Wednesday, 1 December 2010

December 1910 One Hundred Years On


‘On or around December, 1910, human character changed’, as Virginia Woolf boldly announced in her 1924 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. As we today enter December 2010, a hundred years on from her supposed turning point, we can see just how busy this mischievous remark is keeping the Woolf and modernism scholars. A conference around the December 1910 claim is being held in Glasgow, and will inaugurate the British Association of Modernist Studies; and my wife, Makiko Minow-Pinkney, is gathering a volume of some twenty international essays together on the topic for Illuminati Books.

Woolf uses her December 1910 claim to defend the practice of modernist writing against the restrictive conventions of the realist novel, as they come through from the nineteenth century to her immediate precursors like Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy. William Morris also didn’t have much time for the realist novel (Ellen speaks passionately against it in News from Nowhere, for example), but would he have been open to Woolfian – or other kinds of – modernism?

The jury is still complexly out on this question. For Nikolas Pevsner, there is a strong continuity between Ruskin and Morris and twentieth-century modernist architecture; we know that Morris’s early poetry had a significant impact on Ezra Pound and, through Pound, on Imagism; and it has been argued that Morris’s late romances partake in that turn to the ‘mythic method’ (T.S. Eliot’s phrase) that characterises the work of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce and Eliot himself in the modernist period. On the other hand, Red House doesn’t look remotely like a functionalist Bauhaus building or a purist white Le Corbusian ‘machine for living in’; T.S. Eliot rejects Morris’s poetry vigorously in his great essay on Andrew Marvell; and Morris himself would presumably have regarded Woolfian and Joycean ‘stream of consciousness’ as even more isolationistic than that ‘dreary introspective nonsense about ... feelings and aspirations’ which for Ellen in Nowhere characterises realism itself.

I therefore find myself agreeing with Norman Kelvin, who emphasises ‘how truly problematic is the relation of Morris to early modernism’; yet it is, for that very reason, a topic we shall have to go on pondering about, all the way through, I would imagine, to the bi-centenary of Woolf’s impish remark in December 2110.

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