Early Prose Romances of William Morris:

The Novel on Blue Paper

Introduction and Conclusion transcribed here from The Novel on Blue Paper. William Morris and Penelope Fitzgerald. London: Journeyman Press, 1982. Print [pdf]

 

INTRODUCTION

The novel which William Morris began to write early in 1872 is unfinished and unpublished and also untitled. I have called it The Novel on Blue Paper because it was written on blue lined foolscap, and Morris preferred to call things what they were.

The only first-hand information we have about it is a letter which Morris wrote to Louie Baldwin1 on the 12th of June, 1872.

Dear Louie,

Herewith I send by book-post my abortive novel: it is just a specimen of how not to do it, and there is no more to be said thereof: 'tis nothing but landscape and sentiment: which thing won't do. Since you wish to read it, I am sorry 'tis such a rough copy, which roughness sufficiently indicates my impatience at having to deal with prose. The separate parcel, paged 1 to 6, was a desperate dash at the middle of the story to try to give it life when I felt it failing: it begins with the letter of the elder brother to the younger on getting his letter telling how he was going to bid for the girl in marriage. I found it in the envelope in which I had sent it to Georgie to see if she could give me any hope: she gave me none, and I have never looked at it since. So there's an end of my novel-writing, I fancy, unless the world turns topsides under some day. Health and merry days to you, and believe me to be

Your affectionate friend,
William Morris

[1 Louisa Baldwin (1845-1925) was the youngest surviving child of the Methodist minister, George Macdonald, and the sister of Georgiana Burne-Jones. On her eleventh birthday she was taken as a treat to meet Rossetti, and became a pet of the whole circle. Although her marriage to the manufacturer Alfred Baldwin was a happy one, Louie's health failed and she became a chronic invalid.]
 
The tone of gruff modesty, and in particular the catch phrase from Dickens, 2 is habitual to Morris and can be taken for what it is worth. In spite of the disapproval of Georgiana Burne-Jones, whose opinion he valued at the time above all others, he did not destroy his MS, but kept it, and after what was presumably further discouragement from Louie, he kept it still. He must have been aware, too, why he had been given no hope. Mackail3 tells us that Morris 'had all the instinct of a born man of letters for laying himself open in his books, and having no concealment from the widest circle of all,' and (of the Prologues to The Earthly Paradise) that there is 'an auto­biography so delicate and so outspoken that it must needs be left to speak for itself.' That, we have to conclude,  was the trouble with the novel on blue paper; it did speak for itself, but much too plainly.

[2 Little Dorrit Book 1, chap 10. The Circumlocution Office 'was before­ hand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving HOW NOT TO DO IT.'
3 J.W. Mackail O.M. (1859-1945) married Margaret, the Burne-Jones' daughter, and was commissioned to write his classic Life of William Morris (1899) by Burne-Jones himself. Mackail's letters and unpublished notes show that he was obliged to exercise a great deal of tact and omit some episodes altogether.]

The background of the novel—the  'landscape'—is the Upper Thames valley, the watermeadows, streams and villages round about Kelmscott4 on the borders of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. Morris   had gone down to inspect Kelmscott Manor House in May 1871, and in June he entered into a joint tenancy of the old house with Rossetti at £60 a year. The grey gables, flagged path, enclosed garden cram-full of flowers, lime and elm trees 'populous with rooks', white-panelled parlour, are all recognisably described in this novel, although Morris when he wrote it had never spent a summer there. It was the house he loved 'with a reasonable love, I think.' Rossetti, not a countryman, had hoped that the place would be good for his nerves. But in the seclusion of the marshes his obsession with the beauty of Jane Morris, and his compulsion to paint her again and again, reached the point of melancholy mania. Morris had a business to run and was obliged to be in London a good deal. The seemingly intolerable tension arose between the three of them which has been so often and so painfully traced by biographers.  To Morris it was 'this failure of mine.'  Mackail, cautiously describing the subject of the novel as 'the love of two brothers for the same woman', evidently saw no farther into it than the failure. Once, however, when I was trying to explain the situation, and its projection as myth, to a number of overseas students, one of them asked a question  which I have never seen in any biography: 'Why then did Morris not strike Rossetti?'

[4 Historically speaking, the village should be spelled Kelmscot and the house Kelmscott, but the villagers themselves seem to have given up the distinction.]

I hope to show that this question is very relevant to the novel on blue paper. Certainly Morris was not 'above', or indifferent to, his loss. It is a mistake to refer his much later opinions, as reported by Shaw, or Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, or Luke Ionides, or as expressed in News from Nowhere to his 'restless heart' of 1868-73.5 Which of us would like to be judged, at thirty-nine, by our frame of mind at the age of fifty­seven? Morris himself knew this well enough. 'At the age of more than thirty years' he wrote in Killian of the Closes (1895) 'men are more apt to desire what they have not than they that be younger or older.'

[5 'Morris was a complete fatalist in his attitude towards the conduct of all human beings where sex was concerned.' (Bernard Shaw, Morris As I Knew Him 1936). 'Women did not seem to count with him.' (Luke Ionides, Memories 1925). 'He was the only man I ever came in contact with who seemed absolutely independent of sex considerations.' (W.S. Blunt, BL Add MSS.45350). Blunt did not know Morris well until 1889.]

And Morris might have been pressed into a violent demonstration at this time by yet another cruel test, the profoundly unsettling behaviour of his greatest friend, Edward Burne­Jones. Burne-Jones had been married since 1860 to Georgie, the charming, tiny and indomitable daughter of a Methodist minister. The Neds had started out in lodgings with £30 between them, and their happy and stable marriage, together with Burne-Jones' designs for the Firm, were part of the very earth out of which Morris's life and work took growth. But in 1867 the quiet Ned suddenly claimed, much more openly than Rossetti, the freedom to love unchecked. He had been totally captivated by a most tempestuous   member of the Greek community in London, Mary  Zambaco.6 Of  this radiantly sad and unpredictable  young woman he drew the loveliest by far of his pencil portraits; 'I believed it to be all my future  life,' he told Rossetti. The affair came and went and came again, to the fury of Ionides, and the sympathetic interest of the Greek women. It lingered on, indeed, until 1873. Morris, stalwart, stood by his friend, but the effect of this new confounding of love and loyalty, on top of his own
'failure', must have been hard to master; the effect of Mary herself can be guessed at, perhaps, from the strange intrusion of one of the characters, Eleanor, into the novel on blue paper.

[6The head of the Greek community in Victorian London was Constantine Ionides, 'the Thunderer', a wealthy stockbroker and a generous patron of the arts. Mary Zambaco was a granddaughter of the House of Ionides, a wealthy beauty with 'glorious red hair and almost phosphorescent white skin', who had left her commonplace husband in Paris in 1866 and come to London. She was also a talented sculptress, with a temperament which Burne-Jones described as 'like hurricanes and tempests and billows only it didn't do in English suburban surroundings.'  In 1868 he made his first attempt to break with her; she threatened to throw herself into the Regent's Canal. In 1869 he painted her as Phyllis pleading with Demophoon, with the epigraph Die mihi quod feci? nisi non sapienter amavi (tell me what  I have  done, except to love unwisely). Rossetti was in their confidence, writing in 1869 to Jane Morris that Mary had become more beautiful 'with all her love and trouble ... but rainy walks and constant journeys are I fear beginning to break up her health.']

Meanwhile, Georgie was left to manage her life and her two children as best she could. In his own loneliness and bewilderment Morris felt deeply for hers, and at this time he was unquestionably in love with her.

Some of his drafts and manuscript poems of 1865-707 show this without disguise, though always with a chivalrous anxiety. He must not intrude; he thanks her because she 'does not deem my service sin.' A pencil note reads on one draft 'we two are in the same box and need conceal nothing—scold me but pardon me.' He is 'late made wise' to his own feelings, and can only trust that time will transform them into the friendship that will bring him peace. Meanwhile the dignity and sincerity with which she is bearing 'the burden of thy grief and wrong' is enough, in itself, to check him.

... nor joy nor grief nor fear
Silence my love; but those grey eyes and clear
Truer than truth pierce through my weal and woe...

[7 BL Add MSS 45.298. Some of these poems were included, in variant forms, by May Morris in the Collected Works vol. XXIV and in vol. 1 of the supplementary volumes.]

Georgie, in fact, was steadfast to her marriage, and strong enough to wait. 'I know one thing,' she wrote to her friend Rosalind Howard, 'and that is that there is love enough between Edward and me to last out a long life if it is given us.'

In the meantime, what was Morris's outward response to the assault on his emotions?  Work, as always, was his 'faithful daily companion.' After returning from Iceland in September 1871 he illuminated the Rubaiyat  of Omar Khayyam, designed the Larkspur wallpaper, began his novel, and fiddled about in 'a maze of re-writing and despondency' with his elaborate masque, Love Is Enough. But the moral of Love Is Enough, (as Shaw complained), is not that love is enough. Pharamond, coming back from his quest for an ideal woman to find that his kingdom has been usurped by a stronger man, accepts that frustration and loss are worthy—'though the world be a-waning'—to be called a victory in the name of love. But Morris knew, as Shaw knew, that this is nonsense. The victory, melancholy as it is, is for self-control. Renunciation is achieved through the will and strengthens the will, not the emotions.  And this, with a far more positive hero than poor Pharamond, is, I believe, the real subject of the novel on blue paper.

Morris had been delicate as a child, but as soon as he grew into his full strength he was subject to fits of violent rage, possibly epileptic in origin. To what extent these were hereditary it is impossible to say. His father was said to be neurotic, and may well have clashed with his eldest son; when Morris was eleven he was sent as a boarder to his school at Woodford, although it was only a few hundred yards away from his home. What seems strange in his later life is the attitude of his close friends, who seem to have watched as a kind of entertainment his frenzied outbursts, followed by the struggle to control himself and a rapid childlike repentance. At times he would beat himself about the head in self-punishment. 'He has been known to drive his head against a wall,' Mackail wrote, 'so as to make a deep dent in the plaster, and bite almost through the woodwork of a windowframe.' Yet with the exception of the day when he hurled a fifteenth century folio at one of his workmen, missing him, but breaking a door panel, there is no record of his making a physical attack on anyone. To return to the student's question—Morris did not strike anybody, least of all the ailing Rossetti, because he waged almost to the end of his life a battle for self-control.

The recognition of restraint as an absolute duty may be referred back to the tutor who prepared Morris, when he was seventeen years old, for his entrance to Oxford. This tutor, the Rev F.B. Guy, was one of the faithful remnant of the Oxford Movement, who had survived Newman's conversion, or desertion, to Rome. Morris believed at this time that he was going to enter the Church, and could not fail to learn from Guy the Movement's insistence on sacrifice and self­correction, even in the smallest things. The Tractarians saw the religious impulse not as a vague emotion, but as a silent discipline growing from the exercise of the will. All that we ought to ask, Keble had said, is room to deny ourselves. And Morris, willingly enlisted in a struggle which he was never to win, persisted in it long after he had parted from orthodox Christianity.  At the age of twenty-three he concluded that he must not expect enjoyment from life—'I have no right to it at all events—love and work, these two things only.' In 1872, when love had betrayed or rejected him, he wrote: 'O how I long to keep the world from narrowing on me, and to look at things bigly and kindly.'8     

[8 Letter to Aglaia Coronio, 25 November 1972.]

The most telling expression of Keble's doctrines in fiction was Charlotte M. Yonge's Heir of Redclyffe (1853). It was said to be the novel most in demand by the officers wounded in the Crimean War, and it was the first book greatly to influence Morris. Here he read the family story of a tragic inheritance. Guy, the heir, has the ferocious temper of his Morville ancestors, and has to struggle as best he can with 'the curse of sin and death.' All his 'animal spirits', all his great capacity for happiness is overshadowed by the temptation to anger, and he is driven to strange extremes, cutting up pencils, biting his lips till the blood runs down, and refusing, in obedience to a vow, even to watch a single game of billiards.  'Resistance should be from within.' He sees his whole life as 'failing and resolving and failing again'. Philip, on the other hand, the high-minded young officer, provokes the Heir and leads him, from the best possible motives, into temptation. Here the novel sets out to show the evil that good can do, and when Guy dies to save him from fever, Philip is left to suffer for ever 'the  penitence of the saints.'

The Heir of Redclyffe, as an exemplary text, asks for a kind of inner or even secret knowledge from its readers. From page to page we are reminded of Kenelm Digby's Broadstone of Honour,9 which held up the example of mediaeval chivalry to Young  England. That is why Guy's nearest railway station is called Broadstone.  Again, Guy and his sweetheart Amy are, in a sense, acting out the story of Sintram10 (the book which Newman would only read when he was quite alone.) Sintram, tempted by the world, the flesh and the devil, and burdened by his father's crime, has to toil upward through the snows to reach Verena, his saintly mother. That is why the widowed Amy calls her child Verena. And Sintram itself makes mysterious reference to its frontispiece, a woodcut version of Durer's engraving The Knight, Death and the Devil, over which Morris and Burne-Jones, as students, had 'pored for hours.'11

[9Sir Kenelm Digby, The Broadstone of Honour; or the True Sense and
Practice of Chivalry (1822-7).
10 H. de Ia   Motte Fouque, The  Seasons: Four Romances from the German (English trans: 1843). Sintram and his Companions is the winter romance.
11 Guy stands looking at the woodcut 'as if it were a dream', but Philip thinks it 'hardly safe for so excitable a mind to dwell much on the world of fiction. The Heir of Redclyffe, chap. 5]
 
These potent images remained with Morris, even though in The Earthly Paradise he had unlocked half the world's tale-hoard. In the second of his late romances, for example, The Well at the World's End (1892-3), Sintram's evil dwarf reappears. In 1872, the time of his greatest emotional test and stress, he set to work on this novel which is a temptation story, although the hero must proceed simply on his own resolution, without prayer, without divine grace, without the saving hand of the loved woman. And most unexpectedly, Morris returned from his dream-world, the 'nameless cities in a distant sea', to place the story in a solid English parsonage, or, to be more accurate, in Elm House, Walthamstow, the first home that he could remember.

Morris opens his tale with the sins of the father. One of those impulses which 'sometimes touch dull, or dulled, natures'—a distinction which Morris was always careful to make—arouses the train of memory in Parson Risley. Eleanor's letters follow. The parson's sin is not that he was Eleanor's lover. This is shown clearly enough later in Mrs Mason's reproach: 'Mr Risley, if my husband likes to make love to every girl in the village, he has a full right to it, if I let him'—a remark which blends well with the 'sweet-smelling abundant garden' and the fertile melon beds. Risley's guilt then, is not a matter of sexuality but a denial of it, firstly through cold cowardice in rejecting a woman 'like the women in poetry, such people as I had never expected to meet,' and secondly through his vile temper. These two aspects of his nature are his legacy to his sons.                       

The Parsonage, as has been said, recalls the house in Walthamstow where Morris was born, and in the two boys, John and Arthur, he represents the opposing sides, as he understood them, of his own character. In some ways the brothers are alike or even identical. Both are romantically imaginative and given to dreaming their lives into 'tales going on', both are fond of fishing (not a trivial matter to Morris), both, of course, love Clara, both dislike their father and both resemble him. 'As to the looks of the lads, by the way, it would rather have puzzled anyone who had seen them to say why the little doctor should have said that either was not like his father. Some strange undercurrent of thought must have drawn it out of him, for they were obviously both very much like him.' John, however, is manly, open, friendly, bird-and­ weather-noticing; Arthur is a book-worm, and sickly. ('Love of ease, dreaminess, sloth, sloppy good-nature', Morris said, 'are what I chiefly accuse myself of .').12 Arthur is 'versed in archaeological lore', while John is in touch with earth and water—'with a great sigh of enjoyment he seemed to gather the bliss of memory of many and many a summer afternoon into this one'—and yet, perversely, Arthur is to be the farmer and John the businessman.

[12 Mackail, 2, 158.]

From the guilty father John inherits anger, Arthur cowardice. John's loss of temper alarms Arthur; 'Are you in a rage with me? Why, do you know, your voice got something like Father's in a rage.' But just as Parson Risley fails to answer Eleanor's letter, so Arthur conceals John's.

John's struggle for self-control is marked by very small incidents.  Resistance, as the Heir of Redclyffe recognises, must be from within. At the beginning of the day's outing, when Clara greets Arthur tenderly,  'they did not notice that John turned away to the horse's head.' At Ruddywell Court, when Arthur begins to do the talking and Clara is entranced, John 'got rather silent'. On the return to the farm, when Clara kisses Arthur, John is left 'whistling in sturdy resolution to keep his heart up, and rating himself for a feeling of discomfort and wrong.'   When she is poised for a few moments between the two of them in the rocking boat, but at length sits down by Arthur, so that both of them are facing the golden sunset to which John's back is now turned, he pulls at the oars 'sturdily', exerting his strength for them in silence. These small everyday victories of the will lead up to a disastrous failure, the furious and destructive letter, and the despairing attempt to redeem it by a postscript—'tell Clara I wrote kindly to you.'

Arthur, on the other hand, the 'saint' of the novel, is shown indulging himself in the sweetness of his dreams and the horror of his nightmares, and even when he becomes the centre of consciousness this self-indulgence is obvious. Clara's love for him is founded, in the Chaucerian mode, on pity. When he reads John's letter, he is afraid. He lies to Clara, who against her better judgement accepts the lie. Arthur is, in fact, almost without will-power, while John, in his blundering way understands keenly the importance of the will.  ' ... nobody does anything,' he tells Mrs Mason, 'except because he likes it. I mean to say, even people who have given up most to please other people—but then, they're all the better people, to be pleased by what's good rather than by what is bad.' And he has 'a feeling not very pleasant of not being listened to.'

In 1872 Samuel Butler published Erewhon, Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree, and George Eliot, Middlemarch. All of these seem very far removed from the unfinished tale-telling on blue paper. But when Morris told Louie Baldwin that he was impatient at having to deal with prose, he underrated the poetry of his story. This lies in the interrelationship of the three journeys—the passage of a summer's day, the first walk upstream to the paradise of the farm, and the crucial turning­point of John's adolescence. The June prologue of The Earthly Paradise opens, (also in the meadows of the Upper Thames)—

O June, O June, that we desired so,
Wilt thou not make us happy on this day?
Across the river thy soft breezes blow
Sweet with the scent of beanfields far away,
Above our heads rustle the aspens grey,
Calm is the sky with harmless clouds beset,
No thought of storm the morning vexes yet.

This is the exact poise of the novel, between past darkness, present happiness (John when he first goes to Leaser is 'happier than he was last year') and the coming unknown discontent. And so John, at seventeen, stands on the confines of his own home, with 'the expectant longing for something sweet to come, heightened rather than chastened by the mingled fear of something as vague as the hope, that fills our hearts so full in us at whiles, killing all commonplace there, making us feel as though we were on the threshold of a new world, one step over which (if we could only make it) would put life within our grasp. What is it? Some reflex of Jove and death going on throughout the world, suddenly touching those who are ignorant as yet of the one, and have not learned to believe in the other?' Mackail quotes this passage in part, but dismisses the novel as 'certainly the most singular of his writings'. Jane Morris's comment on the Life, however, is interesting: 'You see, Mackail is not an artist in feeling, and therefore cannot be sympathetic while writing the life of such a man.'13

 

Penelope Fitzgerald

[13 Letter to WS. Blunt, May 61899. Fitzwilliam Museum Library.]
 

NOTE
           
The Novel on Blue Paper is an edited version of BL Add MSS 45328. A transcription of the manuscript appeared in the Dickens Studies Annual, published by AMS Press Inc., New York, in 1982.

In this version I have corrected spelling, punctuation, omissions and repetitions, and regularised the names, ages and place-names. I have also paragraphed the story, which has meant cutting out one or two of the mediaevalising ‘and so’s’, divided it into short chapters and given them chapter headings, but I have left the story itself without a title, as Morns did.  

I have altered one word (on p.67) for consistency's sake. Arthur cannot start rowing at this point without in every sense rocking the boat.

P.F.

CONCLUSION

The only indication of how the plot will develop is a working note which Morris wrote on the back of p.51 of his (misnumbered) MS:

In writing to John Arthur is to tell him that he has heard her telling the kid about him and what a fine chap he was—talk about getting old at the picnic.

This suggests, at least, that John is going to travel farther than London, and I believe that Morris's object in placing him at a 'Russian merchant's' office is to send him off, at some point, to Russia. In that case he would have been able to draw on the experiences of his friend Crom (Cormell Price 1835-1910). In the spring of 1860, Crom applied for a post he had seen advertised in The Times as tutor to the family of Count Orloff-Davidoff, and went out with them to St. Petersburg. But he had serious differences with his employers and in 1863 resigned his post without much regret on either side (though the Count presented him with a silver cigar-cutter). Looking back on his years in Russia he saw them as a 'period of purgatory', and added 'God grant that they  may have eradicated many of my weaknesses.' This in itself suggests the strain of self-discipline and expiation which I believe is so important in Morris's tale.

By the time we reach John's letter to his brother, Morris is in trouble with his time scheme. The Medea*, which Parson Risley and Eleanor see at the Olympic, gives us the date 1856, and he marries shortly afterwards. John is born, presumably, in 1857, and Morris originally made him fifteen when the book opens, bringing us to 1872, the actual year when it was written. He later makes John tell his father that he was 'seventeen last February'; we are now in 1874. Some years must elapse before Arthur and Clara marry, and more before the kid can be told about his uncle. If John is then in his thirties, the date will be around 1890, so that his experiences will be truly news from nowhere. This is only one more proof of how impetuously Morris dashed into his tale.

[*Medea, or the Best of Mothers, with a Brute of a Husband, with the great burlesque actor Frederick Robson as Medea, was produced at the Olympic in July 1856. This theatre was a favourite haunt of Rossetti's, and he used to take Morris and Burne-Jones there when they came to London as young men in 1856-7.]

Mackail considered that the novel was about one third of the way through, and 'was evidently going to take a tragic turn', but it is also evident that the moral victory will be for John. As I have tried to show in the introduction, the inheritance of the father's sin is divided between the two sons. John is tempted to rage, Arthur to cowardice. By the time of the 'bid for the girl in marriage', John has (though only in appearance) become harder and more worldly, Arthur more yielding and sentimental than ever. Arthur, as we should expect, is wavering under opposition. He has always wanted to be a farmer, but not about here' (p.20), and Mrs Mason will doubtless be distressed if he intends to take her daughter to another part of the country. But the real obstacle is Parson Risley's 'violence' (p.63) and his dislike of the Masons.

Arthur will certainly not have the courage to 'tell my father all about it' (p.75). John, on the other hand, as his letter shows, feels compelled to put himself in the front ranks of suffering and force on the marriage at any cost. I should expect him to confront his father in defence of Clara's happiness. After a ferocious argument—(and to anyone listening at the door their voices will sound exactly alike (p.27)—the Parson will drop dead of a stroke or a fit, a chance for the reappearance of Dr Stoneman, who has acted as the story's commentator. Although John is in no way responsible, as both the doctor and Mr Godby will insist, John will take the burden of his guilt abroad. The Parson will be buried in his unpicturesque churchyard, and Arthur and Clara will be free
to marry.

In this way the book's repeated forebodings of unhappy old age will come true for all three of them. John will never see his beloved rivers and meadows again, and his only comfort in exile will be that he is a hero to Clara’s kid. (This would relate him to Philip in The Heir of Redclyffe and Dickens’ Sydney Carton: 'I see her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name … I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants.’) Arthur’s shameful failure, on the other hand, has been to conceal John’s real feelings from Clara. When at length she finds his letter—as Mrs Risley found her husband’s—she will realise John’s unspoken love for her, and also how close she was to loving him herself. Arthur and she will live out their lives kindly and peaceably enough, but Arthur will never be quite free from remorse, ‘the thought that was like the shadow of a crime.’

 

 

 

Prepared by Matthew Runkle, 2014.