Friday, 20 July 2012

Dartington Ways With Words Festival: Edward Burne-Jones and Angela Carter

The Dartington Ways With Words literary festival came to the end of its packed two week programme last weekend, and I went along on the Saturday to see two speakers: Fiona MacCarthy talking about the Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones, about whom she has written in her most recent biography, and his friendship with William Morris, the subject of one of her previous biographies; and Susannah Clapp talking about her friend Angela Carter, for whom she acted as literary executor, and about whom she wrote the recent memoir A Card From Angela Carter. MacCarthy spoke in the medieval Great Hall of the Dartington estate, and commented upon how appropriate the setting was for her subject. She said that she’d always been interested in utopian artistic movements, having written about William Morris and his attempts to revive a tradition of noble artisanship in the face of industrialisation and mass production, and about Eric Gill and his attempts at communal living based around spiritual and artistic practices on Ditchling Common and later at Capel y Ffin. She thus felt an affinity with the Dartington experiment, set up by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst in 1926 with the intention of fostering a thriving and fulfilling local rural culture, with arts, education and agricultural labour all interlinked.

Burne-Jones and Morris n 1874 - Frederick Hollyer
MacCarthy began by highlighting the unlikely nature of Burne-Jones and Morris’ friendship, given that, in so many respects, they possessed entirely opposing qualities. Burne-Jones was tall and gangly and often in poor health, whereas Morris was short and squat and always bursting with boundless energy. Burne-Jones came from a fairly humble Birmingham background, his father a picture framer, whereas Morris was from the prosperous Southern counties, the son of a very wealthy family. His father was a bill-broker in the City, the kind of capitalist he would later affect to despise when he turned to radical Socialist politics. Morris was outgoing and a natural leader, whereas Burne-Jones could be withdrawn and lugubriously melancholic. MacCarthy made it clear, however, that he could quite suddenly ‘switch on’ and become the epitome of solicitous charm and the most engaging of company. Morris was very outward-looking, always concerned with the state of the world and the effect his work could have upon it. Burne-Jones’ art tended to drift off into interior dream worlds, full of personal symbolism and suffused with a languid, sensuous atmosphere. But despite (or perhaps partly thanks to) all of these differences they were close and inseparable friends for many years. MacCartney suggested that the names Morris and Burne-Jones were akin to those of the conjoined pairings of the great Victorian department stores such as Marshall and Snelgrove or Debenham and Freebody – forever associated with one another. Given their contrasting stature, Laurel and Hardy might also be an appropriate comparison. She portrayed the friendship as a romance, with intense feelings expressed in correspondence from both sides, although she hastened to add that there was no sexual component to the relationship.

They met at Exeter College, Oxford University in 1853, where they quickly discovered a shared fascination for romantic literature and medievalism, both of which were refracted through the poetry of Tennyson, who would prove an abiding influence. They were initially both intent on becoming clergymen, and enjoyed passionate discussions about the nature of religion. But a trip through northern France in 1855, during which Morris was awed by the Gothic architecture, and Burne-Jones by the Renaissance and Medieval art in the Parisian galleries, affirmed them both in a life dedicated to art – albeit art pursued with a religious devotion and sense of the sacred. MacCarthy related an incident which took place in the Louvre, in which Morris got Burne-Jones to close his eyes and guided him to a position immediately before Fra Angelico’s painting the Coronation of the Virgin. He then bade him open his eyes, and Burne-Jones was duly overwhelmed by the sudden revelation of the painting in all its vivid colour and splendour.

The Oxford Union with murals restored
MacCarthy commented on the lightness and frivolity with which Burne-Jones and Morris and their circle would often address each other. It was part of the foolish and tenderly sentimental side of the Victorian character which is often subsumed by the perceived sobriety of the age. Burne-Jones was Ned, and Morris Topsy, after his unruly mop of curly hair. They would also dress in colourful, bohemian clothing, playing the part of the artist to the hilt. MacCarthy commented on the portrayal of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, of whom Morris and Burne-Jones would become a peripheral and late arriving part, as raffish, rebellious rogues in the TV series Desperate Romantics, lamenting the fact that it failed to capture their essential seriousness, their dedication to their art and the philosophies which underlay it. In 1857 Burne-Jones and Morris, along with their new London friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne and a few others, managed to gain a commission to paint murals on the ceiling of the debating room of the Oxford Union. The summer they spent doing this was one of those magical periods of lightness and effortless gaiety soundtracked, as MacCarthy pointed out with her sense for the telling detail which brings the scene alive, by the popping of soda bottle corks. There was plenty of larking about, with the shambling, bearlike Morris often bearing the brunt of the humour. MacCarthy related an incident in which he became trapped in the medieval helmet from the suit of armour he’d had designed for himself, and stumbled back and forth roaring to be released. The decoration of the Oxford Union firmly sealed the friendship of Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Swinburne. It scarcely seemed to matter that the paint almost immediately began to flake away, the murals swiftly fading into spectral shadows.

Self-parody - William Morris Reading Poetry to Burne-Jones
MacCarthy highlighted Burne-Jones’ mastery of caricatures, which he produced regularly throughout his artistic life. It was a side of his art which was diametrically opposed to the ethereal dreaminess and solemnity of his paintings. This was suggestive of a personality with many different and divergent facets, which were also reflected in the wide range of artistic directions and media he explored. These included the design of stained glass, tapestries and interior furnishings and designs. He worked on the Green Dining Room at the South Kensington Museum for the firm of Morris and Co., painting the panels with the signs of the zodiac and creating the stained glass for the windows. You can still eat there today, in what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, as indeed I did a couple of weeks ago, enjoying a tasty fruit scone and a refreshing cup of Darjeeling tea underneath one of Ned’s panels. MacCarthy noted that he even had some suggestions for a more pleasing design of piano. Burne-Jones’ caricatures were often of the friends he’d worked with on the Oxford murals, with Morris frequently portrayed in an affectionate but far from flattering light as a comical bumbler. MacCarthy pointed to an underlying element of cruelty and hurtful mockery in these caricatures, which hinted at a certain rivalry between the two friends. Perhaps this was inevitable in two who were so close and who had dedicated themselves so completely to the pursuit of their art. Each wished the other success, but not to a degree wholly incommensurate with their own. Burne-Jones was himself a perfect subject for caricaturists, especially after he’d achieved widespread renown. His thin, languorously drooping figure and doleful mien made for an ideal contrast with Morris’ rounded form. Burne-Jones also shared or inherited Rossetti’s fondness for wombats, and his cartoons of the rotund marsupials often bore an undeniable resemblance to Morris.

Georgiana MacDonald
In 1857, Burne-Jones and Rossetti went to a small theatre in Oxford and met a young woman named Jane Burden. Actually they spotted her in a theatre box, and later bumped into her in the street, and at some stage asked her to model for them. She would go on to become the ultimate model and muse for the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetics, and the object of chivalric, self-punishing devotion for Rossetti after she’d married Morris in 1859. After their marriage, Morris had his ideal of a romantic, late medieval home, the Red House, built in Bexleyheath, now a distinctly unromantic London suburb, but then a fairly undeveloped part of North Kent. It was designed by Philip Webb and decorated and furnished by Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti, all of whom would go on to be the core of Morris and Co., the design and manufacturing company which defined the style of the arts and crafts movement. Burne-Jones married Georgiana MacDonald in 1860, having first met her at her house in Handsworth back in 1852 when he was still living in Birmingham. They would visit the Morrises at the Red House for weekends or lengthier stays, with other friends also sometimes in residence. The place took on the pleasurable and convivial familial commune, with friends always welcome. It was from this stable base that Morris planned the business which was to revive the ideal of quality handcraftsmanship in the applied arts. This was in reaction to the rapid growth of industrialised mass production, which Morris opposed so vehemently as representing a cheapening of life, both in the nature of the goods and the means of their manufacture. Burne-Jones was to be his key partner throughout at Morris and Co., specialising particularly in the design of stained glass. MacCarthy recalled that she had visited countless churches across Britain in order to view his work close-up and at first-hand. Such peregrinations are a sure indication of a dedicated biographer.

Family days at the Red House - The Morrises and Burne-Jones photographed by Frederick Hollyer
The Burne-Joneses moved into their own ideal house in 1867, The Grange in Fulham, and Morris regularly came round for Sunday breakfasts and lunches, where current projects would be discussed and news and views exchanged. It was during the years at the Grange that Burne-Jones began his own romantic folly, an affair with Maria Zambaco, the daughter of wealthy Greek family living in London. It would last until she left the country in 1872, during which time she provided his ideal model of feminine beauty and dangerous allure; his Venus and Nimue. At the same time, he rather hypocritically disapproved of Rossetti’s infatuation with Jane Morris, which put a strain on their friendship. Georgiana (or Georgie, as she was known to Ned) somehow managed to stoically turn a blind eye to her husband’s affair, just as Morris affected to ignore his wife Jane’s intense romantic friendship with Rossetti. Burne-Jones would later use his daughter Margaret, with whom he was very close, as a model, although MacCarthy assured us that there was no incestuous element to their intimacy – a relief to hear from the biographer of Eric Gill. He would also go on to have many close but platonic friendships with younger women. As MacCarthy comments, ‘he was never not in love’. To his credit, he was one of the few who stood by the artist Simeon Solomon, who had been part of the Rossetti and Swinburne circle, after he’d been arrested for soliciting in a public toilet and charged with the crime of sodomy, and event which started him on the long descent into destitution and alcoholism, ending in early death.

Portrait of Maria Zambaco, 1870
The Grange would become one of the centres of the Aesthetic Movement, a place which attracted visitors such as Oscar Wilde and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as Georgie’s nephew, a small boy called Rudyard Kipling. Burne-Jones was considered a key member of the Aesthetic Movement after the triumph of the opening show at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, which attracted a huge amount of publicity, and in which several of his major paintings were on display. The attracted widespread acclaim and also caught the public fancy, and he was soon well known beyond the usual artistic enclaves. His success launched him on a swift upwardly mobile trajectory which culminated in his earning a baronetcy, which he accepted despite previously expressed republican views. At the same time, Morris was becoming increasingly involved in radical politics, joining the Socialist Democratic Party in 1883 and subsequently breaking away to form his own Socialist League in 1884 (leftist politics was then, as now, rife with divisions). The ever-solicitous Ned was worried that the socialists might be taking advantage of his friend’s naivety and idealism, and more particularly, of his wealth. He talked about him having crossed the ‘river of fire’ into revolutionary politics, suggesting that there was now a significant and unbridgeable divide between them. Morris, for his part, was deliberately turning his back on the kind of wealthy patrons (and often artistic subjects) of the Aesthetic Movement. These were exactly the sorts of people whose company Burne-Jones was new enjoying. Morris held the Aesthetic Movement, with its art for art’s sake credo, in contempt, now believing that, on the contrary, art should have a definite social purpose. He decried ‘an art cultivated professedly by a few and for a few, who would consider it necessary – a duty if they could admit to duties – to despise the common herd, to hold themselves aloof from all that the world has been struggling for from the first, to guard carefully every approach to their palace of art’.

Morris and Burne-Jones never stopped meeting one another, or thought of putting an end to their friendship and professional partnership (Morris and Co. would outlive them both). But a definite rift grew between them as they drifted into entirely separate and mutually exclusive worlds. MacCarthy recounted this with real sadness, telling us how hard it had been to write the chapter detailing this split. It was like the end of a great romance, a falling out of love after so many years of passionate intimacy. She clearly has a great deal of affection for both of her subjects, Burne-Jones and Morris, Ned and Topsy, and has grown to know them almost as friends herself in the writing of her books. She ended by noting that Burne-Jones died only a few years after his great lifelong friend and boon companion, the one in 1896 and the other in 1898, as if neither was wholly at home in the world without the balancing and contrasting force of the other.

In The Barn, across the courtyard from the Great Hall, Susannah Clapp gave a talk about Angela Carter in this, the 20th year since her death at the terribly early age of 51. Clapp has written a short memoir of Carter, a reflection on her life and work using a series of postcards sent to her during the 80s as cues, triggers for personal reminiscences and insights. She was one of the founders of the London Review of Books, and commissioned a number of articles and reviews for it from Carter. She noted, possibly with the benefit of rueful experience, that Carter was a terrible one for meeting deadlines, once commenting that ‘the only time I ever iron the sheets or make meringues is when there is an absolutely urgent deadline in the offing’. Clapp was also appointed as Carter’s literary executor, and she recalled her first foray into her study in her house in Clapham (the latter half of the postcode, 0NR, given Carter’s topical mnemonic Oliver North Reagan) after her death. It was a fairly spartan, sparely furnished room, and she dreamt of discovering some unpublished masterpiece, a great novel or the odd short-story or two stashed away for future use or revision. But Carter, for all her occasional air of disorder, was a pragmatic writer who was intent on getting her work out into the market as soon as possible. She did find some stage and screenplays which had gone un-performed or filmed, however. Her 1988 filmscript The Christchurch Murders took as its subject the true story of the intense, self-absorbed adolescent friendship of two girls in 1950s New Zealand, who lose themselves in a closed-off world of their own creation. When this world is threatened by their enforced and potentially permanent separation, they murder the mother of one of them. It was a story which later formed the basis of Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures. Her theatrical script Lulu, also from 1988 and also unproduced (it was clearly a frustrating year), was adapted from Frank Wedekind’s plays about the doomed femme fatale for a potential production by Richard Eyre at the National Theatre. She was not happy when the National eventually turned it down, which may have been a contributory factor in her dislike of the theatre in general, which Clapp mentioned. Lulu was a character who fascinated Carter, not least because she loved Louise Brooks, who had portrayed her in GW Pabst’s film of Pandora’s Box. She said that if she ever had a daughter, she’s call her Lulu. There was also a 1980 libretto for an operatic adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s time travelling and gender shifting novel Orlando, which was to have been scored by Michael Berkeley, and which she suggested might be performed in an old Victorian department store (the same Marshall and Snelgrove mentioned earlier by Fiona MacCarthy). All of these unrealised scripts were eventually published in 1996 (alongside several others which did see the light of day) in The Curious Room, which gathered together Carter’s Collected Dramatic Works, and which has an introduction by Clapp. Also in the study were a pile of journals which Carter had kept since the 60s, writing in exercise books covered in cut-out pictures and doodled designs. These included a number of poems which she’d written in her 20s, and which anticipated some of the fantastical and fairy tale themes she would go on to explore.

There was, in a sense, a great lost novel in the form of an outline for a story titled Adela: A Romance. It’s protagonist was to have been a character taken from Jane Eyre, who had lived under Mr Rochester’s guardianship, but who turns out to be his daughter, a fact which she discovers after having ended up in his bed. She escapes to 1820s France and finds her mother, has various adventures and becomes a heroine of the Paris Commune in the process. Carter’s casual shifting of the time frame of Jane Eyre (which is set in the time of its publication, the 1840s), is indicative of her disdain for the limiting dictates of realism. This put her outside of the literary mainstream, and Clapp draws a comparison with JG Ballard, who was also something of an outside whilst his works were published as science fiction. Ballard was accepted into the literary fold once he’d written his relatively conventional autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, which was set in a recognisable historical context. Adela was Carter’s tongue in cheek bid for similar respectability, the Shakespearean allusions of Wise Children having apparently proved insufficient to woo the Booker judges. She was in fact never nominated for the Booker Prize (for those who think this matters), and when she herself sat as one of the judges in 1983, went unrecognised by Selina Scott as she glided around interviewing the attendees for the TV coverage of the event. Clapp could also have mentioned Michael Moorcock, with whose modern day harlequinades and transformative collisions of generic materials her work had a great affinity. She would have fitted in well with the style and outlook of Moorcock’s New Worlds in the 60s and 70s, an SF magazine in the loosest sense of the term, with Ballard and his literary hero William Burroughs as its figureheads. Serialisations of Heroes and Villains or The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann would certainly have been at home within its pages. Carter did publish a couple of stories in the early issues of the SF magazine Interzone (The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe and Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream), initially an inheritor of the New Worlds spirit in the early 80s.

Clapp talked about Carter’s abiding love of fairy tales, and her well-known and loved recasting of these malleable stories to bring out the strength of their often passive or secondary female characters. She made real heroines of them, suitably resourceful models for young girls to replace the standard insipid and vain ‘princesses’. It was through the fairy tales, Clapp suggested, that Carter best expressed her feminism. Although when questioned about which she considered more important, her feminism or her socialism, she opted for the latter, the greater social equality envisaged by the one ultimately encompassing and including the demands of the other. She was once challenged in a TV interview about her comments on the lack of women as central characters in fairy tales, the interviewer pointing out that Sleeping Beauty had her own story. Carter paused (and Clapp observed that the Carter pause was a particular conversational characteristic) before remarking that yes, this was so, but Sleeping Beauty wasn’t exactly ‘a figure full of get up and go’.

Clapp asked Carter about her own literary tastes in 1991, when Wise Children was about to be published. Evidently in a seriously minded mood at the time, she cited Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, all of Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which she felt put properly drawn working class characters centre stage, and the 17th century poet Andrew Marvell, who combined social and political satire with frankly horny, if beautifully phrased, expressions of lust, particularly in To His Coy Mistress, perhaps the most exquisite come on in the English language. It also seems to be a poem with a particular appeal to writers of the fantastic, having provided titles for stories by Ursula le Guin (Ursula le Guin), Peter Beagle (A Fine and Private Place) and Joe Haldeman (Worlds Enough and Time). Dickens, contrary to expectation, was not someone she particularly liked. Chaucer was always a particular favourite, coming as he did from a pre-novelistic age still rooted in the oral tradition, in which tale-telling could encompass the romantic and the bawdy, the tragic and the comic, the fantastic and allegorical and the mundane. Just as long as it held the attention of the listener. She was also a huge film fan, ever since her childhood days when her father used to take her to the resplendent Granada cinema in Tooting. She loved both the lush romanticism of classic Hollywood and the self-consciously cinematic films of the 60s and 70s new waves. She uses a quote from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville to preface her 1969 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel Heroes and Villains which is appropriate for her work in general: ‘There are times when reality becomes too complex for Oral Communication. But legend gives it a form by which it pervades the whole world’. It sits on the title page just above lines from Andrew Marvell’s poem The Unfortunate Lover.

Clapp is also very enthusiastic about Carter’s journalism, which she fells includes some of her finest writing. She pointed to her use of the personal pronoun ‘I’, an inclusion of herself in her pieces which drew on personal experience and were not chary of openly putting forward a subjective viewpoint. She talked admiringly about how Carter could write about almost any subject and find something interesting, insightful and engaging to say about it. Her articles and reviews ranged from literature, film and TV through travel, fashion, and popular culture, to politics, philosophy, art and animals. She also wrote about food, which could prove controversial, especially when she suggested that the new vogue for gourmet cooking and culinary indulgence was immoral at a time when famine was rife in Ethiopia. This prompted some angry and very personal responses to the London Review of Books where the piece in question was published. Clapp made it clear that food was important to Carter, however. She could often be found in the kitchen at home, preparing a meal for friends with one of her cats (either Ponce or Female) on her lap. The book which she chose to take for the Desert Island Discs which she never in the end got to record was the Larousse Gastronomique encyclopaedia, whish she described as ‘a good read’. Clapp pointed out that Carter had suffered from anorexia as a teenager, partly a response to her mother’s imposition of her own ambitions on her daughter. She was pushing Angela when she was still at school to aim for Oxford or Cambridge or nothing at all, and told her she’d move up with her if she went to Oxford. She went to neither, and said she stopped bothering with her studies, as well as with proper eating. The results stayed with her for many years, both physically and psychologically. Clapp described the young Angela as being ‘faun-like’, having been quite a healthily plump child (and ‘a lot of people’s second best friend at school’). She remarked on the ‘shape-shifting’ nature of the way women try to take control of their bodies and thereby their selves. Carter herself felt she looked a bit like Byron.

Carter’s memorial service reflected her passions, pleasures and amusements, as well as her wry sense of humour and the absurd. These included cinema going and the South London life, so it was held in the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton. The fabulous Granada in Tooting, a real old cinema palace full of extravagant Moorish and medieval architectural fancies, which her father had regularly taken her to as a child, wasn’t available as it was now in use as a bingo hall (an occupation which might not seem ideal for the film-lover, but which may well have saved the building from destruction). Hopefully it might be open again during this year’s London Open House weekend. If so, go and have a look. It’s quite astonishing, and it’s easy to see how Carter would have been enchanted by its gaudily fake theatricality. The memorial evening was based around Angela’s Desert Island Discs choices, with a number of friends invited to hold forth. The designs for the invitation cards (reproduced in the flyleaves of A Card From Angela Carter) and the screen which stood at the back of the stage were designed and drawn by Corinna Sargood, a good friend since Angela’s time in Bristol in the 60s who also provided the illustrations for the Virago Book of Fairy Tales which Carter edited. When it came to the end of the evening, her desert island luxury was revealed, her partner Mark and son Alexander turning the screen around to reveal…a zebra. A zebra on a desert island. It offers a picture of fantastic, absurd and slightly sad incongruity which sums up Angela Carter’s writing and the vibrant imagination, energy and engagement which led her to live life so fully, and gather so many friends along the way. Clapp made it clear what a privilege and a pleasure it was to be drawn into her welcoming orbit. She wouldn’t be pinned down as to what was her favourite of Carter’s books, but she did say that one of her favourite things about her was her lengthy, enjoyably rambling phone calls and her loquacious nature in general. One of her rhetorical mannerisms was to say ‘may I digress?’ It was not so much a request as a statement of intent. Clapp’s book follows this discursive, free-flowing associative approach, as did the talk, offering a series of intimate, revealing and surprising insights in the life and character of a writer who continues to speak directly and personally to so many.

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