Sunday, 6 December 2009
I found myself turning back to Laura Donaldson’s essay ‘Boffin in Paradise, or the Artistry of Reversal in News from Nowhere’ (1990), which is still, as far as I know, the fullest account of Morris’s transformation of Our Mutual Friend in his utopia. Morris’s Boffin – or Henry Johnson, to give him his real name – makes a dazzling appearance to William Guest in the Hammersmith Guest House, hoping to lemon-squeeze plenty of information from Guest for the historical novels he, Boffin, is so fond of writing.
Donaldson gives an excellent account of Morris’s reworking of the 19th-century realist novel in his utopia, and at the end of her essay speculates on Nowhere’s political future beyond the last page of the book itself: ‘Recognizing the possibility that Nowherian society might grow too complacent in its utopian perfection, thereby losing its social vision, Morris ingeniously creates Boffin’s “curious” habit [of novel-writing] as a preventive measure against such a tragic loss’.
Food for thought here, indeed. If we should ever get a sequel to News from Nowhere (and I increasingly feel, 120 years after its publication, that we need one), and if in that sequel Nowhere does indeed politically degenerate, then its Golden Dustman Henry Johnson might, on Laura Donaldson’s showing, be a crucial figure in recognising and challenging those reactionary tendencies. He is certainly, we can say with confidence, far too memorable a character altogether to be introduced for two pages in chapter III and to be more or less entirely dropped thereafter!
Professor Antoine Capet’s fine lecture on ‘William Morris and the Arts of the Book’ at Kelmscott House on Saturday 28 November was illustrated for a good stretch of time on a screen behind the speaker by the first page of the Kelmscott edition of News from Nowhere. Gorgeous decorated borders surround the heavy Kelmscott typeface of the text itself, and the first letters of the first words of the first two paragraphs become enormous and elaborately floriated initials, visually dominating the entire page.
And how do those first two paragraphs begin? Well: ‘Up at the League’ kicks the first one off; and ‘Says our friend’ is the beginning of the second. So the giant letters U and S spring at us from the first page of the Kelmscott utopia. U and S or, since the eye slides so readily from one to the other, US. In a chapter which tells of a deeply divided socialist meeting (‘six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented’), the visual layout of the Kelmscott page asserts, against the grain of the printed text itself, that a profound collective identity or ‘US’ underlies the immediate political dissensions.
Morris thus beautifully takes advantage of the serendipity of writing (the letter ‘u’ starting one paragraph, ‘s’ the next) to affirm a serene message of confidence about socialism’s longterm future which still speaks to us so compellingly from the Kelmscott page.
Friday, 4 December 2009
Perusing this volume reminds me that ghost-stories were popular reading material in the Morris family circle. May Morris recalls that in Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus volumes ‘there is a certain ghost-story ... told by the negro African Jack, that father used to read impressively and dramatically, so that when the crisis came, one was positively stiff with excitement, and the pursuing horror of a corpse seemed to be actually wavering on the threshold of the room’ (CW, XXII, xvii).
However, the Morrises not only enjoyed literary ghost-stories, they sometimes found themselves in the midst of what may well have been actual ones. For as Fiona MacCarthy informs us, ‘The occult was a bond between Janey and Rossetti who used to go to séances together. Janey had a definitely spiritualist tendency, giving vivid accounts of ghost activity at Kelmscott: mysterious carriages being driven to the house’ (p.347).
There is a fine Victorian ghost story in the making here, clearly! Could not the Journal of William Morris Studies organise a creative writing competition based upon this snippet from MacCarthy’s biography and offer to publish the entry (no more than 8000 words, say) which most vividly gives us ‘The Strange Adventure of the Ghostly Carriage at Kelmscott Manor’?
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
But there is one significant Tennyson reference in Morris’s works which Peter Faulkner’s very full essay does not pick up. It occurs in News from Nowhere when William Guest admires the sky on the upper Thames: ‘the sky, in short, looked really like a vault, as poets have sometimes called it, and not like mere limitless air, but a vault so vast and full of light that it did not in any way oppress the spirits. It was the sort of afternoon that Tennyson must have been thinking about, when he said of the Lotos-Eaters’ land that it was a land where it was always afternoon’ (ch. XXVII).
Graceful casual allusion to a long-superseded Victorian wordsmith, or worrying suggestion that Morris’s Nowhere, like Tennyson’s Lotos island, may in fact tediously be ‘A land where all things always seemed the same’? Could the utopian ‘epoch of rest’ even conceivably one day slide to and beyond the delicious languor of ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ towards the more morbid stasis of Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’ or ‘The Lady of Shallot’? Is Nowhere after all, for all the social advance it represents upon Victorian London, in the end perhaps too pastoral, too placid, lacking sufficient challenge or stress – as a fair number of critics have over the years alleged?
Morris had certainly by 1890/91 long left Tennyson behind as an active poetic influence, yet his brief Tennyson allusion in News from Nowhere is still capable of pointing us to the most fundamental interpretive and political questions about that utopia – questions on which, even 120 years later, the jury is still out.
Tuesday, 24 November 2009
In a wartime radio broadcast on the tercentenary of John Milton’s famous defence of freedom of speech, Areopagitica, E.M. Forster provocatively asked of Milton, ‘And would he have approved of the wireless?’ Can we ask the same question of William Morris, I wonder?
The question is, of course, slightly less anachronistic in Morris’s case than it is in Milton’s. Radio was invented as a technical possibility in 1895, one year before Morris’s death; but more importantly he was well aware of a developed literary representation of something rather like a wireless broadcasting system in the form of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1889). Edith Leete takes the visitor to utopia, Julian West, into her music room in chapter ten and, after twiddling a few knobs, floods the space with organ music being relayed by telephone from a live orchestra elsewhere in the city; Bellamy’s editors usually refer us to Marconi at this point.
Historically, there have been two major opposing positions among Left intellectuals in regard to new communications technologies. There are those, such as Walter Benjamin, who are inclined to see a democratising and liberatory potential in new technologies; and on the other hand, those, like Theodor Adorno, who incline to view the mass media as producing passive, one-dimensional audiences. Given Morris’s preference for hand-craftsmanship over industrial production, we might see him as belonging to the latter, Adornian camp; but recent studies have shown that in the case of photography, at least, his attitude was more positive and exploratory than one might expect.
I like to toy, then, with the notion of Morris being open to developments in wireless technology, if he had lived into his late eighties and heard the BBC’s first radio broadcast in 1922 or somehow broken through into Bellamy’s new Boston and enjoyed a broadcast concert with Julian West. Perhaps he might have rewritten The Tables Turned or even News from Nowhere itself as radio plays – and the Radio 4 reading of the latter a few years back certainly showed just how effective it can be in that medium. His younger socialist colleagues Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells certainly became left-wing ‘Masters of the Microphone’, to borrow a phrase from a 1939 issue of The Listener.
And how, after all, could the tall, handsome, grey-eyed woman in chapter XXX of News from Nowhere have possibly been expecting Dick’s arrival by boat at Kelmscott Manor unless there had been some form of wireless communication between them beforehand?
Saturday, 7 November 2009
May does not elaborate further, but I would imagine that it was the novel’s treatment of its ‘fallen’ 17-year-old village lass Hetty Sorrel, who is first sentenced to death for the murder of her baby, then transported to Australia, which struck Morris as cruel – an assessment in which many later readers of the book, and particularly feminist critics, have also concurred.
I wonder, then, whether Morris in his own ‘Pilgrims of Hope’ isn’t trying to tell the Adam Bede story differently, with a more positive and less ‘cruel’ inflection. His hero Richard is, after all, the illegitimate offspring of a country woman and her rich seducer; so that this Hetty Sorrel figure not only does not kill her child, but gives birth to a son who heroically commits himself to the forward movement of history in his own society and who aims ultimately to abolish the very class divisions which made his parents’ own flawed relationship possible in the first place. Had the mother known of her son’s future, he tells us later, ‘As some old woman of old hadst thou wondered, who hath brought forth a god of the earth’ (XI). This is a powerful rewriting of George Eliot’s Hetty indeed!
But, alas, such cross-class sexual tragedies are not so soon abolished after all. Richard’s mother may be a redeemed Hetty, but his wife later turns out to be a Hetty Sorrel too, as a lower-class woman who gets emotionally and perhaps sexually involved with the suave gentleman Arthur when the latter joins the socialist movement. Is Morris’s use of the same Christian name as Hetty’s seducer Arthur Donnithorne in George Eliot’s novel just accident here? I suspect not. You can rewrite or mend one aspect of Hetty’s sad and ‘cruel’ fate, it seems, but it then only crops out again elsewhere in the text. Insofar as ‘Pilgrims of Hope’ is a reworking of Adam Bede, it can thus alas only be a flawed and partial one.
Wednesday, 21 October 2009
Today is Ursula Le Guin’s 80th birthday – happy birthday, Ursula! She is, as far as I am aware, still hale and hearty, and new books in her distinctive veins of science-fiction and fantasy continue to emerge from the press – Lavinia, a retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid, being the latest (2008). Why, then, should Morrisians concern themselves with this festive occasion?
First, because Le Guin is the author of the most important utopia of our times, The Dispossessed (1974), which tells the tale of the physicist Shevek’s return journey from the troubled utopia of the moon Anarres to the decidedly dystopian capitalist home planet Urras. This rich book is surely the wisest and deepest of the 1970s generation of ‘critical utopias’ which Tom Moylan has rightly insisted have powerfully remade the genre for the late 20th and early 21st century.
We don’t yet have an adequate account of Le Guin’s relationship as utopian writer to William Morris and News from Nowhere, though there are some glances in this direction in Laurence Davis’s admirable collection, The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ (2005). Nor do we yet have a fully developed ‘Le Guinian’ reading of News from Nowhere itself, though my own hunch is that Shevek and his Syndicate of Initiative in The Dispossessed would tell us a great deal about where Ellen might politically end up in Morris’s utopia.
But there is another strong connection between Morris and Ursula Le Guin, for both are authors of remarkable fantasy fictions as well as utopias. In a very general sense, of course, all twentieth-century fantasy is indebted to that extraordinary series of late writings which Morris inaugurated with The Wood beyond the World in 1894. But the connections may be more specific and illuminating than that; for as John Purkis noted in 1994, ‘the Earthsea tetralogy of Ursula Le Guin … is far more worth reading [than Tolkien or C.S.Lewis] as an example of a distillation of Morrisian romance at its best’ (Morris Society Journal, 11.1, Autumn 1994, p.17).
Morrisians thus have good cause to celebrate the 80th birthday of Ms Le Guin and to wish her many more years of productive living and writing.
Wednesday, 7 October 2009
I’m teaching H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine on an undergraduate literature course on ‘Decadence to Modernism: 1890-1939’ and, my old Pan Classics copy of the book having finally disintegrated (to my great sadness, it having such a wonderful image of the time machine on its front cover), I have finally had recourse to the Penguin Classics edition of 2005, which contains your 14-page Introduction to the text. Overall, you've given us a very fine piece of writing, highly illuminating about Wells’s book and its literary and scientific context; and I shall be glad to direct students to this. But when you deal with the relation of The Time Machine to Morris’s News from Nowhere (p.xviii) my reservations begin.
First, matters of accuracy. Morris was not a ‘founder of the Pre-Raphaelites’, as you claim. That honour belongs to Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais; Morris and Burne-Jones come along later and constitute a second-generation of the movement. And to call Morris a ‘much softer optimist and dreamer’ (than Samuel Butler) puzzles me too. I certainly wouldn’t use the adjective ‘soft’ to describe a man who threw himself so militantly into the early socialist movement as Morris did, risking violence and arrest many times over, or whose utopia contains an impassioned and detailed account of the bloody civil war of 1952-54 which brings its socialist society into being.
Second, questions of literary interpretation. Has the world of Nowhere ‘regressed’ behind modernity quite as thoroughly as you suggest? Isn’t it in fact a brand-new energy source (admittedly not much specified in the text) which powers both the ‘banded workshops’ and the ‘force-vehicles’ which William Guest happens upon?
And to talk, as you do, of the ‘Morris-like Eloi’ of Wells’s book is certainly to stretch a point – most implausibly, in my view. The Eloi are the descendants of capitalists who have brutally driven the working-class underground; Morris’s Nowherians are the descendants of socialist revolutionaries who defeated those masters. The Eloi don’t work at all; the Nowherians are devoted to the vigorous practice of the crafts, not to mention the heavyduty road-mending we come across at one point. The Eloi are feeble and effete; the Nowherians contain spectacular physical specimens like Dick Hammond, the musclebound Arnold Schwarzenegger of this text. The Elois’ love-making is lightweight and transitory; the Nowherians have intense encounters which lead, at worst, to extreme sexual jealousy and crimes of passion. The most memorable Eloi is Weena, who is more of a pet than girlfriend to the Time Traveller; the most memorable Nowherian is Ellen, an extraordinary ‘second-generation’ utopian who proves just how much more dynamism this society is capable of generating.
So: many thanks indeed for your helpful thoughts on The Time Machine itself, but may I recommend another, and more careful, reading of Morris’s utopia to you?
Friday, 18 September 2009
It isn’t often that the leading cultural theorists of our time turn their attention to Jane and William Morris, but Slavoj Žižek does briefly do so in his 1994 volume, The Metastases of Enjoyment. A chapter on ‘David Lynch, or, the Feminine Depression’ offers us a defamiliarising opening sketch of ‘Lynch as a Pre-Raphaelite’ which transforms the ways in which we see both the contemporary film-maker and the nineteenth-century painters themselves. ‘How was it,’ Žižek provocatively asks, ‘that the Pre-Raphaelites became “readable” only retroactively, through the postmodernist paradigm?’ (113).
He then moves on to a discussion of Lynch’s classic film Blue Velvet. This in his view centres around Dorothy’s depression, which is to be understood, however, not as the effect of Frank’s sexual terrorising of her, but rather as a primary datum which Frank is ‘therapeutically’ trying to jolt out of itself, into some renewed relation to the world. This is a disturbing revaluation of Lynch’s film, from which Žižek at once generalises out historically:
‘The tradition of a deadened, lethargic woman aroused from her numbness by a man’s call was well under way in the nineteenth century: suffice it to recall Kundry from Wagner’s Parsifal who, at the beginning of Act II and Act III, is awakened from a catatonic sleep (first through Klingsor’s rude summons, then through Gurnemanz’s kind care) – or, from “real” life – the unique figure of Jane Morris, wife of William Morris and mistress of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The famous photo of Jane in 1865 presents a depressive woman, deeply absorbed in her thoughts, who seems to await a man’s stimulation to pull her out of lethargy: this photo offers, perhaps, the closest approximation to what Wagner had in mind when he created the figure of Kundry’ (121-2).
With his scare quotes around the adjective in ‘”real” life’ Žižek neatly hedges his bets here, of course; is this just a clever literary recontextualising of the famous Rossetti/Parsons image, or does the Wagnerian paradigm sketched here genuinely map out the contours of the Morris marriage itself?
Wednesday, 2 September 2009
In his 1884 review of the Royal Academy exhibition Morris makes reference to Gaboriau’s novel, L’Argent d’Autrui; May Morris, as she lists his ‘heterogeneous reading’ in the Collected Works introductions, refers to ‘a Gaboriau story of gilded crime hard on Elton’s “Origins of English History”’ (vol XXII, xxv); and Hilary Sparling confirms the catholicity of Morris’s literary tastes: ‘I have seen him read the Gesta Romanorum and Gaboriau’s Monsieur LeCoq with what appeared to be equal absorption’. Edward Burne-Jones was also enthusiastic about the French author: ‘There’s one writer who hasn’t had justice done to him – that’s Gaboriau ... he’s the most wonderful inventor of detective business that has ever been’.
Interesting though such references are, they remain mere antiquarian information unless we can put them to active interpretative work, unless, that is to say, we can use them to frame new generic hypotheses about Morris’s own writing. Would it, for example, be possible to read News from Nowhere as some kind of detective fiction rather than as a utopia pure and simple? William Guest would then become an active investigator, a kind of rudimentary Sherlock Holmes in the making, rather than just a passive visitor to the brave new world.
But where is the ‘crime’ he might be taken to be investigating? Well, the world of Nowhere has its crimes passionels, as we know, but they are transparent enough; so it is some more general conundrum that we must see Guest, newly equipped with an imaginary Holmesian lens and deerstalker hat, as investigating. I would suggest that he must seek for clues as to why Old Hammond, the utopian expositor, is ‘disappointed’ in the new society, or why Ellen should be so concerned about its fading historical consciousness. Nowherian culture is, I would argue, in danger, is subject to degeneration as well as celebration in Morris’s utopia; and William Guest’s role as detective is both to find out why this should be so and, if he can, to do something to prevent it. The ‘crime’ hasn’t yet been committed in Nowhere, but it is brewing; and William Guest comes into being to detect and stop it.
Friday, 21 August 2009
The historiographical danger is still a real one, I think. A glimpse at the Society’s programme for the current year shows a considerable focus on old things: old paintings (mostly Pre-Raphaelite), old stories, old buildings, old poems, old places. Even the emphasis on craftwork, which is creative activity in the present, at times shares this historic slant (‘using Kelmscott House and other designs as inspiration’).
All this focus on the past is certainly worthy and admirable, but I feel it needs to be counter-balanced by a stress on the future. After all, Morris’s greatest fictional work is a utopia set no less than two centuries ahead of his own time, so to celebrate him aptly we ourselves should be thinking about the twenty-third century (i.e. 200 years ahead of our own present) as well as about the nineteenth.
I therefore am minded to propose that the William Morris Society sets up a 'Utopian Futures Sub-Group'. It might start with a focus on literary utopias, but then broaden gradually outwards. Some very apposite literary anniversaries are coming up, after all. 2012 is the 50th anniversary of Aldous Huxley’s Island; 2014 is the 40th anniversary of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, surely the finest of all recent utopias; 2016 is a very big event in this field, in that it is the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, which was such an important text for Morris himself (hence his Kelmscott edition of it).
Analysis of the great utopias of the past could then lead to new ways of studying and supporting utopian developments in our own present. John Purkis hoped to head off academicist dangers in his 1961 letter on the Society’s future ‘without going to the other extreme and founding a new political party’ (p.21). But perhaps we should now begin to think about founding some such quasi-political grouping, or what Fredric Jameson, our own most important contemporary theorist of utopianism, has referred to several times in his work as ‘the party of Utopia’.
Monday, 27 July 2009
But what would Morris himself have chosen to see, on a day’s tourist trip to Oxford? The answer to this question does in fact exist – or did once, at any rate – in the form of Morris’s ‘Oxford List’. For (if I may be permitted to quote myself) ‘In a brief set of “Recollections of William Morris”, published in Artist in 1897, the anonymous author gives a vivid account of a visit he and a friend made by bicycle to Morris in Kelmscott Manor, and continues: “returning from Kelmscott, we passed a long day in Oxford, having been previously furnished by Morris with a list of the things that we should see in day”’ (William Morris in Oxford, Illuminati Books, 2007, p.55). But, alas, our anonymous comrade gives no further detail here.
We might accordingly speculate on what some of that list’s tantalising contents may have been. It would doubtless have included the cloisters of New College, the ‘corner of old Oxford Morris loved the most’ according to Fiona MacCarthy (p.516), and where Philip Webb later wanted his ashes scattered (in the event, the College refused permission). The list would also surely have featured Merton College chapel, for as MacCarthy notes: ‘Morris and Burne-Jones had spent many silent afternoons in the chapel which they rated with the cloisters at New College as their chief local shrine’ (72).
Of Oxford’s newer buildings, Morris might possibly have recommended Bodley’s additions to Magdalen College, which he describes in his 1888 essay on ‘The Revival of Architecture’ as ‘excellent’. The old domestic architecture of Holywell Street would probably have featured too; and if our anonymous Recollector had been a graduate of Oxford and thus had access to the Bodleian, Morris might have recommended him to take the time to look up the Douce Apocalypse, which J.W. Mackail describes as Morris’s ‘ideal book’ (I, 40) and which Morris had at one point hoped to issue in facsimile from the Kelmscott Press.
Perhaps, too, we might need to imagine a Morrisian ‘anti-List’, of buildings or artefacts one should positively avoid on a day trip to Oxford – top of which would surely be the new statues on St Mary’s Church that Morris had polemicised so passionately against in the early 1890s.
Sunday, 19 July 2009
“We met through a love of William Morris and this [the struggle of independent musicians against the industry] is very William Morris. He was trying to work with his own crafts within new technology – industrialism and machines – and we’re still there, trying to balance artistic-ness and technology. William Morris was the turn of the last century, we’re the turn of the next century. And we firmly believe it” (The Guardian Guide, 11.07.09, p.14).
And the official Cornershop website confirms this late nineteenth-century affiliation:
“the William Morris theory has always been our raja raag, and it was strangely William Morris and his splendid public beard that brought Tjinder and Ben together as friends in the first instance”.
We are so used to the notion that Morris himself was thoroughly unmusical (though this view has occasionally been challenged) that it comes as quite a surprise to see contemporary young radical musicians citing his influence in this way. Perhaps, then, some systematic further research in this field would prove fruitful. Meantime, Cornershop’s new album, Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast, is out on the 27th July, or check out their recent anti-war single, ‘The Roll Off Characteristics (Of History in the Making)’ – a title which Morris himself would surely have approved.
Monday, 6 July 2009
I was most struck by the vellum version of the Chaucer, which I hadn’t seen before – both the creamy richness of the pages and the gleaming blackness of the ink upon them (since ink is not actually absorbed by vellum but sits upon its surface). The visual magnificence of the volume and its sheer physical bulk (for one would have to be in serious weight-training indeed to haul this tome around one’s study) are extraordinary; and it is indeed more an aesthetic monument than any kind of practical book.
Morris scholars have written recently about the effects on readers and reading of only being able to access Kelmscott Press books in specialist libraries such as the John Rylands; but in fact the Kelmscott Chaucer has recently turned up most unexpectedly in popular culture too. At the very beginning of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling novel The Time Traveller’s Wife (2004), Clare Abshire, the ‘wife’ of the title, goes into the Special Collections room of Newberry Library: ‘I’m writing a paper for an art history class. My research topic is the Kelmscott Press Chaucer. I look up the book itself and fill out a call slip for it’.
Why should the Kelmscott Chaucer be the appropriate research topic for this Time Traveller’s wife? Perhaps, pedestrianly, because the novel’s author is Professor at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. Or perhaps, more speculatively, because the Kelmscott Chaucer is itself a time-travelling artefact. Reaching back to the Gothicism of the Middle Ages in its literary content and style of production, it also comes to us from some fabulously far distant socialist future (now, in our postmodern and post-marxist present, more distant than ever, of course) when such gorgeous artefacts will be the social norm, the ‘invisible colour of everyday life’, in an unhurried culture where the skill, time, materials and creativity to craft such works will be universal.
In the Kelmscott Chaucer, then, the deep past and the far future, a lost happy Hobbitland and a longed-for utopian future, come paradoxically together – which, I would suggest, makes this unique volume or literary time machine the very apt object of study for a Time Traveller’s Wife.
Tuesday, 23 June 2009
So among my preliminary thoughts on this topic would be:
Fafnir hedge-clipping competition – reach for your shears and, re-enacting Morris’s own annual ritual at Kelmscott, we see who can carve the most persuasive hedge decoration in the shape of Sigurd the Volsung’s dragon, Fafnir.
Singlestick demonstration and training – this was, after all, Morris’s great passion in MacLaren’s gym in Oxford and singlestick is, one gathers, making something of a contemporary comeback as a native British martial art.
Outdoor bathing and swimming – as happens in News from Nowhere, over and over in Morris’s late romances, and on Morris’s own expeditions up the Thames on the Ark.
Society camping expeditions – as in News from Nowhere itself, where ‘tenting’ is a very popular pastime, and as organised by the William Morris Labour Church after WM’s death.
Searching for snakeshead fritillaries in the Oxfordshire countryside – as May Morris was wont to do during her years at Kelmscott after her parents’ deaths.
Pike-fishing on the Thames – but I have written about this in this blog already (see entry for 9.10.07).
Outdoor political preaching – as among the 1880s socialists themselves. Perhaps, as a charity, the Society could not be too directly political, but it could preach a Morrisian message of craftsmanship under a suitable banner at various London pitches.
Cycling from Oxford to Kelmscott – which admittedly wasn’t something that Morris himself did, but cycling was popular among young socialists in the 1890s and several of them did arrive at Kelmscott Manor by this means.
Please add your own suggestions to this list via the ‘comments’ facility. Several of the ideas above could be combined together, of course, and what a healthy and wholesome vista then opens. If I could but see a day of it, if I could but see it!
Monday, 1 June 2009
All well and good; but didn’t William Morris, I find myself pondering, get here first? I am thinking of that extraordinary moment in News from Nowhere when Old Hammond announces to his visitor, William Guest, that ‘I am old and perhaps disappointed’ (ch. IX). I have read a good deal of the criticism on News from Nowhere, though by no means all of it; and I haven’t anywhere yet found this remark of Hammond’s commented upon. But surely it is no less startling than H.G. Wells’s chapter title: how can there be disappointment in (or with) utopia any more than there can be failure there?
So we need to ask ourselves two questions, one analytic, the other more speculative. First, what is Old Hammond disappointed about? Is this some personal sexual issue (the remark is made in a chapter ‘Concerning Love’), or does it bear upon the world of Nowhere more generally? I believe it does, and would wish to relate it to his later observations on the loss of historical consciousness among the younger Nowherians and to Ellen’s own anxieties on this score much later in the book. But one thing we can be sure about: if the expositor of utopia, the very torch-bearer of its history and conscience, is ‘disappointed’ with it, then goodness me, the world of Nowhere must indeed be in trouble!
Secondly, however, since Old Hammond is a hale, hearty and active 105-year-old, what does he intend to do about this ‘disappointment’? How might it be remedied, not in the text we have, but in a text we might imagine beyond the borders of Morris’s own utopia? To be ‘disappointed’ in something is simultaneously to wish to repair it, to restore it to what it ought to be; and thus Old Hammond’s enigmatic declaration prompts us to write more Morrisian text, to follow the issues through beyond what Morris himself has given us.
Thursday, 7 May 2009
Early in 1877, as Matthew Arnold’s tenure as the Oxford Professor of Poetry came to its end, William Morris was mulling over an invitation from James Thursfield on behalf of some members of Convocation to stand for election to the post. After long deliberation he chose not to, doubting whether ‘the Professor of a wholly incommunicable art is not rather in a false position’, among other objections; and J.C. Shairp, whom J.W. Mackail coolly describes as ‘of some merit both as a critic and as a poet’, succeeded to Arnold.
But let us suppose, by virtue of a Star Trek-style rift in the space-time continuum, that Morris had accepted Thursfield’s invitation and had won the ensuing election. Could we speculatively reconstruct the lectures which he might have given in this prestigious Oxford post? I have suggested elsewhere in this blog (entry for 12.12.07) that there is a good deal more literary criticism, both in Morris’s early Pre-Raphaelite milieu and in his later Socialist one, than his own dismissive remarks about the critic’s profession might lead us to believe.
I therefore think we both could and should have a stab at reconstructing Morris’s career as the Oxford Professor of Poetry he never was, though I should be the first to admit that had he accepted a subsequent invitation in the late 1880s or early 1890s as a specifically socialist poet and critic he would have been a much more substantial figure in the post than he would have been in 1877. So in the long list of Morris’s unfinished or (in this case) unstarted works his ‘lost’ Oxford lectures as Professor of Poetry 1877-1882 might not be at the top of the list for reconstruction, but it would none the less be an illuminating task to attempt to sketch out how they might have gone. Watch this space!
Saturday, 2 May 2009
How would this method work in practice? When Walter arrives in the ‘wood beyond the world’, in Morris’s romance of that title, the sinister Mistress at whose castle he stays eventually remarks: ‘Wherefore now I ask thee, art thou willing to do me service, thereby to earn thy guesting’ (ch.XIII). An innocent enough request in context, one might think; but suppose now that we let the notion of ‘earning thy guesting’ radiate over William Guest in News from Nowhere itself?
If a guest cannot simply take for granted, but must actively earn, the hospitality he receives, whether from the eerie Mistress of the romance or from the genial neighbours of the utopia, then we must think of William Guest as playing an active rather than just passive role in the post-revolutionary world he visits. We must see him as playing a positive function there, actively changing the place by his presence, not just admiringly gawping at it. No room here, naturally, to go into what this might be; but it is the formulation from the romance, transposed across to Nowhere, which has suggestively opened this possibility to us.
Another instance. The Lady later tells Walter to ‘Go to thy chamber, and there thou shalt find raiment worthy of thee’. He does so and finds ‘raiment ... rich beyond measure; and he wondered if any new snare lay therein’ (ch.XX). Should William Guest have had similar misgivings when he comes across that handsome blue suit that the Nowherians lay out for him? I suspect he should; for dressing like his hosts contributes to making him feel he can belong permanently in the new utopian world (like Julian West in Looking Backward) and thus in part leads to all the later heartache he will endure in relation to Ellen.
The rich semantic potential of the late romances can thus open new vistas on Morris’s utopia, alerting us to a necessary ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which the genial, sunlit vistas of Nowhere might not themselves propose to us.
Friday, 10 April 2009
David Mabb: Introduction to Rhythm 69
David Mabb: Rhythm 69 Slideshow
Colin Darke: David Mabb’s Rhythm 69
Michaela Braesel: William Morris and “Authenticity”
Tony Pinkney: News from Nowhere, Modernism, Postmodernism
Phillippa Bennett: A Legacy of “Great Wonders”: The Last Romances of William Morris and the Kelmscott Press
John T. F. Lang: Excerpt from John Lang’s doctoral dissertation: “Art and Life in Nineteenth-Century England: The Theory and Practice of William Morris”
Michelle Weinroth: William Morris’s Philosophy of Art
See the journal’s website at: http://www.uqtr.ca/AE/Vol_15/ReadingMatters/ReadingMattersCover.htm
Wednesday, 8 April 2009
Today’s main editorial in the Guardian newspaper, in the course of a reflection on ‘violent deaths at police hands during London street protests’, makes just such a link between Morris's experiences in the late 1880s and our own in 2009:
‘the names of some of the victims – Alfred Linnell in the pitched battles with the unemployed in 1887, Kevin Gately and Blair Peach during the anti-Nazi protests of the 1970s – are still remembered. To these we may have to add the name of Ian Tomlinson, who died in the City of London during the G20 demonstrations a week ago. Mr Tomlinson, who was not taking part in the protests, died from a heart attack. However, according to numerous witnesses and to new video evidence which the Guardian is preparing to pass to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, he also died shortly after being struck and knocked to the ground by Metropolitan police officers’ (p.30).
Morris acted as a pall-bearer for Linnell’s coffin, spoke eloquently at the funeral, and composed a ‘Death Song’ which was sold as a one penny pamphlet to raise money for Linnell’s orphans. Let us hope that some contemporary poet can rise as adequately to the challenge of Mr Tomlinson’s untimely death.
Sunday, 5 April 2009
For example, on the cairn on the top of Kaldidalur on his 1871 Iceland trip our hero left a small literary offering under one of the stones, as was the custom for travellers. ‘We do not know what he wrote,’ Fiona MacCarthy informs us, ‘But he did not feel he had acquitted himself well’ (p.301). Is there a Morris scholar bold enough to have a go at reconstructing what that scrap of prose or verse might possibly have been?
Another such instance would be the entertaining story that Morris, plumply perched on the family rocking-horse, told to the young Rudyard Kipling and the Burne-Jones children: ‘slowly surging back and forth while the poor beast creaked, he told us a tale full of fascinating horrors, about a man who was condemned to bad dreams. One of them took the shape of a cow’s tail waving from a heap of dried fish’ (cited MacCarthy, p.399). Would it be possible to draft a plausible version of this tall tale?
And, finally, if we could only reconstruct the eerie story-to-end-all-stories that Burne-Jones warned his guests about in Red Lion Square! For ‘he who tells that story often goes mad in the telling of it, and he who hears it always does’ (MacCarthy, p.124).
Sunday, 22 March 2009
We can assume, therefore, that Morris would have been deeply committed to Slavoj Zizek’s recent conference ‘On the Idea of Communism’. This three-day event at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London (March 13th-15th) attracted a huge audience of over 900 people, who listened to such luminaries of the Left as Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Toni Negri, Jean-Luc Nancy and Terry Eagleton discussing the viability of the concept and politics of Communism for our times. In the midst of a global capitalist economic crisis, the conference attracted great press interest and had an immensely timely feel to it.
At the same time, however, the BBC’s Saturday evening series on ‘The Lost World of Communism’ has been vividly reminding us of the history of the actually (well, formerly) existing Communist states of the East. Yesterday’s programme, on Czechoslovakia, gave a potent feel of how genuinely liberatory in some respects, but also how brutal and oppressive in others, and also just how plain dour and humourless, such regimes could be. To re-boot the idea of Communism after all that will certainly take some doing!
Morris, then, was a Communist, as Shaw reminds us, and to be committed to his work is also to take an interest in the fate of the ideal of Communism today. But you’d never guess as much from 'News from Anywhere', the official blog of the William Morris Society, which rarely lets a whiff of even 1880s socialism contaminate its focus on Pre-Raphaelitism, the Book Arts, Aestheticism and Decadence, Tennyson, Victorian Art in general, and so on. One can understand Morris being de-politicised by his enemies; but if his friends – indeed, his most devoted contemporary supporters – are doing this too, then he and his legacy to us are truly in trouble.
Saturday, 21 March 2009
In this, the bicentenary year of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theory weigh mightily on our collective mind; and one can hardly turn on the radio or television, or open a broadsheet newspaper, without stumbling upon some commemorative programme or article.
One finds no mention of Darwin in Morris’s own voluminous writings, though Darwin was certainly a significant presence in the Marxist intellectual milieu in which Morris immersed himself from 1883 onwards. For the first fullscale impact of Darwin’s thought upon the utopian tradition we have to wait until the publication of H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia in 1905, which argues forcefully that ‘the Utopia of a modern dreamer must needs differ in one fundamental aspect from the Nowheres and Utopias men planned before Darwin quickened the thought of the world ... the Modern Utopia must be not static but kinetic’ (ch. 1). Amen to that, surely, which takes us at a stroke decisively beyond the frozen perfectionist geometries of the classical utopian tradition from Plato to Edward Bellamy.
But it may be that, with or without an explicit theoretical encounter with Darwin’s work, Morris in News from Nowhere has in fact taken this kinetic emphasis on board anyway, fifteen years before the publication of Wells’s fine meta-utopia. For such, at any rate, I take to be the impact of Ellen in the last third of Morris’s text. After the genial but perhaps too leisurely and pastoral tour of garden-city London and the lower Thames, Ellen erupts dynamically into the text, ‘troubling’ it as intensely as she has her own earlier lovers.
There are no doubt many interpretative frames in which one could construe Ellen’s extraordinary intervention, but a Wellsian-Darwinian one will do well enough in this bicentenary year. We may then fittingly see her as the pure principle of evolutionary kineticism, who will turn Nowhere upside down and inside out in due course; and thus Morris’s utopia, just as much as the rest of us, pays its respects to the great Victorian biologist.
Tuesday, 3 March 2009
Adopting the very same principle, we ought not to forgive Morris himself for dying before he could complete such intriguing late romances as ‘Kilian of the Closes’, of which he wrote forty-two pages, and ‘The Story of Desiderius’ (his Roman tale), of which he completed a mere ten. And we could surely ourselves adopt the Morris family practice of having spirited discussions about where such works might be tending, of formulating our own detailed narrative solutions to them, and of subjecting these to comradely critical debate in relation to Morris’s known critical principles and the models afforded by his other late romances.
How would Kilian acquit himself as he joined the men of Whatham in their struggle against the vicious Baron of the Seven Towers (who gelds his captives)? How would his relationship with the mysterious lady of the wild-wood develop, after she has given him the magic ring that lets him see the Fountain of Thirst; and why does his new friend, Michael of Higham, seem oddly jealous of Kilian’s connection with her?
Of the Desiderius story, May Morris lamented that ‘it is to my lasting regret that this tale of the encounter of Barbarian and Roman was not worked out to the end’. It would certainly have been fascinating to see how Desiderius’s relationship to his unsavoury mother, father and uncle might have developed, and to find out why his mother’s new thrall has such an aura of mystery around her from the start. Whether the enunch, Felix, might in the end have proved a trusty mentor to Desiderius is anybody’s guess.
Indeed, I would like to see the William Morris Society organise a ‘Festival of Unfinished Works’, which would encompass Morris texts beyond the two I have just mentioned, and which would offer the opportunity of eventual publication to those speculative completions of Morris which won most collective favour on that occasion. If the Morrises could attempt to complete Dickens, it should not be beyond us to try to complete Morris!
Saturday, 21 February 2009
News from Nowhere (ISSN 0957-1868) was the journal of Oxford English Limited (OEL), a group of socialist and feminist students battling for progressive reforms within the Oxford University English Faculty between 1982 and 1992. Nine issues were published between 1986 and 1991 under the editorship of Tony Pinkney, and full details of its contents issue by issue are now available in the Wikipedia entry on the journal. It invoked William Morris’s Marxism and utopianism as an inspiration in its own struggles to get literary theory and cultural studies taken seriously within an intellectually conservative Oxford English Faculty. Readers of this blog might be interested in such pieces as ‘Nineteenth-Century Studies: As They Are and As They Might Be’ (no 2, October 1986, 38-55) and ‘Postmodern Space and Morris’s Utopia’ (no 9, Autumn 1991, 28-49). No 9, the final issue, is devoted to ‘Utopias and Utopianism’, so the journal went out on an appropriately upbeat and future-orientated note; it contains an interview with Fredric Jameson on Postmodernism and Utopia, and articles by Ruth Levitas, Terry Eagleton, John Goode and Diana Knight, among others. A one-volume selection from the OEL News from Nowhere will be published in the near future.
Sunday, 1 February 2009
I first met Sally when she arrived at Oxford University as a postgraduate to work with Terry Eagleton on Mark Rutherford, and to me she remains in memory the eager lass she then was just as much as the distinguished academic she later became. Sally quickly and enthusiastically joined our group, Oxford English Limited (OEL), as we battled to reform the Oxford English Faculty. Indeed, a review on ‘The Peculiarities of Englishness’ in our journal, News from Nowhere, may be the first piece of academic writing that she published (no 5, June 1988, pp.90-93).
Sally was a hardworking socialist in those days, canvassing busily for the Oxford Labour Party during the General Election campaign of 1987. She and I stayed up all night together on election day itself to watch the results. Early exit polls gave a misleading sense that Labour could take victory, so as the night wore on and the true result became apparent Sally grew increasingly upset at the prospect of yet more years under the political ice-age of Thatcherism. She welcomed the ‘New Labour’ victory of 1997, but had few illusions about what New Labour would turn out to be in practice. But she did not take the step I myself made about that time, of joining the Green Party as a political presence to the left of Labour.
Sally Ledger went on to make a formidable reputation in Victorian studies, perhaps above all through her 1997 study, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. She never, as far as I know, wrote about William Morris at length, but I’m sure would have recognised Ellen in News from Nowhere as a socialist ‘New Woman’ of the kind she was most interested in. I should, as I can now see, have pressed Sally to write in depth on Morris; hers would have been such an important voice to hear on him. But of course there seemed plenty of time, and she had many other pressing professional commitments.
But it was, I am glad to say, a Morrisian occasion on which Sally and I last worked closely together, when we served as examiners at Birkbeck College in January 2006 for Phillippa Bennett’s splendid Ph.D. dissertation on the notion of wonder in William Morris’s late romances. We had lunch at a trendy restaurant called ‘Revolution’, appropriately enough. And ‘wonder’ is the right note, I think, with which to recall and say farewell to Sally Ledger, as an extraordinary woman who was so full of energy and projects, not just for academic Victorian Studies, but also towards a wider utopian transformation of the capitalist society in which we live.
Thursday, 22 January 2009
'Strongly influenced by Edward Bellamy's hugely popular Looking Backward': well, yes, but 'influence' in this case actually means absolute point-by-point rejection of Bellamy on virtually every aspect of his centralist, high-tech, reformist, urban utopia!
'Having gone to sleep on the London underground, the narrator awakes to find himself in 20th-century Hammersmith'. Morris's narrator William Guest does not go to sleep on the underground train; he gets back to Hammersmith and goes to bed, and finally to sleep, in his own house. Nor does he wake up in the '20th century'. As Krishan Kumar states firmly in his fine edition of the work: 'The revolution occurs in 1952; William Guest's visit takes place some 200 years later' (p.138). So: 22nd century, not 20th.
Guest later, the Guardian entry tells us, 'travels up the river to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed'. Well, yes, it was signed there, though the book itself makes nothing of that fact; much more crucially, however, Guest at Runnymede meets the energetic and enigmatic figure of Ellen, the woman he falls deeply and troublingly in love with as the river journey continues.
And they end up doing 'some idyllic haymaking in Oxford'. Wrong again. Guest and company pass through Oxford by boat. The hay-making is taking place much further upriver at Kelmscott. When did The Guardian's 'JS' last read News from Nowhere, one dolefully wonders?
Mind you, in a supplement that misses out Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed and Kim Stanley Robinson's stunning Mars trilogy, the most important recent science-fictional utopias of them all, we should, I suppose, be glad that Morris gets a look in at all.
Saturday, 17 January 2009
‘“When I was a little chap” was a phrase constantly in his mouth …’ (J.W. Mackail)
‘So much as I seem to have to do! – the words were in one form or another habitually on his lips … ‘ (Mackail)
‘… the work of Wren and his successors down to Wyatt, the architects of “the ignorance”, to use that Arabian phrase which Morris was so fond of quoting …’ (Mackail)
Phrases which Morris used from Dickens: ‘Morning, morning!’ (Boffin in Our Mutual Friend); ‘Wot larks!’ (Joe Gargery in Great Expectations); ‘Bring him forard, and I’ll chuck him out o’winder’ (Mr F’s aunt in Little Dorrit). Mackail is again the source.
‘… a phrase that was constantly on Morris’s lips was that, according to the French proverb, “Better is the enemy of the good”’ (F.S. Ellis)
When F.S. Furnivall objected to the colours of a cabinet Morris was painting in Red House ‘the only reply was “Don’t be a
d[amned] fool”. Morris generally set you down in that way if you did not agree with him’ (F.S. Ellis)
‘A favourite expression of his in starting one of his tirades was: “The fact of the matter is – “’ (Arthur Compton-Rickett).
'The ipse dixit of Morris was usually preceded by the phrase "in point of fact" which became one of the Society's catchwords' (James Alfred Wilkes)
Thursday, 1 January 2009
I have tried to keep a rough balance in my entries between the historical and the utopian, between a scholarly interest in William Morris in his own historical moment and a more urgent sense that he must be rewritten, reworked and remade in our own time. And I have been constantly inspired by Fiona MacCarthy’s stress on ‘the detail of his idiosyncracy and strangeness … his oddities and quirkiness of language’. So, if you don’t feel I’ve got the balance right, please tell me; better still, why not start a Morris blog of your own? It is, I think, a quite new form of writing, an interesting, perhaps even therapeutic amalgam of the journalistic, the scholarly and the creative; so the more of them we have around Morris’s giant figure and copious oeuvre, the better.
Sincere thanks to you all, at any rate, for visiting this site to date, and I hope it may continue to be of interest in the months and years to come. Best wishes too for all your own Morris- and utopia-related projects in 2009.