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An idealised pastoral vision of life, ‘Green Summer’ (1864) shows the growing Italian influence on Burne-Jones’s work

If Ruskin’s Stones dropped like a literary thunderbolt in the 1850s, then Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, which was dedicated to Burne-Jones, exploded like a small thermonuclear device in 1866. Sensitive readers accustomed to a diet of Tennyson suddenly found themselves — if they could penetrate the floating veil of Swinburne’s poetic language — reading poems about lesbianism and sado-masochistic sex. It could be argued that Swinburne was not merely the prophet of the 20th-century sexual revolution but the person who first gave open voice in the English language to the joys of lesbianism.

How original is MacCarthy’s treatment? She is following in illustrious footsteps, in that the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald published a beautifully written biography of the artist a generation ago. It is a little dispiriting to read in the preface that the principal fruit of a long trawl through the mass of Burne-Jones’s correspondence and various family collections is that ‘It is now becoming possible to arrive at a much fuller account of Burne-Jones’s fam-

ily relationships and sexual history, especially his devastating love affair with Maria Zambaco, than has been feasible before.’ Yet once more, then, this is a biography that takes as much interest in the sex life of an artist as it does in his intellectual development and formal techniques. Given that Burne-Jones

Why did the Victorians spend so much time away with the fairies?

and Swinburne described heaven as ‘a rosegarden full of stunners,’ there is some justification for this focus, but it makes for a rather predictable narrative line.

Surprise, surprise, we enter the dodgy territory of the Victorian male taste for fondling little girls. To MacCarthy’s credit, she neither goes wild with Freudian speculation nor mounts a moralistic high horse. She simply presents the evidence and leaves readers to make up their own minds. Thus from the secret diary of Constance Hilliard, aged 13:

the spectator | 17 September 2011 |

Drive into London to see Mr Jones the artist who is one of Cussy’s [i.e. Ruskin’s] dearest friends. A nice petting and grave talks. Sweet run in the garden, tea and talks, and another nice petting before I went to bed.

MacCarthy is good at evoking the atmosphere of the places that inspired BurneJones, the sites he saw on his French and Italian tours, and of course the formative influence of Oxford.And she is well attuned to the deeply literary quality of his imagination. She quotes a wonderfully astute remark from Henry James to the effect that Burne-Jones’s work was ‘not painting, and has nothing to do with painting. It is literature, erudition … a reminiscence of Oxford, a luxury of culture.’

I do wonder whether MacCarthy would have served Burne-Jones better with a book that was less dutifully thorough, more Jamesian, more impressionistic and essayistic, perhaps focused exclusively on those literary friendships that shaped his very Victorian imagination.


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