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Book review: Peacock and Vine by AS Byatt

An acclaimed novelist explores the links between two men who make an odd pair.

Anyone familiar with the novels and short stories of AS Byatt, who is now aged 80, knows that she is an intensely visual and descriptive writer and that her historical pastiches reveal an incredible intensity of feeling for the atmosphere and aesthetics of place and time.

Peacock & Vine, despite sounding like a law firm, turns that sharp eye on the real world, in this case two tastemakers on either side of 1900: William Morris (1834-1896) and Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949).

Morris was a solidly middle-class English natural socialist of the Ruskin mould, a key figure of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as keen on social justice and reviving the skills of handcraft as he was on medieval aesthetics. He makes an odd pairing with the more flamboyant and theatrical Fortuny, a Spanish-born, Venice-based fashion and textile designer with a passion for the classical world. Fortuny was the creator of the Greek-inspired Delphos and Knossos gowns, and the only living artist named by Proust in his epic À la recherche du temps perdu.

This small but enchanting book, an extended essay, really, is rich in Byatt’s intellectual idiosyncrasy, as she meanderingly explores the sometimes dubious parallels between the two men. It begins Byattesquely enough: a momentary whimsical vision (brought on by a particularly English shade of green) of Morris’ spirit in the shadows of the Museo Fortuny in Venice, Fortuny’s home and studio, “… his clear colours, his northern myths as opposed to Fortuny’s gold and sandy and shadowy colours”. Perhaps she was thinking of Morris’ epic poem The Earthly Paradise, which contrasts the two themes.

AS Byatt: elegance and insight. Photo/Getty Images

Where the book works best is in recognising the concentrated and boundless creative energy of the two men, drawing on experimentation and a romanticised past to reinvent the present, and in the creation of recognisable brand names of themselves.

Byatt the novelist is clearly a bit infatuated with sulky, quirkily beautiful Jane, Morris’ unfaithful wife who was enthusiastically conducting an affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, often upstairs, while poor, naive Morris played with Rossetti’s pet wombat in the parlour. Fortuny’s wife, muse and colleague, Henrietta, was also a striking woman, judging from his many photographs, drawings and paintings of her.

Byatt concludes that the Fortunys enjoyed a more contented home life at the Palazzo Pesaro Orfei than did the Morrises at Kelmscott.

She can’t help trying to turn the two men into fictional characters, and indeed at times her observations feel like notes for an unwritten novel (some of Morris can be seen in the character of the poet Randolph Henry Ash, and vice versa, in Byatt’s 1990 best-known novel Possession). Frequently, both men vanish altogether as Byatt pursues a tangent, which is not something I mind. The attempt to connect them through favoured motifs (hence the title) ranges from okay through strained to outright batty, but what this lavish book loses in art-historical fluffing it makes up for in elegant prose and insight into Byatt herself. That is reason enough to embrace it.

PEACOCK AND VINE: FORTUNY AND MORRIS IN LIFE AND AT WORK, by AS Byatt (Chatto & Windus, $40)

This article was first published in the April 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.