High priestess of a new morality

At times Portrait of a Muse feels like a Julian Fellowes soap opera where we see this woman of extraordinary vivacity making great men go weak at the knees


This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

If any period of British history can qualify as an illustration of Carlyle’s great man theory, then it is surely the nineteenth century. It was a time when individual men did demonstrably great things, such as invent world-changing machines, fight wars and even win them, cure diseases and make scientific discoveries, engage in social reform, and generate exciting new movements in the arts. And of course, despite a female monarch on the throne for much of the period, it was largely a time of men and not women, and moreover men with great big beards and great big hats and tailcoats. If there has ever been a little woman theory of history, then the nineteenth century might not be the first example that springs to mind.

Portrait of a Muse: Frances Graham, Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite Dream by Andrew Gailey Wilmington Square Books £25

Although he certainly does not claim to espouse such a theory, Andrew Gailey does come close in this magisterial and engaging biography of Frances Graham — muse, saloniste, chatelaine, confidante, and observer of British high society for 70 years from her late teens to her death in 1940. Eschewing the idea of yet another biography of a Great Man — too often blinded, as he says, “by the lights that cut them off from the audience beyond” — Gailey instead presents the life of a woman who was one of those “who under lit their age rather than commandeer the limelight”, and from whom “one can often learn much more about society and human nature”.

And we learn a lot about both. For while the book is subtitled “Frances Graham, Edward Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelite Dream”, this is far more than a book about an artist’s muse. Graham’s circle included politicians, scientists, poets, aesthetes and aristocrats, and she was the leading light of a social circle which called itself “The Souls”.

It was Graham herself who co-authored the group’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek manifesto, The New Morality. Despite the ironic tone, the manifesto had plenty of what we must today call “progressive” elements, including — egad! — an insistence that women should not withdraw after dinner while men remained with the port, and that women’s opinions were to be as valued as those of the less fair sex.

Evenings were to be more celebrations of wit rather than pompous displays of wisdom, and games were to be played that were “openly funny and intellectually competitive”. More racy still, within the circle at least, women were permitted to visit men who were not their husbands.

A long way from free love it may have been, but what Gailey’s detailed portrait of Graham reveals is that the stifling mores of Victorian and Edwardian high society were often challenged by its better and more imaginative brains. Conversational topics such as “the morality of infidelity, the intellectual disadvantages of monogamy, [and] the existence of the Frances Graham holding cymbals at the bottom of Burne-Jones’s The Golden Stairs soul” were perhaps somewhat outré for most nineteenth-century dining tables.

We are able to witness the almost bewildering interplay between Graham and the men who loved her with varying degrees of success

Graham was perfectly suited to being the “High Priestess” of such a group, partly because like all those of many parts she could not easily be put into a convenient social box. This meant she could be more things to more men — and women. Yes, she came from great wealth, but she was not an aristocrat: the source of her father’s riches lay in trade rather than in land. She may have possessed the glamour of being the muse of one of the leading artists of the day —Burne-Jones — but she was not, as Gailey declares, “in the classic sense a Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’”. And while she was also a vivacious hostess, she was also a mother of four who would outlive both her sons.

Gailey has clearly been granted access to most, if not all, of the family papers that are held at the Manor House at Mells, Somerset, the secondary seat of Graham’s husband, Jack Horner. As a result, we are able to witness the almost bewildering interplay between Graham and the men who loved her with varying degrees of success. At times Portrait of a Muse feels like a Julian Fellowes soap opera in which we see this woman of extraordinary vivacity and charm making great men go weak at the knees.

A letter from no less a figure than Asquith in 1892 is a case in point, and also provides much mirth for those who revel in Victorian sexual metaphor: “Do you remember a midnight walk we once had together through the streets of London? In the days when you were very stand-offish … How haughty you were! And unresponsive — moving yourself in your well found port (with which you were so well contented) and refusing to budge an inch when I timidly suggested that you might — at least on a voyage of experimental discovery — ‘put out to sea’ …”

What we also see is the small-minded pettiness of the supposedly great. One of the most telling episodes in the book is when Lord and Lady Lyttelton return a ring which had been given to their late daughter, May, by Rutherford Graham, Frances Graham’s late brother. The Lytteltons had always regarded the Grahams as somewhat parvenu, and had successfully scuppered Rutherford’s desire to marry May. Returning such a token of affection highlights how the Grahams were never quite accepted by some.

It would be too easy to suppose that the inclusion of such intimate moments and private correspondence serves only to titillate, but to suppress it would have impoverished the portrait. The whole point of biography is to present a figure as completely as possible. After all, like the rest of us, great men and great women — and after Gailey’s book, we should regard Graham certainly as one of those — have hearts as well as minds.

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