Passionnée par les liens entre littérature et peinture et les recherches historiques, Marie-Claire Merel, Professeur d’Anglais au Lycée Charles de Gaulle, signe son premier roman South of the river. Roman miroir qui, dans le même quartier, oscille entre le Londres contemporain, « So British », et celui de l’époque victorienne, en pleine révolution industrielle et pourtant déjà centre artistique européen. Roman fenêtre sur Alice, jeune femme qui, en acquérant indépendance et confiance croissantes dans les Ateliers du designer William Morris, s’émancipe progressivement de l’univers de « production » vers celui de « création ».
In the summer of 1898, Alice, who’s a weaver at William Morris & Co workshops, has returned to the small terraced house where she lives with her family:
Alice carefully crept under the table, where she could hear Nellie giggle with delight.
‘Good girl, you’re all clean and ready for bed in your nightdress, so I will tell you a story, I mean our story.’
‘Will you tell me more about the patterns, the flowers they were copied from, that mansion in the walled garden near the large river?’
Carefully placing her mug of tea near the leg of the table that was standing along the partition wall, she settled as comfortably as possible in the cramped space, leaning on her right elbow sideways, her cheek cupped in her hand. Not the best way of resting her back after all these hours sitting on the wooden bench at the loom but she would still be able to sip some tea. Nellie sat cross-legged, too small to be made uncomfortable by the restricted height, already focused for the next installment of their river story.
‘This place is far away, in a beautiful stretch of countryside where the River Thames flows in an elegant curve. If you walked from here up the hill and across Wimbledon Common, then through Richmond Park down to Ham, you would find the path along the river and would have to turn left. But walking to that manor means walking for days till the river narrows across the fields, you would have to find an inn to rest and a morsel to eat every night. Miss Hendon told me that the area was called the Cotswold and that before he discovered Merton Abbey, our master, Mr. Morris, wanted to move his business there. ‘
‘I could walk the journey and I wouldn’t complain if you took me. I am a good walker’.
‘It would be a tiring journey, but I think that we are too exhausted tonight to turn left so let’s turn right towards the city, float downstream and from the middle of the river, where it is wide and powerful we can look at the beautiful houses at Richmond, then follow the bends and take a peek at Kew Gardens on our right.
‘Yes, let’s move down the river, are we going to meet the gentle giant with the beard, who’s got that place with a secret walled garden full of flowers he grows and makes pictures of’.
Alice always thought of the River Thames as the organic core of her city, the elemental that gave it its pulse, but she felt she didn’t belong there. She belonged to its modest tributary, the Wandle River along which the Huguenots had established weaving, bleaching and dyeing industries a century earlier; like the smaller and humble secondary river that powered the many mills installed along its length, she was hard working, resilient and reserved. And she was grateful to her river, as she knew the Wandle provided many local men with regular employment that enabled them to scrape a living for their families. There was a strong connection between the human beings, whose livelihoods depended on the industries set along the water, and that unassuming tributary that discreetly flowed and merged into the bigger river farther away, in a small creek. Like the river course, their lives seemed to be subsidiaries in the bustling activity of the city.
To Alice, the Thames River was impressive, confident, leisurely meandering, through London, sometimes too ostentatious in her sweeping curves lined by beautiful rows of houses. As opposed to her worker’s river, it was the master artist’s exclusive domain, his source of inspiration, a place where he had steered his boat freely and considered his own, a space for adventure and freedom that behaved like him, unexpectedly, whimsically. But the Wandle represented her life of pressure and constraints, of production rather than of creation.
The sisters heard the footsteps of their mother, quietly closing the kitchen door, then walking up the stairs, taking the toddler to her cot in the large front bedroom. The rain was still lashing at the sash windowpanes but inside the kitchen, it was warm and peaceful.
‘Look, we’ve nearly reached Hammersmith bridge, with what looks like its two arched gates, that green steel bridge you can see in the background, and there, to your left, look at that impressive tall red brick house, with the coach-house on the left, and the sycamore tree in the yard leading to it; there’s a big front-garden with a path leading to the main door with its fan-light above.’
‘It’s dark and foggy but I can see the lights in the windows, is he still at work there? I would rather spend time looking at the view if I lived in that house, and count the boats passing by!’
‘It’s a house, like all his houses if I believe Miss Hendon, where he would mix working and living; she told me that he wanted to learn how to weave, and nobody could teach him here in England, so he looked at drawings in old books, and he even visited a famous manufacturer in Paris where they use these old models of looms, can’t remember the name, it’s their inventor’s name I think, Miss Hendon struggled to pronounce it! Our master didn’t care it was something gentlemen of his status ought not to do; he didn’t mind people saying working with your hands wasn’t suitable for him. So he had the big loom installed in his bedroom, working all the summer at it, maybe that’s one of the lit windows you can make out, though he would always work in the morning to get the best light’.
‘I can see his profile with the long beard behind the ground floor window pane, he won’t look up because he’s very attentive, like Miss Jeffrey says I must be at school. But, shouldn’t his lady do the weaving, not him?’
‘He wants to understand it all, and learn how to work the loom, a very old and huge model, so he spends hours to learn the art of doing it, and he scribbles notes in a journal. Little by little the web of coloured wool becomes green leaves and birds, and he’s nearly doing it, a woven picture has come to life’.
‘Is there someone in this garden he has painted with the threads, or just birds?’
‘There’s no one, not yet, no figure, but one day, there will be someone. One day, you will see a figure emerge from the greenery’.
Alice kept on telling her story in the present tense for she had never mustered the courage to tell little Nellie that two years before, this gentle giant who owned the mill where she had been working since she was sixteen years old, had passed away.