April 21st, 2009


A long complicated story

I spent much of today - though not as much as planned - hanging out with d_aulnoy who is in town for the same fairy story conference at UEA as vschanoes with whom I hung out a lot last week. Then we went for dinner with fjm,owlfish and purplecthulhu and got talking, as you do in that sort of company, about the relevance of Marxism to astrophysics, ways of bringing back the Great Old Ones with lights and bits of string and more relevantly to the point of this, the influence on people's career choices of what they read as children. (I said that the parents in Edward Eager's Knight's Castle made me, at 8, want to grow up to be a rich Manhattan sophisticate with hats and people mostly didn't allow that as an example of what they meant.)

Anyway, d_aulnoy had mentioned earlier that one of the reasons she went to grad school was reading Antonia Byatt's Possession and I had promised to tell her the story of my involvement with that prize-winning novel...Which involves the story of how I became an academic drop-out.

I was working at Oxford on a M.Litt thesis - which I hoped to trade up to a Ph.D in due course - on the variant drafts of William Morris's The Earthly Paradise.(A lost Greek colony and mediaeval voyagers swap stories - a lot of these went through several radically different versions and I reckoned I could map this on the ups and downs of the triangle between Morris, his wife Jane and his friend and mentor Dante Gabriel Rosetti). Unfortunately, just before I was due to present this to the examiners, a Scots woman resident in Czechoslovakia published an article which largely and entirely innocently duplicated my material.

So that was that - I didn't have money for a further year in which to rewrite the material, partly because I had faield to get a fellowship because the Politics Don Pelchynski thought I was a Soviet sleeper - and, as I discovered when I looked at my personnel file when a civil servant, actually denounced me as such to the organs of the state. While recommending that they hire Michael Bettany, who actually was a spy for the Russians, or tried to be - the Russians went 'you're having a laugh' and dobbed him in. He got quite a long stretch, which would upset me if he hadn't earlier on been a whisky-swilling, Hitler speech listening, late night in the quad goose-stepping schmuck who was very happy in public when I failed to get a First. But I digress.

So I went off and worked in television and teaching and the civil service and publishing and the rest is history...I had also, though, noticed something rather interesting when working on the manuscripts, which were carefully bound up and left to the BM by Morris's daughter May.

May's catalogue referred to one particular bunch of pages as containing the lyric 'Love within the hawthorn break'. I knew the poem - it's quite short - far too short for the number of pages. May had not mentioned the verse drama fragment that the lyric is part of and from which she extracted it for the uncollected poems - as opposed to the verse drama which she left in the MS and effectively suppressed by miscataloguing.

Now, the interest of this is as follows. The fragment deals with an unnamed King, Queen and Knight caught up in a triangle like Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere; the King accepts the situation and forgives the lovers. Much later in his life in News from Nowhere the old and very radical Morris advocated Free Love; after his death, various friends who had not liked his later Communist incarnation, wrote that his attitude to his wife and Rosetti was not the pained acceptance of a beloved's autonomy that he later advocated. What the poem did was prove that Morris' position was consistent over three decades - when Fiona McCarthy repeated the imputation of hypocrisy years later, I wrote all of this up in an article.

So, when I was working at Chatto, and editing an SF line that included Tim Powers;The Anubis Gates and I spent time talking to Antonia Byatt who had got stuck on her tetralogy, And she asked me why I was not an academic and I explained the above story. Some years later, she wrote Possession and of course that has a lost document that causes a radical reassessment of a Victorian poet - I like to believe that I helped spark that book, because it is cool to have done so. Also, we did talk about the faked literature in Powers; Byatts' poet is Edward Ash and Powers' is William Ashbless.

I've always been miffed that I didn't get sent a first edition of a book I may have influenced; on the other hand, if the result is that a woman went to grad school and later on met me, that is pretty cool too.