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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William De Morgan (1839–1917)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edgar White Burrill (b. 1883)
 
WILLIAM DE MORGAN’S first novel was written when he was sixty-four years old, after a busy life as a manufacturer of pottery, and yet almost every year from the publication of ‘Joseph Vance’ in 1906 until his death, January 15th, 1917, there came from his facile pen another story of the same astonishing length of nearly a quarter of a million words. The quality of his work has been compared more than once to that of Dickens, both in its vivid portraiture of slum life, and in its many interruptions and asides to the reader. Though he protested against the label of Early Victorianism, there is a certain leisurely-minded, gossiping attitude in all his stories which is more characteristic of author and reader of fifty years ago than of the turbulent haste of to-day. But his very first book received an immediate and widespread fame which has not been lessened by his successive performances.  1
  William De Morgan was born in London, November 16th, 1839, at the time his father, Augustus De Morgan, was a distinguished Professor of Mathematics in University College. His mother was the daughter of William Frend, who was expelled from Cambridge University for heretical opinions. He was educated himself at University College, and married in 1888 Evelyn Pickering. Beginning his life work as an artist, after studying at the Royal Academy in 1859, he abandoned painting five years later to engage in making designs for stained glass. In 1870 he entered upon the manufacture of pottery, a pursuit to which he devoted himself for the next thirty-five years. His experiments in lustre, at that time not much known in England, attracted some attention among artists, but he received small pecuniary returns. It was while he was convalescing from an illness in 1905 that he turned to the writing of fiction as a diversion, and that first book, ‘Joseph Vance; an Ill-Written Autobiography,’ is still generally regarded as his best. In this life history of a boy rescued from the gutter and educated by a kind-hearted gentleman, for whose daughter he conceives a lifelong affection that prompts him eventually to assume the guilt of her brother to spare her pain, the mellowness and charm so characteristic of the later novels is found in abundant measure and the shrewd characterization and lifelike dialogue and incidents endow it with a quiet reality which is intensified by its loose construction. Indeed the haphazard quality of the many trivial circumstances which crowd its pages adds to the impression of actuality.  2
  Each of the stories that followed is concerned likewise in some measure, at least in the opening chapters, with the more repulsive aspects of life; but evil to De Morgan is a necessary factor in the development of the soul, and the total effect is always one of abiding beauty. It is not so much the plot, good as it is, that holds the interest, as the author’s genial comments on his characters and events. One of the characters in ‘Joseph Vance’ expresses the De Morgan ideal in these words: “The highest good is the growth of the Soul, and the greatest man is he who rejoices most in the great fulfilments of the will of God.” His philosophy throughout blends an intimate worldly wisdom with a radiant faith in the things which are unseen and eternal. To him, as to Browning, good is the very goal of ill.  3
  In ‘Alice-for-Short’ (1907) it is a little girl who is rescued from the slums, while ghosts and mysteries are added to the story of her development, unnecessary though they are to the character delineation. In unraveling the mystery, a daring surgical operation is made use of to restore the memory of a frail old woman past eighty, whose mind has been a blank for sixty years but who alone can furnish the key to the vanished past. The pathos of her awakening to a realization of her isolation among a generation she does not know is equalled only by the death of Janey in ‘Joseph Vance,’ or by the death of poor, blind Jim, run over by an automobile and ignorant of the death of his Lizarann, in ‘It Never Can Happen Again.’ De Morgan’s ripeness of vision and breadth of tolerance are apparent in the third novel, ‘Somehow Good’ (1908), where a headstrong girl on her way to India to marry her lover falls into evil hands and is betrayed. The marriage takes place, but her secret is discovered, and separation follows. Later on, the husband, having suffered a complete suspension of memory and loss of identity, finds shelter in the wife’s home in London, only to be restored and reconciled in due time. This sweet and wholesome treatment of an old problem, built up though it is on coincidences and improbabilities, has the best construction of any of the novels; it follows most closely its central theme and indulges in few superfluous characters.  4
  The remarkable descriptive power of which evidence was given in the burning of the works in ‘Joseph Vance,’ or the picture of a London fog in ‘Somehow Good,’ is equalled again in the scene of the departure of the convict ship in ‘When Ghost Meets Ghost’ (1914). Many threads of story are here woven together, the title referring to the meeting of two old twin sisters, each of whom, over eighty, has believed the other dead for fifty years. Sunshine is still dominant here, and again “life is seen through the humorous eyes of one who loves his fellow-men and is interested chiefly in their sweeter and more conversable side.”  5
 
 
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