Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Edward Burne-Jones and the associations and shared enthusiasms of youth

As a sidebar to my nascent efforts to see whether Penelope Fitzgerald's notebooks hold enough riches that a selected volume might be extracted, I'm finally reading the last couple of her books I'd not previously gotten to. This week, I began the final one, her biography of late Pre-Raphaelite artist and designer Edward Burne-Jones.

From the pages and pages of notes and letters and reference inquiries I found in her papers at the Harry Ransom Center, I know that the book is built on a huge amount of research and thought--it felt like she had gathered enough material that she could also have written a biography of Burne-Jones's friend William Morris, and possibly of John Ruskin as well. Part of Fitzgerald's genius, both as a novelist and as a biographer, is her ability to synthesize mountains of research and present it in a way that makes the story flow almost effortlessly. We know there's a supporting structure beneath the prose, but its presence is never distracting.

Edward Burne-Jones has that quality: it feels almost like a book we are being told, rather than reading. It's conversational and straightforward, with just the right amount of perceptive authorial interjection, like this one, which closes a paragraph on Ruskin:
Ned told Frances Graham [of the adult, but odd Ruskin], "He was a most difficult child." But this mattered nothing in comparison with the warmth of meeting another "scorner of the world." This was Ruskin's message as well as Newman's. It is to the credit of humanity that whenever it has been clearly put, there have always been people to attend to it.
I'm still in the early years of Burne-Jones's life, when he and Morris, at the edge of the successful circles that Ruskin inhabits, are trying to figure out what they're going to do with their futures. Whatever is is, they know they want to do it in tandem, and initially they consider founding a monastery. But they are young, and their sights shift to founding a magazine:
While the magazine was in the planning stages, Burne-Jones found, at Cornish's shop in New Street, the book which was to mean more to him than any other--Malory's Morte d'Arthur. It was the Southey edition, and since it was expensive he read a little every day and bought cheap books "to pacify the bookseller." But Morris, when he heard of it, bought it at once, and generously lent it to his friend while he dashed off on family visits.
What could be more enchanting than the image of Burne-Jones buying books he's not that interested in solely so he can continue with his discoveries in the one he is? This was at a time when, as Fitzgerald points out, "Arthurian legends were so little known that they formed a kind of secret bond." She continues:
It was, therefore, in the two-up, two-down house in Bristol Road that Burne-Jones confirmed his idea of life as a quest for something too sacred to be found, and ending with the death of a king and a friend betrayed, which would be the ultimate sadness (Morte Arthur saunz guerdon). In the city beyond, Joseph Chamberlain was just beginning operations in the firm which was to produce twice as many steel screws as the whole of the rest of Britain. Crom and Ned walked round the back-garden, reading in particular the story of Perceval's sister, who died giving her life-blood to heal another woman, and asked that her body should be put on a ship which departed without sail to the city of Sarras. Without the concept of the book as hero, Victorian idealism can hardly be understood. Morris returned, was enchanted immediately, and had the book bound in white vellum. It was the Quest without Tennyson, and it seems that at first they were embarrassed to speak about it to anyone but Crom, so deeply did they feel the spell of this lost world and its names and places. Yet Burne-Jones must also have noticed that Guinevere and the Haut Prince laughed so loudly that they might not sit at table, that Sir Lancelot went into a room as hot as any stew and found a lady naked as a needle, that the Queen, through Sir Ector, sharply demanded her money back from him, and that a gluttonous giant raped the Duchess of Brittany and slit her unto the navel. In fact Burne- Jones's letters show that he did notice this and that he could overlook in the Morte what he could not stomach in Chaucer. Malory's wandering landscape became in its entirety "the strange land that is more true than real," but not just as an escape, the refuge of the romantic without choice. He found what is of much more importance to the artist, a reflection of personal experience in the fixed world of images.
Fitzgerald accomplishes so much in that paragraph. She shows us the seductive romance of valorous medieval world these friends were conjuring into being among themselves. She draws from that an image of the late Victorian imagination itself--"the concept of the book as hero" an unforgettable way to put it. And she traces the ways Burne-Jones was influenced by, and drew on, the Morte in his art.

The Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite movements are the artistic moments that I find most personally enticing. I'm not one for utopias, and I don't believe there ever was a golden age anyone living in it would have recognized as such, but the combination of skill, hard work, attention to detail, care for craftsmanship, and brotherhood and idealism of that era are nonetheless powerfully compelling.

1 comment:

  1. This a wonderfully chosen excerpt, with a really lovely post around it. Arthurian legend and a romanticized Middle Ages have been so ubiquitous since then that it's difficult to imagine a time when they were, in many circles, a furtive, clubby secret...