Friday, 1 October 2010
Raymond Williams on Utopia
I have just returned from a conference in Tokyo on Raymond Williams’s novels, organised at Japan Women’s University by the indefatigable Professor Yasuo Kawabata. Not having re-read Williams’s novels carefully since I wrote my study of them for Seren Books in 1991, I had forgotten that Morris gets an interesting mention in Loyalties (1985).
At an anti-Suez demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1956 the Cambridge historian Mark Ryder has a brief discussion with the militant upper-class Communist Emma Braose. Mark informs Emma that:
‘Since Bloody Sunday it [Trafalgar Square] has been a sacred place.’
‘That’s a historian’s point of view.’
‘Or in fiction. Four years ago, wasn’t it, 1952, Morris had the English revolution start here.’
‘Morris,’ Emma said, ‘was a Utopian.’ (p.181).
And that dismissive adjective, as far as the orthodox Emma is concerned, thoroughly puts paid to Morris and News from Nowhere!
Raymond Williams himself, however, was a good deal more sympathetic to Morris’s utopianism, but looking again at his writings on News from Nowhere I find myself dissatisfied with them. Williams criticises Morris’s yoking of the idea of social simplicity to socialism, which is fair enough; but then makes no mention at all of that decidedly non-simple figure Ellen in discussing Morris’s utopia (despite Ellen, oddly enough, being a recurrent name in Williams’s own fiction).
Yet Ellen, I would suggest, brings real complexity into News from Nowhere; she is a token that Morris himself has deep reservations about the genial neighbourly world of Nowhere, that he feels it needs gingering up by someone like Ellen, who has ‘often troubled men’s minds disastrously’, as she cheerfully informs us. She may trouble Nowhere itself disastrously too, I suspect, though we would need a sequel to Morris’s great work to see how that might pan out in practice.