Andrew Gailey’s biography of Frances Graham is a masterpiece in itself.
Set during the Pre-Raphaelite era, it is so rich in new discoveries and breathtaking works of art, it is impossible to forget.
We have had the pleasure of discovering more about this outstanding biographical research and the myriad of relationships between Frances and the scholars and artists of her time, by interviewing the author.
The late Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones is certainly one of the most important figures in her life, although this volume is not just about their unique bond, it also gives the reader the opportunity to discover new aspects of the Victorian Age.
Frances Graham was an interesting (and now almost forgotten) figure of the Pre-Raphaelite era, what drew your attention to her?
About thirty years ago I was writing about an Irish clergyman and novelist [George Birmingham] who before the 1st World war managed to alienate all sides in Irish politics, eventually ending up in exile as rector in Mells. After all the turmoil in his life, he wrote so happily about Mells and especially about Lady Horner that I was intrigued. I had also come across her through an interest in the Souls and especially the opportunities for women of spirit and intelligence such company offered. Reading Time Remembered, I just found Frances tremendous fun [it is much more enjoyable writing biography if you like the company of your subject] and was fascinated too by my first glimpse of her friendship with EBJ. But the project remained very much on a back burner until 3-4 years ago I found myself between books and staying with friends near Mells. I saw the house on a magical day and was immediately captivated and set out to write Frances’s life.
Her relationship with Edward Burne-Jones lasted for 25 years. Was it difficult to research?
The core archive for her relationship with EBJ was 11 volumes of letters at Mells. These were not straightforward. EBJ’s handwriting is very wearying on the eyes and his letters were rarely brief [or properly dated!]. But the greatest difficulty was that they are virtually all from him to her. At her request he burnt all hers; she only burnt his from before her marriage. But such was the detail and regularity of his letters that you could ‘work out her responses from his responses’ and establish an almost conversational dialogue. What I hoped to create at times was a sense for the reader of overhearing a live conversation in which the author is invisible.
What do you think made it so enduring?
Partly because it was unfulfilled – so that neither party could get bored! More seriously, I make a great play on EBJ’s split reaction: both his lust for her and also the belief that her purity offered him protection, even redemption from the kind of feelings that had overwhelmed him with Zambaco. At the same time, he loved the ‘little spartan’ in her – sharp, independent and often challenging. While largely self-educated, she could engage with him intellectually and shared his artistic vision; and at a more basic level they shared a sense of humor. So that after the debacle of 1892 their relationship still had plenty to build afresh on. For all her resistance to playing the role of a deferential muse, she was very loyal to him. And especially in the 1870s, despite that she was much younger than him, she had greater social confidence and was an ally in society. It was a relationship that ebbed and flowed and was regularly being reinvented, most notably after 1883 and 1892. But ultimately they settled on her terms.
In an era of tragic lives (e.g. Lizzie Siddal and Maria Zambaco), what made Frances such a different muse?
She was the daughter of EBJ’s most important patron rather than a model plucked out from obscurity. She is also on the fringe of High Society, sufficiently so to be received at Court and 10 Downing Street. In the 1870s and early 80s, EBJ felt quite vulnerable to this score. Indeed, while still very young, she was capable of throwing EBJ out of the house before the arrival of Hubert Parry OE. She was much more interested in EBJ’s mind than his body, in being his best friend rather than the latest lover. And despite considerable pressure, she had the independence of spirit to hold out. Finally, she gained the security of marriage. Thus in the struggle for control of their relationship Frances held some trump cards that say Lizzie Siddal didn’t.
The First World War was a crucial period for Frances, as it meant she had to recreate her life from scratch. Could you tell us more about the creation of Mells Manor, from that perspective?
The Manor House dates from the 17th century and the Frances didn’t move in until 1902. With her Old Master and Pre-Raphaelite pictures, Frances imposed her own style upon the House. The war didn’t affect the house directly, save in the loss of Edward, its heir. And the Chapel was transformed into a memorial to the dead generation. Into the silence, Frances filled the house with her numerous friends from the Liberal intelligentsia and government. Later Katharine would make it the hub of the 20th century Catholic revival.
I think this period has a nostalgic purpose. The awfulness of the First World War could only be undone by taking control of the memory: hence Edward’s statue, hence too the recreation of the Edwardian social life. But she didn’t fossilize and engaged keenly with all the issues of the day right to the end.
Can we already ask you about your future projects? Will you work on more projects about the Pre-Raphaelite circle?
Nothing firm as yet but presently exploring the growth of intolerance before the First World War. Horrified by the recent growth of intolerance in the liberal democracies of the Western World, I thought I might investigate the phenomenon through a study of the earlier period in terms of its origins, means, scale and consequences.