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Happy Birthday, Topsy

By David Leopold

William Morris (1834-1896) is widely recognized as the greatest ever English designer, a poet ranked by contemporaries alongside Tennyson and Browning, and an internationally renowned figure in the history of socialism. However, since the year 2013 offers no ‘big’ anniversary as a pretext to survey these various major achievements, I will instead use 24 March (his birthday) as an excuse to look at how Morris actually spent some of his own birthdays. We might not share his achievements, but, in certain respects at least, his birthdays might look rather like our own. Not least, they were occasions on which to be reminded of family, friends, and one’s own mortality.

Appropriately enough, Morris’s mother Emma emerges (from correspondence at least) as perhaps the most reliable celebrant and gift-giver; a ‘very nicely worked’ cloth in 1885, a pair of candlesticks three years later. Morris had moved some considerable political and cultural distance from his conventional bourgeois upbringing, but his mother remained a lively and supportive presence throughout nearly his entire life. In 1890 (when her health had finally begun to fail), Morris feigned a stern tone in responding to her birthday greetings, warning that ‘I shall have to scold you if you talk of presents. Your love is the best present I can have’. Her death in 1894 (aged 89) hit Morris unexpectedly hard; he confided to Georgiana Burne-Jones that even his ‘old and callous heart’ had been touched by the absence of ‘what had been so kind to me and fond of me’.

Birthdays were also, of course, an occasion for Morris’s more immediate family, especially since his daughter May was born on 25 March and they often held a joint celebration. If Morris was away, he would report back on his birthday to his family. An 1878 letter to his (two) daughters shows parental kindness moderating, but not effacing, Morris’s critical eye for design detail; he thanks May for her gift of a very pretty ‘baccy pouch’ but insists that the cotton strings will need replacing with silk to avoid setting his teeth on edge when opening it. In the same year, he provided his wife Jane with a humorous sketch of the morning after his birthday dinner with his mother and (second) sister Henrietta in Much Hadham, in Hertfordshire. Rogers (his mother’s maid) had cut his hair in the presence of not only his ‘kinswomen’ but also his mother’s parrot; the latter, at least, was seemingly delighted with the entertainment and ‘mewed & barked & swore & sang at the top of his vulgar voice’.

William Morris
William Morris, aged 53
Birthdays were also an occasion for being remembered by, and spending time with, his friends. In thanking Louisa Baldwin for ‘remembering me & my birthday’ in 1875, Morris added that he had always been a lucky man with his friends. Those friendships, however, were sometimes tested by his occasional ill-humour and quick temper (usually immediately followed by embarrassment and regret). After one especially ‘crabby’ birthday evening (1869) spent in the company of Edward Burne Jones (‘Ned’) and Charles Fairfax Murray, Morris felt obliged to write apologies to both men. Admitting that he could be ‘like a hedgehog with nastiness’, Morris craved forgiveness from Burne-Jones on the grounds that he simply could not do without him.

Birthdays also provide a reminder of our own mortality. Morris met middle-age with a familiar mixture of melancholy and resignation. On his thirty-ninth birthday he complained (to Charles Eliot Norton) that his hair was turning grey. A year later he described turning forty (to Louisa Baldwin) as a ‘sad occasion’ despite the fact that he felt no older. As the years passed, a sense of acquiescing in the inevitable seems to have displaced that earlier angst. By 1887, Morris could be found simply confiding to his diary: ‘fifty-three years old today – no use grumbling at that’.

And lastly, at least beyond childhood, birthdays are often simply days like any other. Morris’s own daily routine typically took a fiercely energetic form, involving work and politics. In 1874, he told one birthday correspondent that the day itself had been ‘solemnized’ only by his laboring hard at the illuminations (probably of The Odes of Horace) which were currently his chief joy. And in 1888, his birthday fell during a socialist tour of the more ‘wretched’ parts of Scotland, and Morris spent the day lecturing in the mining town of West Caldor, in West Lothian.

In thanking Louisa Baldwin for her birthday greetings of 1875, Morris speculated on some connections between two of these themes – politics and mortality – and wondered whether our failure to have created a better world might not reflect the shortness of our mortal coil. Perhaps, he mused, we are simply not here long enough to turn sufficient attention towards making the world a more rational and humane place. However, by the time he came to write News From Nowhere (1890), the great utopian novel of his later years, Morris had reversed the putative connection here, turning idle regret into realistic aspiration in the process. It was only after they had created a society embodying equality and community that the inhabitants of Nowhere came to live much longer lives. When a visitor expresses surprise at the vigour and vitality of a man in his nineties (but looking much younger), he is told that in Nowhere they have beaten the three-score and ten of ‘the old Jewish proverb book’, and, more importantly, that those lives now contain much more in the way of health and happiness.

David Leopold is University Lecturer in Political Theory, University of Oxford, and John Milton Fellow, Mansfield College, Oxford. He has edited William Morris’s News From Nowhere, for Oxford World’s Classics.

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Image credit: William Morris, aged 53. By Frederick Hollyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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