James Lee is a British writer living in Cornwall who has just published Topsy & Co., his third novel.

A book set in the summer of 1860 explores the lives of a circle of gifted writers and artists gathered at William and Jane Morris’s idyllic home, Red House. A pivotal period of time for British and international art, which created the most celebrated figures of their generation.

Exploring the life of William Morris, thanks to the narrative of Georgie Burne-Jones (Edward’s wife), Topsy & Co. gives us a privileged perspective on an epic journey and an unprecedented cultural ferment, discussed with the author in our interview.

What prompted you to write a novel centred on the life of William Morris?

To be honest, I was originally more interested in Edward Burne-Jones, but the more I read about him, the more interested I became in his eccentric friend, William Morris. For writers, the great thing about Morris is that, like the protagonists in his poems and novels, he surmounted so many obstacles and achieved so much, but, despite that public persona, he also had a torturously complex private life.

His journey from naïve romantic and openhearted paternalist to iconic designer, writer, and political activist is so fascinating, and the fact that he achieved that despite everything else going on around him makes his life all the more extraordinary. And, of course, he was part of such an amazing network of Victorian artists, writers, and social reformers. So many of his friends and colleagues are iconic figures now.

What are the challenges of a fictional biography, narrated by another character, compared to the classical approach?

One of the most obvious differences is that, whereas biographers can get away with quoting passages from letters and diaries, novelists need to define the voices of their characters and turn those voices into dialogue.

Choosing a narrator is also a big decision. So, as you know, I chose to tell William Morris's story through his close friend, Georgie Burne-Jones. In part, that gave me the chance to connect readers to her unique experience of the events shaping Morris's life. Of course, it also meant that the narrative was framed within her consciousness (her life or world), so that set certain limits on what I could write.

Another big decision for historical fiction writers is how precisely to follow the documented life histories of characters. When writing Topsy & Co., I set out to chronicle William Morris's lived experiences as closely as I could. To streamline the narrative or simplify particular scenes, I made fairly minor changes here and there, but I'm confident it largely mirrors his life.

How did you carry out your research on Morris, the Victorian art scene, and that whole historical period?

By studying towers of books! I began by reading Fiona MacCarthy's brilliant biographies, William Morris: A Life for Our Time and The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination.

Then I read a collection of William Morris's letters; the journals he wrote after his two trips to Iceland; his poetry and novels; his lectures and political speeches; other William Morris biographies; and, of course, I read lots of books about his art and designs too.

Alongside this, I studied the letters and biographies of other key figures, like Jane Morris, May Morris, Lizzie Siddal, Georgie Burne-Jones and her sisters, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Rosalind Howard, William de Morgan, Algernon Swinburne, Wifrid Scawen Blunt, and George Bernard Shaw.

I also read quite a few books about Victorian times: key events; the social and political context; the Victorian art world—that sort of thing. And I visited Morris's houses (e.g., Water House (now the William Morris Gallery), Red House, Kelmscott Manor, Kelmscott House), and the village (Rottingdean) where Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones had a second home.

To be honest, I've only scratched the surface there. It would take ages to run through all the research I had to complete. Writing historical fiction isn't for the fainthearted; it's a massive undertaking.

What are the characteristics of William Morris that make him relevant today?

So much of Morris's life and work are still relevant. Of course, his legacy continues to have an impact on contemporary artists and designers, but his influence is so much wider than that. He was not only a designer, writer, and entrepreneur but also an environmentalist, an anti-imperialist, and a passionate believer in social justice. One of the big themes underpinning his work was his lifelong fascination with notions of utopia and utopian society. He was a romantic and a genuine radical, but also very practical. There is so much to learn from him.

You are also an artist and write a blog dedicated to various art topics. What other new projects are you working on?

Its early days, but I've started work on a new novel that dramatises the last few years of the life of the Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca. In terms of art and design projects, I am also passionate about eco-fashion, so I'm designing and making a collection of clothes using upcycled fabrics—denim cut from old pairs of jeans, etc. I still find time to write poems, draw or paint, and do some photography, but those are my two main projects at the moment.