Thursday, January 30, 2014

Edward Burne Jones and the faults of modern biography

The Garden Court by Edward Burne Jones
Fiona McCarthy's "Edward Burne Jones: The Last Pre-Raphaelite" is an exemplary modern biography. We learn in detail and at length possibly more than we wanted to know about the external flow of his life - where and when and with what enthusiasm or with which ailments. The focus though is on the ebbs and flows of his personal, psychological life.
She treats with great intelligence (and contextual sense), Burne Jones engagement with a succession of young girls following them into womanhood and always distressed at their marriage though keeping friendship afterwards. In an age attuned to 'paedophilia' as a horror precisely because it involves manipulation, force, and sexual violence, it is an achievement to delineate a quite different form of playful love of girls - intense, flirtatious, encouraging and kind and without any trace of crossing a courtly boundary into anything physical or inappropriate. It is great to be reminded that culture does shape ways of behaving and create different boundaries and expectations. It is not that there are, embedded within, universals - and sexual violence has always been with us, sadly, and, on the whole, always perceived as (at the very least) falling short of the ideal, if not wholly condemned. But history does shift possibility of emotional expression.
I am reminded of discussions such as was Walt Whitman 'gay'? To which the answer is 'yes' and 'no'. If we mean did Whitman enjoy sexual and loving relationships with men, the answer is yes but if that means that he recognised himself, or was recognised by others, as inhabiting a bounded sexual identity as 'gay', carrying all its modern connotations, the answer would be, of course, 'no'.
However, the book suffers from two features held in common by many of its peers. One is simply length. Do we really need to know what feels like reams of stuff about the externals of where and when and with what in order to understand a person's life. Modern biographers appear to be in the grip of a fever of 'high contextualisation', reminding me of an unfortunate colleague in Macedonia who was always put at the end of the circle of 'show and tell' at USAID meetings (without her ever noticing) because she would relate such 'fascinating' detail as the depth of frost on her car window on a recent trip to Belgrade and who when asked a question, another colleague was heard to mutter, 'Do n't ask her anything! She will answer it'!
The second failing is more serious. The subject's intellectual life virtually vanishes. Burne Jones, like his great friend and collaborator, William Morris (on whom McCarthy has also written well), wanted 'beauty' to save the world and for its products to be enjoyed by all. We would be hard pressed to know why from McCarthy even though she tells us he did. She acknowledges how people respected and engaged with Burne Jones not only through his art directly (which is highly intellectual in itself) but directly in conversation but what they talked about we have no real inkling!
This is most evident in the treatment of religion. Burne Jones at Oxford aimed to become an Anglican priest (and, at the high point, of the Tractarian movement flirted with Rome). He lost his faith (at least in institutional religion) yet became (together with Morris, himself, a self-declared atheist), one of the greatest designers of church art (both stained glass and mosaic) of the nineteenth century. What did it mean to him? Finishing the biography, you have not the faintest idea. What one of the great men of the era made of the 'long recessional of faith' (to use Matthew Arnold's phrase) is a mystery entire!
It is as if belief and ideas do not matter and this is a remarkable oversight and one that is often repeated in modern biography, making you feel, however, intelligently and engagingly written, as McCarthy's are, that you have neither met the person fully especially in what truly matters in terms of their legacy nor do you engage with their age and times.
Here was a man who counted both George Eliot and George MacDonald as close family friends - one the realist and moralist, unpicking the objectivity if not the subjectivity of faith, the other its skilled imaginative defender, subscribing to very different pictures of what is ultimately real. Where Burne Jones stood, and most importantly, how it is reflected in his art (and why)? Not a word!

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