WILLIAM MORRIS by Fiona MacCarthy


A Life for Our Time
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 Morris's life of Pre-Raphaelite/Nordic poetry, medievalist arts and crafts, and socialist politics always makes for a readably overstuffed biography, and MacCarthy (Eric Gill, 1989, etc.) addresses each area knowledgeably and stays sympathetic to her hero. As a paragon of both taste and the Left, Morris inspired much hero-worship that carried over into biographies embarrassed by their paradoxical subject: an uncategorizable craftsman innovating through traditionalism, a Socialist and a businessman, a cuckold by his friend and fellow poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. MacCarthy clearheadedly avoids both the hero worship and the embarrassment, keeping up with both his gradual political transformation from neo-Gothic bohemian to committed if idiosyncratic socialist, and his wide-ranging work in architecture, stained-glass, furniture, textiles, printing, et al. MacCarthy's biography takes its personal cue from Morris as a young Oxford student, desperate for camaraderie to direct his energies (even at the price of being ``Topsy,'' his nicknamed buffoonish persona). Topsy's midlife conversion to socialism surprised his Oxford friends, but MacCarthy makes this maturation understandable and keeps his aesthetic and social ideals unblurred. She also paints a deep emotional portrait of Morris's family relations, especially with his daughters, the worshipful May and the invalid Jenny. Unfortunately, she leaves his wife, Janey, at the fastidious distance she cultivated and villainizes Rossetti, who despite his philandering had a complex relationship with Morris. MacCarthy delicately probes other sensitive aspects of his life but partially neglects Morris's personal depths. The volume is illustrated with his best-known creations and rarer ones, as well as everything from cartoons by Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones to socialist handbills and Kelmscott lettering. A well-crafted labor of love, MacCarthy's biography chronicles the epic works of a man who inspired both Shaw and Yeats and continues to inspire today.

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 1995
ISBN: 0-394-58531-3
Page count: 800pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1995


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