William Morris Archive

Penelope Fitzgerald

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 John is born, presumably, in 1857, and Morris originally made him fifteen when the book opens, bringing us to 1872, the actual year when it was written.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.