In an essay in the current issue of the Journal of William Morris Studies I propose that we try reading News from Nowhere as a piece of ‘séance fiction’. In this generic thought-experiment, we can envisage the Nowherians holding a kind of seance to summon back the spirit of the long-departed William Guest, who may then assist them in dealing with some of the problems of their utopian society.
Other writers have, however, been rather less metaphorical with the notion of séance as applied to Morris and his works than I have. Thus it is that in 1936 there appeared an extraordinary book by the medium May Hughes, entitled From Heavenly Spheres: A Book Written By Inspiration from William Morris Poet Socialist and Idealist, Who Passed on – October 3rd 1896. It begins with Morris announcing: ‘In this book, written by me from the other side of the veil called Death, I will endeavour to describe … the different phases of life as lived on these planes’ (p.7).
Before dismissing the whole volume as so much hocus-pocus, we ought to pause, I think, taking a lesson here from FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder of The X-Files who, unlike his rationalist colleague Dana Scully, famously ‘wants to believe’. How might such a book persuade us that it in fact was by Morris? What criteria would it have to satisfy to make this at all plausible? After all, if William Guest turns up in the mid-22nd century, why shouldn’t William Morris turn up at a séance in 1936? Heaven knows we could have done with him - with Fascism so powerfully on the move across Europe - returning to us like King Arthur in difficult times.
On his death bed in 1896, according to Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, Morris announced to Mary de Morgan that ‘I cannot believe that I shall be annihilated’; and perhaps, on the evidence of May Hughes’s From Heavenly Spheres, he wasn’t.