This long pursuit, p.28
This Long Pursuit, p.28Richard Holmes
Having established friendly contact with the affable Samuel Palmer, Gilchrist moved on to the other surviving Ancients. They were not all so easy to deal with. The painter John Linnell was helpful but bossy, suggesting the desirability of collaboration. He had eleven precious letters from Blake, written at the very end of his life, and held these out as a bargaining counter. The sculptor Frederick Tatham had written his own private memoir of the time, and then taken to religion, which made him strange and touchy about Blake’s antinomian beliefs. The artist George Richmond (only fifteen when he first met Blake) was now a well-meaning but gushing middle-aged raconteur, who embroidered freely on the facts.
Gilchrist engaged all of them in correspondence and interviewed them where he could, minutely compiling anecdotes and stories, trying to sift the true from the apocryphal. He talked to Francis Oliver Finch, and to Maria Denman, the younger sister of the recently deceased John Flaxman, the painter’s one-time patron. He was particularly interested in the relations between Blake and his wife Catherine. Original letters from Blake were the one thing Gilchrist found it almost impossible to discover, apart from Linnell’s.
Gilchrist’s greatest diplomatic triumph was to pierce the gruff reserve of the retired journalist Henry Crabb Robinson, then in his eighties. Robinson – once the intimate friend of Wordsworth and Charles Lamb, and the witness to Coleridge’s lectures – had kept extensive diary accounts of the whole Romantic circle during his time. His notes were admiring, but sceptical and extremely shrewd. In 1811 he had written up a rare appreciation of Blake’s work for a German magazine published in Hamburg: ‘William Blake: Artist, Poet, and Religious Dreamer’. Moreover, his unpublished journals for 1825–27 contained a unique series of interviews with the older Blake. Robinson paid particular attention to the question of Blake’s visions, the logic (or otherwise) of his explanations, and the significance of his eccentricities. Gilchrist managed to obtain all this material, and used it with brilliant effect in Chapter 36.
In the winter of 1859 Gilchrist submitted an outline draft of his Life of Blake to the publisher Macmillan. He was offered a £150 contract, and an advance on research expenses of £20. Compared with the Etty commission these terms marked a small but not very generous improvement. After all, this was a time when popular biographies by Mrs Gaskell and John Forster were being commissioned for well over £1,000. But Blake’s name was still worth very little. Undeterred, Gilchrist worked on through 1860, continuing to support his family with freelance journalism. It must have seemed an increasingly quixotic venture.
In March 1861 he finally met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the pace and confidence of his long researches began to increase and bear fruit. The Blake manuscript notebook, purchased over fourteen years before, was at last revealed. Over several later meetings at the Cheshire Cheese tavern in Fleet Street the new poems and drawings were discussed. Gilchrist quickly passed muster with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, all of whom were suddenly excited by the prospect of his forthcoming book. Rossetti’s friendship also brought him into contact with the twenty-four-year-old Algernon Swinburne, who now discovered a lifelong passion for Blake.
Most enthusiastic of all was Dante Gabriel’s brother, the art critic William Michael Rossetti, who encouraged Gilchrist to think in terms of an even more ambitious project. After the biography, perhaps he could edit a companion volume of Blake’s poems and a catalogue of his artwork? Spurred on by these new supporters, Gilchrist promised Macmillan to deliver the completed biography by spring 1862.
But after six years, the work was close to exhausting him. Money was short, and by now the Gilchrists had four children. Gilchrist’s constitution, never strong, began to fail. He was frequently ill and depressed, harassed by the unrelenting deadlines for his weekly art reviews. Sometimes he collapsed, unable to work on Blake for days on end. It was during this growing professional crisis that Anne Gilchrist began quietly to assert herself.
Anne had been working as Alexander’s part-time research assistant ever since the Etty days. But now she became his full-time amanuensis. She took dictation, copied Blake’s manuscripts, checked facts and dates at the British Museum, and prepared an index. She admired her husband’s perfectionism, always pursuing one more source or reference. But sometimes she felt he would never complete the book at all. Nonetheless, by late summer 1861, Gilchrist told Macmillan that he had a draft of the whole biography. Although he was continually slipping in extra materials and anecdotes, the basic structure was secure. With Anne’s help, the book was lucidly organised in thirty-eight short chapters, and Gilchrist was ready to start sending it in batches to the printer for setting up in proof, the usual piecemeal procedure for such a large manuscript.
Macmillan was delighted, and urged him to begin. Accordingly, Gilchrist sent the first eight chapters to the printers in September 1861, taking Blake’s life up to the Poetic Sketches and the ‘Notes on Lavater’ made when Blake had turned thirty. He promised to send in the next batch by November, with the aim of having the complete work in proof by the following spring. He was under great pressure, but believed that with Anne’s help he could just about meet his deadlines.
On 20 November 1861, Gilchrist wrote to his publisher that he had been unable to send the promised ‘big mass of copy’, consisting of the next dozen or so chapters (taking Blake up to forty, and his most productive years). He explained that ‘domestic troubles have during the last month stood in the way’. For six weeks his eldest daughter, seven-year-old Beatrice, had been lying dangerously ill with scarlet fever. Anne had insisted on a ‘rigid quarantine’, remaining alone in the child’s sickroom to carry out all the nursing herself. There was great fear of infection. Gilchrist was only allowed in once an evening, to make up the fire, while Anne stood back by the window. Meanwhile, he tried to look after the other three young children with the help of one (frequently drunk) domestic.
At the end of his letter, Gilchrist unburdened himself to his publisher:
We have been in great misery at times, aggravated by our having a doctor in whom we had not implicit confidence … My wife has during all this time been confined to the sickroom, without help! … Of hired nurses we have a horror; our friends have mostly children and others regard for whom makes them dread crossing the threshold of a scarlatina infected house. Forgive this closing matter.
A week later, just as his little daughter Beatrice began to pull through, Gilchrist was himself struck down. Jane Carlyle sent notes offering help to Anne, and Thomas Carlyle brought a fashionable physician, who looked at Gilchrist from the distance of the sickroom door and hastily departed. After that, events unfolded quickly. Ten days after he had sent his desperate, apologetic letter to Macmillan, Alexander Gilchrist slipped into a coma.
Anne later wrote: ‘The brain was tired with stress of work; the fever burned and devastated like a flaming fire: to four days of delirium succeeded one of exhaustion, of stupor; and then the end; without a word, but not without a look of loving recognition. It was on a wild and stormy night, 30 November 1861, that his spirit took flight.’
Alexander Gilchrist died at the age of thirty-three. His great biography of Blake, his labour of love, had been wonderfully researched and written in draft. But only the first eight chapters were delivered; the rest was unfinished. With her peculiar force and independence, Anne Gilchrist immediately determined to complete the biography for him. Less than a week after Alexander’s death, she wrote to Macmillan on 6 December: ‘I try to fix my thoughts on the one thing that remains for me to do for my dear Husband. I do not think that anyone but myself can do what has to be done to the Book. I was his amanuensis …’
She packed up his papers, returned a mass of borrowed pictures and manuscripts, refused Jane’s invitation to move in with the Carlyles, and took the children and the unfinished book down to a clapboard cottage in the tiny village of Shottermill, a mile from Haslemere in Surrey.
To understand what happened next, we have to turn to Anne Gilchrist’s own story. She had always been an independent spirit. She was born Annie Burrows in February 1828 in Gower Street, London, but was partly brought up in the country, at Colne in Essex. Here, when she was nine years old, her beloved elder brother Johnnie saved her life. The incident, as she retold it, has a curious fairy-tale quality. While exploring a secret part of the garden, ‘little Annie’ fell backwards into a deep well, and would certainly have drowned, had not Johnnie reached down and just managed to hold her up by the hair until help finally came. Over twenty years later she put this strange tale of survival into a children’s story, ‘Lost in the Woods’ (1861). The symbol of the rescue from death, or dark oblivion, haunted her.
Anne’s father was a London lawyer, strict and demanding, who died aged fifty-one in 1839, when she was only eleven. From then on, the family were on their own, and Anne was in some sense a liberated spirit. They moved to Highgate, where Anne went to school, a handsome tomboy, clever and rebellious. She was musical, well-read and free-thinking. At seventeen she was surprised by the local vicar seated on a tombstone in Highgate Cemetery reading a copy of Rousseau’s Confessions, a work regarded as far too sexually explicit for a well-brought-up Victorian young lady. Embarrassment was avoided (according to Anne) when the vicar conveniently misheard her give the book’s title as St Augustine’s Confessions.
At nineteen she became fascinated by scientific ideas, a further unladylike development. She announced to a friend that the intellectual world was divided between Emerson and Comte, between the spiritual and the materialist, and that she was tending towards the latter.
In 1847 (the year Rossetti bought the Blake manuscript) she was devastated by the death of her ‘angel brother’, Johnnie. A year later, aged twenty, she announced her engagement to one of Johnnie’s friends, a handsome young law student, Alexander Gilchrist, ‘great, noble and beautiful’. In a way, Gilchrist was probably a substitute brother. She deeply admired him, but from what she said later, she was never truly in love. What he offered was the chance of freedom and independence. Their unorthodox Etty honeymoon was a promise of things to come.
After the birth of their four children – Percy, Beatrice, Herbert and Grace – she set herself to earn additional household money by writing small pieces for the monthly magazines and Chambers Encyclopaedia. The first of these, ‘A Glance at the Vegetable Kingdom’, was published in Chambers in spring 1857, shortly after they moved into Cheyne Row.
From then on, Anne made a specialty of popular science subjects, and she was remarkably successful at it. In 1859, the year of Darwin’s Origin of Species, she wrote a controversial article on the newly discovered gorilla, provocatively entitled ‘Our Nearest Relation’, comparing its skills and habits to those of Homo sapiens. It was published in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round. Next she wrote on ‘Whales and Whaling’, and in the following years produced several further young person’s guides to scientific topics: ‘What is Electricity?’, ‘What is a Sunbeam?’, and ‘The Indestructibility of Force’. Her ability to research, organise and explain technical subjects for the general reader was highly unusual.
Anne’s role as Gilchrist’s amanuensis was therefore far greater than it might superficially appear. She seems to have become a genuine literary partner, and perhaps something rather more. She claimed that the subsequent work on the biography came to her as a kind of posthumous and sacred collaboration: ‘Alex’s spirit is with me ever – presides in my home; speaks to me in every sweet scene; broods over the peaceful valleys; haunts the grand wild hill tops; shines gloriously forth in setting sun, and moon and stars.’
No doubt these feelings of Alex’s supportive presence were authentic, but she was also driven by other, though no less powerful, emotions. Essentially, she seems to have felt guilty about her marriage, sensing that she had never been Gilchrist’s true wife. Nearly a decade after his death, in September 1871, she wrote a remarkable confession of her own: ‘I think … my sorrow was far more bitter, though not so deep, as that of a loving tender wife. As I stood by him in the coffin, I felt such remorse I had not, could not have, been more tender to him – such a conviction that if I had loved him as he deserved to be loved he would not have been taken from us. To the last my soul dwelt apart and unmated, and his soul dwelt apart and unmated.’
Her drive to complete his biography of Blake was, therefore, far more than a show of pious sentiment, a widow’s tender offering. It was a compelling debt of honour, the recognition of a difficult but sacred trust. Anne already knew much of Alexander’s method of working, and his perfectionism. What she did not know was whether she could match it. She wrote to Macmillan: ‘Many things were to have been inserted – anecdotes etc. collected during the last year, which he used to say would be the best things in the book. Whether I shall be able to rightly use the rough notes of these and insert them in the fittest places I cannot yet tell. He altered chapter by chapter as he sent it to the printers …’
Three months later, in March 1862, she wrote to the publisher that, to her surprise, she had completed sorting and arranging all of Alexander’s remaining material for the book. It would be faithfully completed: ‘You shall not find me dilatory or unreliable; least of all in this sacred trust.’ Fiercely defensive of every word of Alexander’s existing text, she carefully began to pull together the drafts of the outstanding chapters. She made regular visits to the British Museum, catching the London train up from Haslemere station. She checked his facts and polished his style. She defended him against Macmillan’s charges of sometimes writing too flamboyantly, like Carlyle.
With some reluctance, she turned for help to the Rossettis. She did not want them to touch a word of the text of Alexander’s biography, but she wanted help with the companion volume: the catalogue of Blake’s pictures and an anthology of his poetry. She proposed to Macmillan that he commission a second volume, to consist of an annotated catalogue of Blake’s visual work compiled by William Rossetti, and a selection of his poetry edited by Dante Gabriel. This was agreed, and the whole project now advanced rapidly on its new footing.
The sudden death of Dante Gabriel’s wife Lizzie Siddal, in February 1862, added a peculiar intensity to the work of selection. ‘I feel forcibly,’ he wrote to Anne, ‘the bond of misery that exists between us.’ He moved back into bachelor lodgings, which he shared with George Meredith and Swinburne, and they too began to act as unofficial Blake readers and selectors. Christina Rossetti even came to stay at the Shottermill cottage to support Anne in the final stages of her sacred task.
So not only had the whole Rossetti family now rallied around Anne’s ‘Herculean labour’, but the two-volume work had almost become a group enterprise, a Pre-Raphaelite project to restore Blake, and to do honour to his idealistic young biographer. As Dante Gabriel wrote to Anne, ‘I would gladly have done it for Blake’s or gladly for your husband’s or gladly for your own sake, and moreover, had always had a great wish of my own to do something in this direction …’ The twin volumes were to be delivered twelve months later, in spring 1863.
Who, then, finally wrote Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake?
It is clear from their correspondence that the Rossettis confined themselves almost entirely to the editorial work on the second volume alone. Dante Gabriel was asked to write a ‘Supplementary’ summary as a Postscript, and to fill in a missing description of Blake’s Book of Job – ironically the very work that had first drawn Gilchrist to Blake. Apart from that, they touched virtually nothing in the first volume, because they were not permitted to. Anne regarded the text of the biography as sacred to Gilchrist’s memory. She was its sole guardian. ‘I think you will not find it hard to forgive me a little reluctance,’ she wrote to William Rossetti, ‘that any living tones should blend with that voice which here speaks for the last time on earth.’
How far she herself added new material from Alexander’s notes, or ma
It is difficult to find evidence of any large editorial additions or interventions. For example, Alexander had frequently lamented his failure to develop any proper critical commentary on the poetry (as opposed to the illuminations) of the ‘Prophetic Books’. Anne was clearly tempted to remedy this: ‘I found the only grave omission in the book – the only place where dear Alex had left an absolute blank that must be filled in – was for some account of Blake’s mystic writings, or “Prophetic Books”, as he called them.’
But although she consulted with Rossetti, she did not in the end attempt to add any significant commentary, writing ruefully: ‘I could heartily wish the difficult problem presented by these strange Books had been successfully grappled with, or indeed grappled with at all. Hardly anything has now been attempted beyond bringing together a few readable extracts … They are at least psychologically curious and important.’ The omission is very clear, for example in the desultory remarks on the ‘Prophetic Book’ Jerusalem in Chapter 21, despite the fact that Anne had meticulously copied out the entire text by hand, from a rare copy loaned with great reluctance (‘only for a week’) by Keats’s devoted biographer Richard Monckton Milnes.
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