by Peter Faulkner
When Morris’s developing interest in printing led him to found the Kelmscott Press, whose first publication appeared in May 1891, he put himself in a position to bring out small editions of works that he liked which were unlikely to appeal to a wide readership, as well as more popular works. In the former category we may place the two volumes of Raoul Lefevre’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy as produced in translation by William Caxton c.1475, which was published at the Press in November 1892, soon followed by Caxton’s translation of The History of Reynard the Foxe in January 1893.1 In April 1893 the Press produced The Order of Chivalry, translated from the French of Ramón Lull by Caxton, together with the medieval French L’Ordene de Chevalerie with a translation by Morris entitled The Ordination of Knighthood.2 With his interest in medieval French literature stimulated in this way, Morris went on to translate the four thirteenth-century stories that came to constitute Old French Romances in 1896.3 The first of these, published in December 1893, was The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane.
On 31 January 1893 Morris wrote, probably to F.S. Ellis who did much of the editorial work for the Kelmscott Press:
There is a little book of the Librarie Elzévirienne hight Contes et Nouvelles de la XIIIme Siècle: two of these are amongst the most beautiful works of the Middle Ages, and I intend translating them, and printing in a nice little book in Chaucer type.4
Morris’s first biographer, J.W.Mackail, makes the observation that this little book, published in 1856, ‘had for thirty years been one of the treasures of literature to him. Together with the "Violier des Histoires Romaines", which appeared in the same series two years later, it had been among the first sources of his knowledge of the French romance of the Middle Ages'.5 Mackail draws attention to a letter from Swinburne thanking Morris for sending him a copy of the last of the Kelmscott Press volumes of these translations, in which Swinburne recalled his and Morris’s shared pleasure in reading the French stories ‘in the days when we first foregathered at Oxford’ nearly forty years before.6 Mackail also notes that from his reading of the Nouvelles Morris had planned two of the stories for The Earthly Paradise, the completed tale ‘The Man Born to be King’ being based on ' Le Conte de L' Empereur Coustant’, and the unfinished poem ‘Amis and Amillion’, which had its origin in ‘L' Amitie d' Amis et d' Amile’.7
The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane is interestingly constructed, alternating its two main points of focus, King Florus on the one hand, and Jehane on the other. King Florus’s story is the simpler. He is married twice, but neither wife bears him an heir. He is thus still wanting a suitable wife towards the end of the tale, when his story unites with that of Jehane, to whom most of the narrative is devoted. Jehane’s more complicated story involves marriage to a humble squire, Robin; an unwise bet on the virtue of his wife with the villainous Raoul who, although valiantly resisted by the lady, has noticed ‘a black Spot which she had on her right groin hard by her natural part’, and when he reports this to Robin, he - rather supinely, to the modern reader - decides that he has lost the bet, pays up, and sets off for Paris. (Shakespeare tell a similar disturbing story involving a bet between a husband and a villain in Cymbeline). The robust Jehane responds to his departure by herself setting off for Paris to seek her husband, with her hair cut short, ‘arrayed like to an esquire’ and calling herself John . She and Florus meet up on the way, and Jehane/John becomes Robin’s squire, and goes with him to Marseilles; he of course has not recognised her. In Marseilles they have to sell their horses, but the ever-resourceful Jehane announces that she/he is good at making ‘French bread’, and does this so successfully that soon they can buy ' a very great house’, and set themselves up to run it, successfully, as a hostel for guests . As fate will have it in such stories, Raoul - who has been istructed by his confessor tgo to Rome asa penitent, also arrives in Marseilles, and stays at the very house; Jehane hears him telling his story, but cannily holds her peace. Robin and ‘John’ continue to prosper, and finally decide to return home, where Robin challenges Raoul -who has reverted from penitence to aggresion - and eventually defeats him in a vividly described battle. Now it is time for Jehane to reveal herself as a woman - indeed, according to her supportive female cousin, as ‘the fairest lady of the world’. Robin and Jehane live happily together for ten years, though childless; then Robin dies ‘like a valiant man’, leaving Jehane as a beautiful and philanthropic widow.
The final part of the story brings together its two protagonists. King Florus sends one of his knights to ask Jehane for her hand. Jehane replies with characteristic spirit: ‘But say to thy king, that, so please him, he come to me, if he prize me so much and loveth me, and it seems good to him that I take him to husband spouse, for the lords ought to beseech the ladies, and not ladies the lords’. The knight, somewhat surprised, takes the message back, and King Florus does not take offence, but agrees. They are soon married, and ‘King Florus loved her much for her great beauty, and for the great wit and great valiancy that was in her.’ She bears a son, Florence, who becomes Emperor of Constantinople, and a daughter, Floria, who becomes queen of her own country on the death of her father, and also marries the King of Hungary. The two virtuous beings are thus rewarded by God according to their deserts, and die peacefully and fulfilled, as Morris likes his heroes and heroines to die.
Morrris’s pleasure in this medieval story is evident. He tells it vigorously, with a preference for short words, and employing a deliberately medieval vocabulary (for which a Glossary has been provided) which takes the reader into an unfamiliar but engrossing world. The clear contrasts between good and evil, and the delight in story-telling and the natural world appealed to him, just as he reacted against the psychological complexity of contemporary novelists like Henry James, whom he termed the ‘clever but dull Mr. James’.8 Thus it is no surprise to find that Morris was at the same time writing the series of stories that have come to be called the Prose Romances, which exhibit some of the qualities of the French tales. At the Kelmscott Press he produced The Story of the Glittering Plain in May 1891 and again, with Walter Crane’s illustrations, in February 1894; The Wood beyond the World in October 1894; Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair in September 1895; The Well at the World’s End in June 1896; and, after Morris’s death, the Press issued The Water of the Wondrous Isles in July 1897 and The Sundering Flood in February 1898. In the section of her recent William Morris and the Idea of Community entitled ‘The Bibles of the People’,Anna Vaninskaya has given a convincing account of Morris’s attitude to fiction in these years, showing how his use of the romance genre enabled him to ‘demonstrate the values of association, fellowship and mutual aid as against ‘modern individualism and introspection’.9 His reading of the French tales clearly helped him in this self-imposed task.
1William S. Peterson, A Bibliography of the Kelmscott Press, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984; 1985, pp 24-7 and 29-31.
2ibid., pp. 36-9.
3Old French Romances. Done into English by William Morris. With an Introduction by Joseph Jacobs, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1896, 1914.
4Norman Kelvin, editor,The Collected Letters of William Morris, 4 vols., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984- 96; Vol. IV, 15; 31 January 1893.
5J.W.Mackail, The Life of William Morris, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1899; 1922, Vol.II, 297.
6ibid.,Vol. II, 297-8.
8Commonweal, 15 December 1888; in Nicholas Salmon, editor, William Morris. Journalism, Bristol: Thoemess Press, 1996, pp. 490-1, where James is said to write from ‘the stand-point of the superior middle-class person’.
9Anna Vaninskaya, William Morris and the Idea of Community, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010, p. 68.