it had brought to William Morris–hope. Wherever the aspirations for life stirred among the workers–the clear-headed hatred of capitalism, the thirst for knowledge, beauty and fellowship–the Socialist converts might be won (300).

His commitment to it was as total as it had been to relearning ancient weaving techniques, and I am full of admiration at his hating public speaking and yet forcing himself too it, knowing that his fame would bring people and that would be his greatest contribution to the movement. George Bernard Shaw wrote:

He had escaped middle age, passing quite suddenly from a circle of artistic revolutionists, mostly university men gone Agnostic or Bohemian or both, who knew all about him and saw him as much younger and less important than he really was, into a proletarian movement in which, so far as he was known at all, he was venerated as an Elder…Once or twice some tactless ghost from his past wandered into the Socialist world and spoke of him and even to him as Topsy…. (302)

They were quickly sent on their way. These were the days of speeches and more speeches, the tours by key left figures talking up how to change the world in homes and halls and on street corners. They were also days of meeting in pubs and over pubs and next to pubs, the old guard from the Chartists and the 1848 uprisings and workingman’s international still around linking past to present (but cantankerously sometimes), the anarchists infiltrated by agents provocateurs, the Paris Commune, liberals disillusioned with Gladstone, the ‘Land Question’ the question of the 1870s and 1880s (with the rise of Henry George and the Irish Land League),  though nationalism of land was not specifically a socialist demand (way-hey!), as Thompson argues it distracted from robbery of the people through land as opposed to robbery through ownership of the means of production.  But Socialism was on the rise, 1881 saw the rise of the Labour Emancipation League under Joseph Lane. H.M. Hyndman had read Capital by 1880, introduced himself to Marx, and formed the Democratic Federation in 1881 as well. I like that Thompson notes that despite their belief in socialism, many middle class socialists/marxists still feared the proletariat and the ‘mob’ more than loved them — Hyndman believed their revolution was simply inevitable ‘whether we like it or not’ (294). Nor for Hyndman did his views of socialism conflict with belief in Empire, the strength of Anglo-Saxon blood, or the ‘presentation of the Colonies as the special heritage of the English working-class’ (293).

William Morris on the other hand, spoke out against those who have ‘ruined India, starved and gagged Ireland, and tortured Egypt…’ (326). This was just one of the issues that would work to fracture and split the new Socialist movement in a long and complicated and more than frustrating history with which I shall come to grips a little more in part 2. Eleanor Marx’s biography deals with it, as does the history of the Labour Party I’m reading at the moment…hopefully with all of them together and whatever else the future holds I can get a more clear idea of what is important to remember about this period, because I’ve had more than enough fracture and in-fighting in today’s left politics to last me a lifetime… my eyes glazed over at times I confess.

[Part 2 can be found here]

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Sketches By Boz

Sketches_by_Boz_illustrated_by_George_Cruikshank_1837I enjoyed these greatly, these ridiculously detailed descriptions of life and London in a period we now suffer immense nostalgia for — they form a humorous and rather critical counterpoint to the twee recreations of Victorian glory. In terms of the uselessness of politicians and the practices of parents and couples and aristocrats, indeed, surprisingly little has changed. I couldn’t help feel though, that society has improved for the better now that a woman’s options have expanded beyond marriage and class isn’t quite all it used to be, not that it has changed enough.

These were written in sections, and published in installments — I love this form, though it doesn’t quite have the same feeling here as it does in more pulp narratives like Dickens’ other works, or Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris for example. i also love the pen name of Boz,  and this verse in Bentley’s Miscellany for March 1837:

“Who the dickens ‘Boz’ could be
Puzzled many a learned elf,
Till time unveiled the mystery,
And ‘Boz’ appeared as Dickens’s self.”

Dickens’ humour is directed here there and everywhere and sometimes I quite loved him — his descriptions of children and their doting mothers were timeless for example — but sometimes I couldn’t help but feel he was being a bit of a pompous and patronising ** . The risks of this kind of social commentary really. The tale of the four Miss Willises is quite my favourite and will never be forgotten, and this could easily have been a Monty Python sketch in the tradition of the twits:

MR. COPPERNOSE called the attention of the section to a proposition of great magnitude and interest, illustrated by a vast number of models, and stated with much clearness and perspicuity in a treatise entitled “Practical Suggestions on the necessity of providing some harmless and wholesome relaxation for the young noblemen of England.” His proposition was, that a space of ground of not less than ten miles in length and four in breadth should be purchased by a new company, to be incorporated by Act of Parliament, and inclosed by a brick wall of not less than twelve feet in height. He proposed that it should be laid out with highway roads, turnpikes, bridges, miniature villages, and every object that could conduce to the comfort and glory of Four-in-hand Clubs, so that they might be fairly presumed to require no drive beyond it. This delightful retreat would be fitted up with most commodious and extensive stables, for the convenience of such of the nobility and gentry as had a taste for ostlering, and with houses of entertainment furnished in the most expensive and handsome style. It would be further provided with whole streets of door-knockers and bell-handles of extra size, so constructed that they could be easily wrenched off at night, and regularly screwed on again, by attendants provided for the purpose, every day. There would also be gas lamps of real glass, which could be broken at a comparatively small expense per dozen, and a broad and handsome foot pavement for gentlemen to drive their cabriolets upon when they were humorously disposed—for the full enjoyment of which feat live pedestrians would be procured from the workhouse at a very small charge per head. The place being inclosed, and carefully screened from the intrusion of the public, there would be no objection to gentlemen laying aside any article of their costume that was considered to interfere with a pleasant frolic, or, indeed, to their walking about without any costume at all, if they liked that better. In short, every facility of enjoyment would be afforded that the most gentlemanly person could possibly desire. But as even these advantages would be incomplete unless there were some means provided of enabling the nobility and gentry to display their prowess when they sallied forth after dinner, and as some inconvenience might be experienced in the event of their being reduced to the necessity of pummelling each other, the inventor had turned his attention to the construction of an entirely new police force, composed exclusively of automaton figures, which, with the assistance of the ingenious Signor Gagliardi, of Windmill-street, in the Haymarket, he had succeeded in making with such nicety, that a policeman, cab-driver, or old woman, made upon the principle of the models exhibited, would walk about until knocked down like any real man; nay, more, if set upon and beaten by six or eight noblemen or gentlemen, after it was down, the figure would utter divers groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect. But the invention did not stop even here; for station-houses would be built, containing good beds for noblemen and gentlemen during the night, and in the morning they would repair to a commodious police office, where a pantomimic investigation would take place before the automaton magistrates,—quite equal to life,—who would fine them in so many counters, with which they would be previously provided for the purpose. This office would be furnished with an inclined plane, for the convenience of any nobleman or gentleman who might wish to bring in his horse as a witness; and the prisoners would be at perfect liberty, as they were now, to interrupt the complainants as much as they pleased, and to make any remarks that they thought proper. The charge for these amusements would amount to very little more than they already cost, and the inventor submitted that the public would be much benefited and comforted by the proposed arrangement.

‘PROFESSOR NOGO wished to be informed what amount of automaton police force it was proposed to raise in the first instance.

‘MR. COPPERNOSE replied, that it was proposed to begin with seven divisions of police of a score each, lettered from A to G inclusive. It was proposed that not more than half this number should be placed on active duty, and that the remainder should be kept on shelves in the police office ready to be called out at a moment’s notice.

‘THE PRESIDENT, awarding the utmost merit to the ingenious gentleman who had originated the idea, doubted whether the automaton police would quite answer the purpose. He feared that noblemen and gentlemen would perhaps require the excitement of thrashing living subjects.

‘MR. COPPERNOSE submitted, that as the usual odds in such cases were ten noblemen or gentlemen to one policeman or cab-driver, it could make very little difference in point of excitement whether the policeman or cab-driver were a man or a block. The great advantage would be, that a policeman’s limbs might be all knocked off, and yet he would be in a condition to do duty next day. He might even give his evidence next morning with his head in his hand, and give it equally well.

And to bring it all home to Lambeth:

CHAPTER XIV—VAUXHALL-GARDENS BY DAY

There was a time when if a man ventured to wonder how Vauxhall-gardens would look by day, he was hailed with a shout of derision at the absurdity of the idea. Vauxhall by daylight! A porter-pot without porter, the House of Commons without the Speaker, a gas-lamp without the gas—pooh, nonsense, the thing was not to be thought of. It was rumoured, too, in those times, that Vauxhall-gardens by day, were the scene of secret and hidden experiments; that there, carvers were exercised in the mystic art of cutting a moderate-sized ham into slices thin enough to pave the whole of the grounds; that beneath the shade of the tall trees, studious men were constantly engaged in chemical experiments, with the view of discovering how much water a bowl of negus could possibly bear; and that in some retired nooks, appropriated to the study of ornithology, other sage and learned men were, by a process known only to themselves, incessantly employed in reducing fowls to a mere combination of skin and bone.

Thomas Rowlandson - Vaux-Hall - Dr. Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Mary Robinson, et al.jpg
‘Vaux-Hall – Dr. Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Mary Robinson, et al’ by Thomas Rowlandson – Published by J.R. Smith, No. 83 Oxford Street, London. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Vague rumours of this kind, together with many others of a similar nature, cast over Vauxhall-gardens an air of deep mystery; and as there is a great deal in the mysterious, there is no doubt that to a good many people, at all events, the pleasure they afforded was not a little enhanced by this very circumstance.

Of this class of people we confess to having made one. We loved to wander among these illuminated groves, thinking of the patient and laborious researches which had been carried on there during the day, and witnessing their results in the suppers which were served up beneath the light of lamps and to the sound of music at night. The temples and saloons and cosmoramas and fountains glittered and sparkled before our eyes; the beauty of the lady singers and the elegant deportment of the gentlemen, captivated our hearts; a few hundred thousand of additional lamps dazzled our senses; a bowl or two of punch bewildered our brains; and we were happy.

In an evil hour, the proprietors of Vauxhall-gardens took to opening them by day. We regretted this, as rudely and harshly disturbing that veil of mystery which had hung about the property for many years, and which none but the noonday sun, and the late Mr. Simpson, had ever penetrated. We shrunk from going; at this moment we scarcely know why. Perhaps a morbid consciousness of approaching disappointment—perhaps a fatal presentiment—perhaps the weather; whatever it was, we did not go until the second or third announcement of a race between two balloons tempted us, and we went.

We paid our shilling at the gate, and then we saw for the first time, that the entrance, if there had been any magic about it at all, was now decidedly disenchanted, being, in fact, nothing more nor less than a combination of very roughly-painted boards and sawdust. We glanced at the orchestra and supper-room as we hurried past—we just recognised them, and that was all. We bent our steps to the firework-ground; there, at least, we should not be disappointed. We reached it, and stood rooted to the spot with mortification and astonishment. That the Moorish tower—that wooden shed with a door in the centre, and daubs of crimson and yellow all round, like a gigantic watch-case! That the place where night after night we had beheld the undaunted Mr. Blackmore make his terrific ascent, surrounded by flames of fire, and peals of artillery, and where the white garments of Madame Somebody (we forget even her name now), who nobly devoted her life to the manufacture of fireworks, had so often been seen fluttering in the wind, as she called up a red, blue, or party-coloured light to illumine her temple! That the—but at this moment the bell rung; the people scampered away, pell-mell, to the spot from whence the sound proceeded; and we, from the mere force of habit, found ourself running among the first, as if for very life.

It was for the concert in the orchestra. A small party of dismal men in cocked hats were ‘executing’ the overture to Tancredi, and a numerous assemblage of ladies and gentlemen, with their families, had rushed from their half-emptied stout mugs in the supper boxes, and crowded to the spot. Intense was the low murmur of admiration when a particularly small gentleman, in a dress coat, led on a particularly tall lady in a blue sarcenet pelisse and bonnet of the same, ornamented with large white feathers, and forthwith commenced a plaintive duet.

We knew the small gentleman well; we had seen a lithographed semblance of him, on many a piece of music, with his mouth wide open as if in the act of singing; a wine-glass in his hand; and a table with two decanters and four pine-apples on it in the background. The tall lady, too, we had gazed on, lost in raptures of admiration, many and many a time—how different people do look by daylight, and without punch, to be sure! It was a beautiful duet: first the small gentleman asked a question, and then the tall lady answered it; then the small gentleman and the tall lady sang together most melodiously; then the small gentleman went through a little piece of vehemence by himself, and got very tenor indeed, in the excitement of his feelings, to which the tall lady responded in a similar manner; then the small gentleman had a shake or two, after which the tall lady had the same, and then they both merged imperceptibly into the original air: and the band wound themselves up to a pitch of fury, and the small gentleman handed the tall lady out, and the applause was rapturous.

The comic singer, however, was the especial favourite; we really thought that a gentleman, with his dinner in a pocket-handkerchief, who stood near us, would have fainted with excess of joy. A marvellously facetious gentleman that comic singer is; his distinguishing characteristics are, a wig approaching to the flaxen, and an aged countenance, and he bears the name of one of the English counties, if we recollect right. He sang a very good song about the seven ages, the first half-hour of which afforded the assembly the purest delight; of the rest we can make no report, as we did not stay to hear any more.

We walked about, and met with a disappointment at every turn; our favourite views were mere patches of paint; the fountain that had sparkled so showily by lamp-light, presented very much the appearance of a water-pipe that had burst; all the ornaments were dingy, and all the walks gloomy. There was a spectral attempt at rope-dancing in the little open theatre. The sun shone upon the spangled dresses of the performers, and their evolutions were about as inspiriting and appropriate as a country-dance in a family vault. So we retraced our steps to the firework-ground, and mingled with the little crowd of people who were contemplating Mr. Green.

Some half-dozen men were restraining the impetuosity of one of the balloons, which was completely filled, and had the car already attached; and as rumours had gone abroad that a Lord was ‘going up,’ the crowd were more than usually anxious and talkative. There was one little man in faded black, with a dirty face and a rusty black neckerchief with a red border, tied in a narrow wisp round his neck, who entered into conversation with everybody, and had something to say upon every remark that was made within his hearing. He was standing with his arms folded, staring up at the balloon, and every now and then vented his feelings of reverence for the aëronaut, by saying, as he looked round to catch somebody’s eye, ‘He’s a rum ’un is Green; think o’ this here being up’ards of his two hundredth ascent; ecod, the man as is ekal to Green never had the toothache yet, nor won’t have within this hundred year, and that’s all about it. When you meets with real talent, and native, too, encourage it, that’s what I say;’ and when he had delivered himself to this effect, he would fold his arms with more determination than ever, and stare at the balloon with a sort of admiring defiance of any other man alive, beyond himself and Green, that impressed the crowd with the opinion that he was an oracle.

‘Ah, you’re very right, sir,’ said another gentleman, with his wife, and children, and mother, and wife’s sister, and a host of female friends, in all the gentility of white pocket-handkerchiefs, frills, and spencers, ‘Mr. Green is a steady hand, sir, and there’s no fear about him.’

‘Fear!’ said the little man: ‘isn’t it a lovely thing to see him and his wife a going up in one balloon, and his own son and his wife a jostling up against them in another, and all of them going twenty or thirty mile in three hours or so, and then coming back in pochayses? I don’t know where this here science is to stop, mind you; that’s what bothers me.’

Here there was a considerable talking among the females in the spencers.

‘What’s the ladies a laughing at, sir?’ inquired the little man, condescendingly.

‘It’s only my sister Mary,’ said one of the girls, ‘as says she hopes his lordship won’t be frightened when he’s in the car, and want to come out again.’

‘Make yourself easy about that there, my dear,’ replied the little man. ‘If he was so much as to move a inch without leave, Green would jist fetch him a crack over the head with the telescope, as would send him into the bottom of the basket in no time, and stun him till they come down again.’

‘Would he, though?’ inquired the other man.

‘Yes, would he,’ replied the little one, ‘and think nothing of it, neither, if he was the king himself. Green’s presence of mind is wonderful.’

Just at this moment all eyes were directed to the preparations which were being made for starting. The car was attached to the second balloon, the two were brought pretty close together, and a military band commenced playing, with a zeal and fervour which would render the most timid man in existence but too happy to accept any means of quitting that particular spot of earth on which they were stationed. Then Mr. Green, sen., and his noble companion entered one car, and Mr. Green, jun., and his companion the other; and then the balloons went up, and the aërial travellers stood up, and the crowd outside roared with delight, and the two gentlemen who had never ascended before, tried to wave their flags, as if they were not nervous, but held on very fast all the while; and the balloons were wafted gently away, our little friend solemnly protesting, long after they were reduced to mere specks in the air, that he could still distinguish the white hat of Mr. Green. The gardens disgorged their multitudes, boys ran up and down screaming ‘bal-loon;’ and in all the crowded thoroughfares people rushed out of their shops into the middle of the road, and having stared up in the air at two little black objects till they almost dislocated their necks, walked slowly in again, perfectly satisfied.

The next day there was a grand account of the ascent in the morning papers, and the public were informed how it was the finest day but four in Mr. Green’s remembrance; how they retained sight of the earth till they lost it behind the clouds; and how the reflection of the balloon on the undulating masses of vapour was gorgeously picturesque; together with a little science about the refraction of the sun’s rays, and some mysterious hints respecting atmospheric heat and eddying currents of air.

There was also an interesting account how a man in a boat was distinctly heard by Mr. Green, jun., to exclaim, ‘My eye!’ which Mr. Green, jun., attributed to his voice rising to the balloon, and the sound being thrown back from its surface into the car; and the whole concluded with a slight allusion to another ascent next Wednesday, all of which was very instructive and very amusing, as our readers will see if they look to the papers. If we have forgotten to mention the date, they have only to wait till next summer, and take the account of the first ascent, and it will answer the purpose equally well.