I have been looking at contemporary reviews of de Morgan’s first novel Joseph Vance.
The Sunday Times spoke of “The extraordinary unconventionality and charm of Mr William de Morgan’s ‘ill-written autobiography’ (an absurd description) Joseph Vance. It is a very long and very detailed story of mid-Victorian life and manners, and its very lengthiness and detail contribute to make it fascinating.”
The American press was very enthusiastic. The New York Times wrote: “Mr. de Morgan possesses a subtle humor in characterisation and dialogue rather than in situation, and a deep and touching tenderness underlies the entire work. He writes as a man might who has successfully searched life for joy, and then has lost what he has found. It is all written from the heart — a man who has a sad story to relate, and tells it because he must, not because he would. In Its way it is as sincere as Newman’s Apologia. It is epic in its conception, magnificent in its presentment — this autobiography of a great-hearted man could only be told as it is by another great-hearted man, for it is a sound dictum that there cannot be in the creation what in the creator is not.”
The Baltimore Times said: “The book is of a high order. It is more than a novel: it is a piece of literature. … Joseph Vance is either a survival of the age of sanity or a return to it, the times of Dickens and Thackeray. What is all the more wonderful, there is nothing of imitation about it. The writer remains independently himself and conducts us so easily through this house of memories that one would say the book wins rather than compels interest There is humor here spontaneous and vigorous; yet the book contains romance as improbable as life itself.”
Olivia Howard Dunbar in The North American Review was more thoughtful and saw that the novel’s comparability to Thackeray and Dickens meant it was old-fashioned. “That a contemporary of Mr. Meredith and Mr. James should have been so far able to resist the influences of his time as to produce a novel that is mid-Victorian to the least syllable may seem at first sight a startling case of artistic obduracy. Yet it is possible that the elaborate simplicity of Joseph Vance is the disguise of a shrewd artfulness, and that it was Mr. de Morgan’s sophisticated intention to imply a comment on literary fashions with which he may not happen to be in sympathy. Or the novel’s period of incubation may have been unnaturally prolonged, and it may literally be a lonely survival of the age of Dickens and Thackeray, discipleship to both of which masters it frankly displays.”
One of the delights of William de Morgan’s novels is his sideswipes at followers of Causes, whom he knew well through his association with Suffragists and Spiritualists and his friendship with William Morris.
In Joseph Vance he satirises Aunt Isabella, who has “gone to a Congress of an Association for the Promotion or Suppression of some Virtue or Vice, I’m not sure which!” She is a believer in Homeopathy and collects weird, ineffectual remedies:
“‘It’s that nice prescription of Dr. Hillyer’s. It’s only a little Ammonia and Chlorodyne and Gentian and Bark, and nothing that can possibly hurt. And of course you won’t mind me, dear, no one does! But I’m sure you ought either to take something or let Dr. Hillyer see you.’”
She enquires about symptoms that only homeopaths know about:
“‘Itching in the nostrils. Titillation in the membranes of the nasal canal. Sensation as of centipedes on the occiput, or of a large heavy object in the glottis, accompanied with wheezing, snoring, or choking. Incessant sneezing. Metempsychosis and Asphyxia. Tendency to jump, start and use bad language. Sensation of a swarm of bees in the larynx. Caryatids.’ That’s just exactly what she read very loud to me and a policeman’s back, standing at our gate.”
And she insists that you swallow something she has prepared:
“When I came back from posting my letter found two tumblers of the Weakest possible grog with paper over them — one teaspoonful every four hours of each, alternately. She makes some concession to my feelings on the subject of High Dilutions, and (at great risk to myself, she says) allows me to have Mother-Tinctures. Hence the Alcohol, which has the same relation to real Grog that a glass of water too often has to beer, owing to previous associations and ineffectual dry rubs.
“I wouldn’t nag on this way at poor Aunty, only she really did aggravate Papa.”
I’m reading William de Morgan’s first novel – and his most popular – Joseph Vance, cast as the autobiography of a poor boy who goes through many trials to achieve success in life. The narrative is comic, discursive and fizzes with the joy of writing. And there is a love interest too, so the comparison with Dickens was inevitable.
I wondered how he was received in his own time and came across this contemporary account:
About four years ago the struggle to live became exceptionally severe, and it was about this time that Mr. de Morgan conceived the idea of ‘Joseph Vance’. He wrote the opening chapters, but was able to get no further, for there was a revival in the tile industry that kept the aged author and artist busy for three years. Twelve months ago, having some time on his hands, Mr. de Morgan decided to finish his first book.
A t this time Mr. de Morgan had no idea of selling the book. It was written for the pure pleasure of writing, and if any were destined to read it the privilege was to be confined to friends. Those who read this first novel of 200,000 words suggested that it should be sent to a publisher, so to a publisher it was promptly dispatched. It came back with the intimation that it was much too long. Several times it was refused, and then Mr. de Morgan conceived the idea of having it typed. It was sent to a well-known firm, and immediately put in hand. One day the proprietress was walking through, the office, when she noticed one of the girls in tears. An inquiry yielded the information that the girl was crying over some of the scenes in the novel she was typing. The proprietress glanced over the girl’s shoulder, and soon was crying also.
She told some friends of the extraordinary power of the novel, and by this circuitous route the story of the book reached Mr. Heinemann, the publisher, who thought a book that could make a typist cry must possess some extraordinary merit. The ’script was sent for, and Mr. Heinemann’s reader gave a glowing verdict on its merits. It was therefore published, and became the success of its year. Mr. de Morgan’s next book followed with equal success, and now he is engaged upon a third novel, which will be published early in the spring. He is a tall, fine-looking, bearded man, recalling Mr. George Bernard Shaw, and he is a very sound thinker.
We went to Wrest Park to break the monotony of lockdown, but I wanted to see it anyway because it has one of the few remaining baroque gardens in England.
The house was built in a thoroughgoing French style between 1834 and 1839 by Thomas, Earl de Grey, but the garden was laid out in the first decades of the 18th century by Henry Grey, Duke of Kent, and is a rare example of a formal woodland garden in the French style, though there are Dutch influences as well, reflecting the Duke’s loyalty to William III. Its principal features – the Long Water on the axis of the house, with woodland walks beyond and parterres near to the house – remain and much of it has survived alteration, Batty Langley, Thomas Wright and Capability Brown having respected it in their later improvements.
This kind of formal garden is now deeply unfashionable, and even the mixed herbaceous border – the staple of garden design in houses of all sizes for a hundred and fifty years – is under pressure from wild and ecological gardening, but English Heritage are embarked on a twenty-year programme to restore it.