This long pursuit, p.29
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       This Long Pursuit, p.29

           Richard Holmes

  She seems to have conceived her main role as protecting what Alexander had written and quoted. There was some need for this. The genial Palmer was desperate to avoid anything that hinted at ‘blasphemy’, while Macmillan was acutely nervous of Blake’s erotic writing. He anxiously read every sentence of the proofs, and questioned even single lines from the poems, especially those from the sexually explicit passages in Visions of the Daughters of Albion which recount the rape and humiliation of Blake’s tender heroine Oothona. William Rossetti wrote to Anne: ‘The pervading idea of “The Daughters of Albion” is one which was continually seething in Blake’s mind, and flustering Propriety in his writings … It is the idea of the unnatural and terrible result in which, in modern society, ascetic doctrines in theology and morals have involved the relations of the sexes … in [this] cause he is never tired of uprearing the banner of heresy and non-conformity.’

  Sexual explicitness had never alarmed the biographer of Etty. But here Anne was forced to compromise, and she replied to Rossetti on 3 October 1862: ‘I am afraid you will be vexed with me … But it was no use to put in what I was perfectly certain Macmillan (who reads all the proofs) would take out again … It might be well to mention to Mr Swinburne that it would be perfectly useless to attempt to handle this side of Blake’s writings – that Mr Macmillan is far more inexorable against any shade of heterodoxy in morals, than in religion … in fact poor “flustered Propriety” has to be most tenderly and indulgently dealt with.’

  She was beset by other diplomatic problems. One of the original Ancients, the painter John Linnell, offered to oversee all the proofs, but made it clear that he would alter the text where he did not approve of it. Anne knew that Alexander had already rejected this idea long before – the bare notion of it filled him with horror: ‘I do not think he ever showed proof or manuscript to the most congenial friend even.’ This was a policy that Anne clearly intended to continue.

  Alexander had made the ‘most minute notes’ of all Linnell told him, but believed there was ‘considerable divergency’ in their view of the facts. ‘Besides,’ concluded Anne, ‘a biographer’s duty often is to balance the evidence of conflicting witnesses.’ To have acceded to Linnell would, she felt sure, have been ‘a most imprudent, and indeed treacherous thing on my part’.

  There were other difficulties among the keepers of the flame. Frederick Tatham had quarrelled with Linnell over the ownership of some of Blake’s Dante drawings, and Anne believed that Tatham had also imposed on Blake’s widow by silently selling off many of his engraved books over ‘thirty years’. Such post-mortem disputes were peculiarly confusing to Anne. Yet she retained absolute confidence in Alexander’s view of the situation: ‘My husband, who had sifted the matter, and knew both parties, thought Linnell an upright and truthful, if somewhat hard man, and that towards Blake his conduct had been throughout admirable. He also inclined to think, that Mrs Blake retained one trait of an uneducated mind – an unreasonable suspiciousness …’ Here she was in fact quoting Gilchrist’s own words from the biography.

  She was however dismayed to discover that Tatham, in a fit of religious zeal, had much later destroyed many of Blake’s manuscripts. For a biographer this was the ultimate sin, and would have appalled Alexander. She wrote angrily to William Rossetti that Tatham had come to believe that Blake was indeed inspired, ‘but quite from a wrong quarter – by Satan himself – and was to be cast out as an “unclean spirit”’. This was a ghastly parody of Gilchrist’s subtle, secular, psychological appreciation of Blake’s profound eccentricity and originality. She would have nothing to do with it.

  The most challenging editorial problem arrived last. In January 1863, when the biography was already printing, Anne was sent ten precious letters from Blake to his young publisher and patron Thomas Butts. At a stroke, this doubled the number of surviving letters. They all dated from the crucial – and little-known – period of creative renewal when Blake retired to a tiny thatched cottage in Felpham, Sussex, between 1800 and 1804, and gave a wholly new insight into his character, his views of his art and patronage, and some wonderful examples of his most limpid but visionary prose:

  The villagers of Felpham are not mere rustics; they are polite and modest. Meat is cheaper than in London; but the sweet air and the voices of winds, trees, and birds, and the odours of the happy ground, make it a dwelling for immortals. Work will go on here with God-speed. A roller and two harrows lie before my window. I met a plough on my first going out at my gate the first morning of my arrival, and the ploughboy said to the Ploughman, ‘Father, the gate is open.’

  One letter even gave a long and detailed account, from Blake’s point of view, of the fracas with a soldier in the garden at Felpham which led to his trial for ‘seditious and treasonable utterance’ in 1804. This was one of the most dramatic events in Blake’s life, and perhaps a turning point in his professional career. Gilchrist had already given up a whole chapter to describing the incident. His account was based on Catherine’s memories, the letters of Blake’s patron at Felpham, the poet William Hayley, and a local Sussex newspaper report of the trial. While defending Blake as certainly not guilty of real treason, Gilchrist allowed it to be tacitly understood that he did treat the soldier with some violence, ‘in a kind of inspired frenzy’, and probably did shout some ill-advised political things at him: ‘“Damn the King, and you too,” said Blake with pardonable emphasis.’ Blake’s own account was far more exculpatory, and intriguingly different.

  How should Anne handle this unexpected biographical windfall? Macmillan claimed he was too far advanced with the printing to allow her to insert the letters at such a late stage. However, since they were discovered nine months before the book was finally published, it seems that Anne herself was loath to disrupt Alexander’s narrative. Yet the letters were extremely revealing, and she could not bear to omit them: ‘I have all but finished copying Blake’s letters; a task of real enjoyment, for they are indeed supremely interesting, admitting one as far as anything he ever wrote into the “inner precincts” of his mind …’

  In the end, the solution she chose was to print the ‘Letters to Thomas Butts’ separately, as an Appendix to the Life. This gives perhaps the clearest indication of the judicious way she saw her own editorial function. The solution (although evidently not ideal) allowed her carefully to retain Alexander’s perceptive narrative of the Sussex period without interruption. But it enabled her to add Blake’s own version. It also allowed her to appear modestly in her own role of editor, remarking on the light that the letters now threw on ‘the under-currents of Blake’s life’, and wishing only that Alexander had seen them before he died.

  By autumn 1863, Anne had surmounted all these difficulties. Far from finding the work burdensome, she later said characteristically that it had proved a support and a consolation to her in the time of mourning: ‘That beloved task (the Blake) kept my head above water in the deep sea of affliction, and now that it is ended I sometimes feel like to sink – to sink, that is, into pining discontent – and a relaxing of the hold upon all high aims …’ The Life was finally published in two volumes in October 1863.


  Two thousand copies were printed, and reviews appeared rapidly. There were some initial reservations that the biography would, as Anne put it, ‘shock devout minds’. One reviewer observed evenly: ‘a more timid biographer might have hesitated about making so open an exhibition of his hero’s singularities’. But it was soon clear that the book would be a triumph. It was widely admired by the entire Pre-Raphaelite circle. Robert Browning wrote a fan letter, and Samuel Palmer spoke for the Ancients when he described it as ‘a treasure’, adding thoughtfully, ‘I do hope it may provoke a lively art-controversy in the periodicals, unless people have gone quite to sleep.’ He had ‘read wildly everywhere’, and concluded tenderly, ‘already it is certain to be an imperishable monument of the dear Biographer’.

  It was loyally hailed by Carlyle in a letter to Anne: ‘thankfulness is on
e clear feeling; not only to you from myself, but to you for the sake of another who is not here now’. He considered it ‘right well done – minute knowledge well-arranged, lively utterance, brevity, cheerful lucidity’. Later he told her, with a tact clearly designed to praise her faithful editorial work, that the whole biography was remarkable for ‘the acuteness and thoroughness with which the slightest clues had been followed out in gathering the materials, and with all this toil and minute accuracy on the writer’s part, nothing but pleasure for the reader – no tediousness’.

  The great strengths of the work, which Anne had so faithfully preserved, were quickly apparent. Gilchrist’s approach is lively, personal, enthusiastic and often humorous – quite unlike much over-earnest mid-Victorian biography. The quick, informal, darting style of his prose lends a sense of continual discovery and excitement to the narrative, and yet allows for virtuoso passages of description and summary.

  It is extraordinarily well-researched, especially in the use made of the previous memoirs by Malkin, Tatham, Linnell, Palmer, Crabb Robinson and several others. Although he lacked the Butts letters, Gilchrist draws effectively on some original correspondence with Flaxman in the early years, and the expressive series of short notes to John Linnell at Hampstead in the last years. He also quotes brilliantly throughout from Blake’s own works, both prose and poetry, much of it quite unknown to contemporary readers, such as the early ‘Notes on Lavater’ and the Proverbs of Hell. He was, too, the first Victorian writer to pick out and reprint in full Blake’s great ‘Jerusalem’ hymn from the Preface to Milton, ‘And did those feet in ancient time’.

  There are two qualities in Gilchrist’s writing which make him such an exceptionally vivid biographer. The first is his sense of physical place. He had a gift for evoking particular London streets, characteristic clusters of buildings or courtyards, and beyond them certain rural landscapes and secluded villages, where Blake had lived and worked. He captured their appearance, mood and atmosphere, and gave hints of their visionary meanings, or ‘auras’, for Blake.

  Gilchrist had spent endless days researching and identifying them, following meticulously in Blake’s footsteps. He could also add fascinating observations of how these sacred places had changed in the subsequent fifty or so years, giving a sense of historical continuity. In this way, the biography first gave Blake’s extraordinary imaginative life ‘a local habitation and a name’. The descriptions of the Gothic interior of Westminster Abbey, or of Hercules Buildings (and its garden) in Lambeth, or of the cottage and seashore at Felpham, and the last, hidden lodgings at Fountain Court, are especially evocative.

  The second quality is his power to conjure up Blake’s pictures and designs for the reader. Only a few of these were actually illustrated in the book, in black-and-white engravings, so a great deal depended on Gilchrist’s verbal descriptions. He found a remarkable way of bringing them to life in virtuoso passages of exquisite prose ‘dramatizations’, the energy of his syntax matching the energy of Blake’s line, which became a major feature of his biography. Here the young art critic comes into his own. This, for example, is how he brilliantly evoked the life and movement of the thirteen designs for ‘A Memorable Fancy’:

  The ever-fluctuating colour, the spectral pigmies rolling, flying, leaping among the letters; the ripe bloom of quiet corners, the living light and bursts of flame, the spires and tongues of fire vibrating with the full prism, make the page seem to move and quiver within its boundaries, and you lay the book down tenderly, as if you had been handling something sentient. A picture has been said to be midway between a thing and a thought; so in these books over which Blake had brooded, with the brooding of fire, the very paper seems to come to life as you gaze upon it – not with a mortal life, but with a life indestructible, whether for good or evil.

  Gilchrist made the defence of Blake’s eccentricity, and the rejection of his supposed insanity, a commanding theme from the beginning:

  On Peckham Rye (by Dulwich Hill) it is, as he will in after years relate, that while quite a child, of eight or ten perhaps, he has his ‘first vision’. Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angel wings bespangling every bough like stars. Returned home he relates the incident, and only through his mother’s intercession escapes a thrashing from his honest father, for telling a lie … If these traits of childish years be remembered, they will help to elucidate the visits from the spiritual world of later years, in which the grown man believed as unaffectedly as ever had the boy of ten.

  Gilchrist reverts continually to these visions: calmly asking what exactly they were, how Blake described them, and how they should be accounted for. Much apparently outlandish behaviour, such as the ‘scandalous’ nude sunbathing incident at Lambeth, is given a reasonable and detailed explanation, in this case with an amusing reminder about Shelley’s enthusiasm for the early Naturist movement, as well as a reference to innocent Swedenborgian rituals. It is interesting that clearly Anne had been able to prevent Macmillan from censoring this particular account, which eventually became one of the most memorable and treasured incidents in Blake’s popular biography (though paradoxically the one most vehemently challenged by his academic defenders).

  At the end of the little garden in Hercules Buildings there was a summer-house. Mr Butts calling one day found Mr and Mrs Blake sitting in this summer-house, freed from ‘those troublesome disguises’ which have prevailed since the Fall. ‘Come in!’ cried Blake, ‘it’s only Adam and Eve you know!’ Husband and wife had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character, and the garden of Hercules Buildings had to represent the Garden of Eden …

  Later, Blake’s poverty, social isolation and professional difficulties are shrewdly shown to have exacerbated the oddities of his temperament. Of the quarrel with the commercial publisher Cromek in 1815, a frankly ‘discordant episode’, Gilchrist writes calmly but unflinchingly:

  In Blake’s own mind, where all should have been, and for the most part was, peace, the sordid conflict left a scar. It left him more tetchy than ever; more disposed to wilful exaggeration of individualities already too prominent, more prone to unmeasured violence of expression. The extremes he gave way to in his designs and writings – mere ravings to such as had no key to them – did him no good with that portion of the public the illustrated Blair [The Grave, by Robert Blair] had introduced him to … Now, too, was established for him the damaging reputation ‘Mad’.

  All this is summarised in the decisive Chapter 35, boldly entitled ‘Mad or Not Mad’. In many ways this chapter is the psychological key to the entire biography. Here Gilchrist carefully defines the ‘special faculty’ of Blake’s imagination, and vindicates the profound spiritual sanity of the ‘gentle yet fiery-hearted mystic’. One after another, he calls as witnesses all Blake’s circle of friends, from Flaxman and Fuseli to Palmer and Linnell. In a robust passage Gilchrist rejects any modish Victorian interpretation of Blake’s visions: ‘No man, by the way, would have been more indifferent or averse than he (wide and tolerant as was his faith in supernatural revelations) towards the table-turning, wainscot-knocking, bosh-propounding “Spiritualism” of the present hour.’ Instead he champions Blake in terms that Carlyle would certainly have recognised: ‘Does not prophet or hero always seem “mad” to the respectable mob, and to polished men of the world …?’

  The last chapters are structured around the unpublished Reminiscences of Crabb Robinson from 1825, and the interviews with Palmer, Richmond and Tatham who knew Blake in the last years at Fountain Court. From here onwards (‘Personal Details’), the biography is at its most intimate and moving. The final picture of Blake ‘chaunting Songs’ to Catherine as he lies on his deathbed in the little upper room in Fountain Court, with the golden light from the nearby Thames playing above him on the ceiling, is unforgettable.


  Gilchrist’s biography was immediately taken up by the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle. William Rossetti established himself as th
e leading nineteenth-century Blake scholar, and edited the first collection of Blake’s Poetical Works, published in the Aldine series in 1874. Algernon Swinburne, inspired by Gilchrist, wrote the first detailed assessment of Blake as a poet, which appeared as a long monograph, William Blake: A Critical Essay, in 1868. In his Preface Swinburne spoke with admiration of Gilchrist’s ‘trained skill’ and ‘sense of selection’ as a biographer, and his ‘almost incomparable capacity of research and care in putting to use the results of such long and refined labour’.

  Like Palmer, Swinburne felt the biography would endure, despite the tragic circumstances of its composition: ‘This good that he did is likely to live after him; no part of it is likely to be interred in his grave.’ In saying this, Swinburne also gently reopened the question of the posthumous collaboration between Anne and Alexander: ‘For the book, unfinished, was not yet incomplete, when the writer’s work was broken short off. All or nearly all the biographical part had been carried through to a good end. It remained for other hands to do the editing; to piece together the loose notes left, and to supply all that was requisite or graceful in the way of remark or explanation.’ Anne however remained strenuous in her denial of having contributed anything more than ‘editorial’ work.

  Interest in Blake steadily revived, and within fifteen years Macmillan was ready to undertake a new edition. Anne Gilchrist had spent the previous four years in America with her children, writing about the work of Walt Whitman and forming an intense personal friendship with the poet. On her return to England in June 1879, almost her first act was to undertake the revision of the Blake biography desired by Macmillan. She had remained in close touch with the Rossettis, and with their advice began to correct minor errors of fact and dates. By March 1880 the work was being ‘pushed energetically through’, her main task being to find a place for another major cache of correspondence, some forty newly discovered letters from Blake to his patron William Hayley.

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