The British critic F.R. Leavis used to denounce the ‘adjectival insistence’ of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, by which he meant the way in which Conrad would relentlessly bang on about ‘implacable forces’, ‘inscrutable intentions’ and ‘inconceivable mysteries’ to heighten the enigma of Marlow’s quest for Kurtz in the African jungle. There can hardly be any doubt that Morris is guilty of such insistence in News from Nowhere, though with a very different set of epithets from Conrad’s own.
Everything in Morris’s utopian Thames valley, as John Helmer argued in a fine article on ‘The Prettiness of Utopia’ in 1979, is ‘touched by the same adjectives – pretty, nice, quaint, dainty, handsome and gay’ (p.5); and I’ve been particularly struck by the recurrence of the word ‘little’ in my recent readings of News from Nowhere: little cottage, little river, little hill – the list is endless! I think there is no doubt that, cumulatively, such adjectives have a diminishing effect on the utopian world, reducing it almost to the status of a dolls’ house. How much of the hostile critique of Nowhere as too pastoral and placid is actually the incremental effect in the reader of this relentless patterning of Morrisian adjectives?
Leavis occasionally recommended drastic surgery for texts which displeased him, famously wanting to throw out the Daniel Deronda material from George Eliot’s great novel of that title to produce a much slimmer new work called Gwendolen Harleth. Could we do something similar with Morris’s utopia? How about producing an edition from which all the belittling adjectives – pretty, dainty, quaint and especially little itself – had been entirely banished? Would the utopian world of Nowhere then feel more substantive and challenging? I suspect so; but is there is a publisher bold enough out there to give it a go?