- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

CIRCLE OF SISTERS: ALICE KIPLING, GEORGIANA BURNE-JONES, AGNES POYNTER, AND LOUISA BALDWIN

By Judith Flanders

Norton, $27.95, 392 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Judith Flanders is one Englishwoman who has a profound understanding of her country in the 19th century; her splendid book, “Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England,” is quite simply one of the best guides there is to that particular slice of history. Some of that book’s virtues — originality, vividness, clarity, accessibility — are on display in Ms. Flanders’ biography of four sisters born to a clergyman in the north of England in the early decades of Victoria’s reign. Why the Macdonald sisters? Well, a sentence early in the text tells us why — and with a crystalline economy that any writer could envy and every reader bless:

“Four women connect four men by a slender but steely thread. One man is an earl, and three times prime minister; the second a Nobel prize winner who turned down a knighthood, the Poet Laureateship and the Order of Merit; the third is a baronet and leading Pre-Raphaelite painter; and the fourth is also a baronet, who has been both director of the National Gallery and president of the Royal Academy. The thread is the Macdonald sisters — four women who were the mothers of Stanley Baldwin and Rudyard Kipling and the wives of Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter.”

So we are launched upon a sea of information on Victorian society as a whole and about this particular quartet and their nearest and dearest. Among the illustrations provided by Ms. Flanders is one of a typical painting by Burne-Jones, “King’s Daughters,” which has the virtue of portraying all four sisters (plus their unmarried sister Edie, who plays a more peripheral role in “Circle of Sisters.”) There is a wealth of insights about the sisters — to say nothing of Burne-Jones the man and the painter — in this book; and if Ms. Flanders’ prose is too good for a thousand of her words to be worth this picture, it is nonetheless salutary for the reader to look at it from time to time when wrestling with some of the author’s pronouncements.

And pronounce she does. This is a writer with a definite slant on things, specifically a feminist one. A legitimate enough tack to take, certainly, and it is good to be reminded of the social and even legal restrictions affecting women in 19th Century England. If only Ms. Flanders were not so stridently sure hers was the only way to approach a subject and were she not given to such sweeping statements, her many illuminating perceptions might have added up to a more palatable dish.

Consider, for example, her verdict on the wife of Burne-Jones’ fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

“But it is impossible today to see the death of Lizzie Siddal in any other way than as that of an artist — of a PERSON who was not allowed to flower, who was imprisoned by the expectations of society. Lizzie’s laudanum habit may have been a symptom of the constrictions she suffered in her life; she may also have suffered from some form of anorexia — her illness, while never diagnosed, caused extreme thinness and made it next to impossible for her to eat.”

Impossible to see it in ANY other way? Come, now. It’s one thing to be didactic because you have a great deal of information, even knowledge, to pass on, but it is surely the essence of sound scholarship to admit that there are other valid ways of looking at something. Indeed, considering those other angles may even illuminate your own to greater effect by contrast. Too often Ms. Flanders seems so concerned with laying down the law that it puts one off the undoubted merits of her argument.

And when it comes to the inner core of characters, her opinions become more pronounced if anything. Families have their feuds and their alliances and it is natural for a writer to enter into the spirit of things when investigating the crosscurrents. But Ms. Flanders’ likes and dislikes are so pronounced that they vie with such masters of the opinionated as the redoubtable Rudyard Kipling himself, a fierce fellow if ever there was one. And that ferocity seems to have come to him in the maternal line, his mother Alice being perhaps the starchiest of the Macdonald sisters.

Alice Kipling is certainly no favorite of Judith Flanders. Indeed, so hostile and unforgiving is she to this hapless woman that she even seems to prefer Rudyard’s unpleasant wife, Carrie, about whom few if any Kipling biographers have anything good to say. Other recipients of the back of this authorial hand are Burne-Jones’ son and heir Phil and the distinguished artist, academician and museum administrator, Edward Poynter. Ms. Flanders’ hostility to Poynter’s subject matter and style is extreme: she even disparages Rudyard Kipling’s respect for some of his uncle’s unexceptionable views on matters artistic.

Poynter and his ways are indeed out of fashion today, but it is surprising that Ms. Flanders, who is so attuned to Victorian mores and outlook, should in this case be the captive of today’s orthodoxies. But her likes are more infectious than her dislikes: Her favorite sister is clearly Georgie Burne-Jones and she succeeds in convincing the reader that she was indeed a glowing and benevolent presence to those who knew her.

Many will value this book especially for the wealth of detail about all manner of life in Victorian England: where else will you so seamlessly and entertainingly learn the relative cost of oil, gas and electric lighting in late 19th century London? Or the dangers of primitive kitchen boilers and ranges?

Or the ins and outs of mourning clothes? And much, much more. But of course in the end, the success of “A Circle of Sisters” must depend on the Macdonald women themselves; and to her credit, Ms. Flanders confronts this in characteristically pithy fashion: “Were the Macdonalds in any way remarkable? Were they worth the 300-odd pages dedicated to them …? It could be said that all they did was marry well, but that would be unfair. One married a prosperous iron master with whom she could have been expected to reside in bourgeois obscurity for the rest of their lives. The other three married, in the eyes of the world, a poor artist of moderate family, a poor artist of no family, and an art teacher; and they all rose to contribute greatly to their worlds. Could it be said, therefore, that the Macdonald sisters ‘made’ the men they married? They probably did play a part in their husbands’ rise, although not the sole one. Did they ‘make’ their children? It is notable that the children fell broadly into two groups. Those of Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter, the men who made a prominent mark in their day, were at best untouched by ambition, at worst content to live of the reputation of their fathers. The children of the businessman and the art teacher became Prime Minister and the uncrowned Poet Laureate of Empire. It is probably safe to say that nurture had as much to do with that as nature.”

And so in the final analysis, Judith Flanders does make the case for her book. Despite an occasional tendency towards the overheated and the tendentious, she manages to use her theme to produce genuine illumination of the Macdonalds and their time. Add to this a real flair for colorful characterization and a writing style that is consistently lively: reasons enough to forgive her the odd lapse into insufferable exuberance.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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