Monday, 27 April 2015

Scott’s 'Waverley' and the Joys of Insurrection

‘They besieged and took Carlisle, and soon afterwards prosecuted their daring march to the southward’. I don’t suppose that Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party, however well they do in the imminent General Election, are planning a daring expedition into England of the kind narrated in Walter Scott’s 1814 novel Waverley, from which my quotation comes (vol. 3 chapter 10). But none the less, with so much reactionary drivel being spouted by the Tories about the supposed ‘threat’ that a post-election SNP-Labour Party deal might pose, this is certainly a topical and exciting moment to be re-reading Scott’s first novel.

I can see more clearly too, now, why Scott’s Waverley novels appealed so intensely to William Morris – not just because of the rugged Highland scenery, picturesque social customs and racy linguistic dialect they depict, but rather because of the sheer energy and intelligence of their engagement with politics and history. Waverley vividly dramatises a country in civil war as the 1745 Jacobite rebellion breaks out, as does Morris’s own News from Nowhere at the other end of the nineteenth century, with its gripping chapters on ‘How the Change Came’. The invocation by Scott’s Flora and Fergus MacIvor of ‘the cause’ must have deeply stirred Morris, even though his own chosen cause was socialist rather than royalist; as must the book’s searching explorations of how political loyalties are formed in the first place (Waverley himself famously ‘wavers’ from side to side), how far ethical considerations should or should not be subordinated to one’s chosen political commitment, and where fanaticism might be considered as beginning. I suspect too that, in the narrower sphere of literary characterisation, some of Flora MacIvor’s highminded militancy feeds through into Ellen in News from Nowhere.

Scott’s novels do not currently feature on our Romanticism course in the Lancaster University English Department, and that seems a real loss. At a time when Russian-backed separatists are fighting for independence in eastern Ukraine, and the jihadis of Islamic State are violently imposing their caliphate in Syria and Iraq, we can surely see more clearly that the historical novel as invented by Scott was an epoch-making generic innovation that rises to the level of such brutal transformative processes. It still has much to tell us about them, and about the process of building more humane revolutionary transformations too.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Images for Utopia

We are all fond of the woodcut of Kelmscott Manor from C.M. Gere’s design which served as the frontispiece of the Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere in 1893 and which now often graces modern paperback editions too. But is it really the best image to introduce Morris’s utopia? Does not the Manor, as a completed architectural artefact, imply that the effort of actually making utopia is over, that once we’ve rowed up the Thames to get there we can just lie back and enjoy it? Indeed, as a building that hugely predates the book’s own narrative present, does it not effectively take us outside the realm of utopia altogether?

What might serve as a better image here then? Well, couldn’t we have a building from the utopian present in which William Guest finds himself? Why not a woodcut of the Hammersmith Guest House, say, or of that architecturally exuberant nearby Mote-House which embraces ‘the best qualities of the Gothic of northern Europe with those of the Saracenic and Byzantine’ (ch.IV)? Or better still, why not an image of a building in process rather than already completed, which might semiotically signal to us, as frontispiece of the book, that utopia is itself always in process and never complete, that it is constantly self-transformative or 'kinetic', in H.G. Wells’s term?

And we do indeed have just such a scene available to us in the ‘Obstinate Refusers’ chapter later in the book, where Philippa and her building team are eagerly engaged on a new house on the upper Thames: ‘at work in the shed and on the scaffold about half a dozen men and two women, blouse-clad like the carles’ (ch.XXVI). A woodcut based on this episode would have had the further beneficial effect of reminding feminist critics of Morris’s utopia that women are not confined to the rather subservient roles they do indeed occupy in the earliest chapters. So do we have a woodcut artist out there venturesome enough to have a go at such an illustration?

Thursday, 2 April 2015

William Morris on the Syllabus

As an undergraduate in English Literature at Bristol University between 1975 and 1978, I never encountered any William Morris at all on my degree scheme. We did plenty of Victorian poetry, including Browning, Tennyson, Arnold and Hardy, but Morris’s Defence of Guenevere poems, which certainly had all the qualities of edge, concretion and irony to appeal to the Empsonian predilections of my tutor Moira Megaw, never got a look in. And though the Department as whole did have a culturally militant stance towards ‘technologico-Benthamite civilisation’ (Leavisite codeword for capitalism), since it was staffed by second-generation Scrutineers like Roy Littlewood, that certainly did not extend to having a socialist utopia like News from Nowhere on the syllabus.

Do undergraduates today, in either English or Politics departments, get any better exposure to Morris? There is certainly more interest in Gothic than in literary realism these days, which might make a space for him; but on the other hand, a whole series of new areas has come into focus – literary theory, science fiction, African literature, women’s writing, and so on – which now take up a good deal of the undergraduate’s time in English studies. I think the honest answer is that we simply do not know how much attention Morris’s work gets on the university syllabus in the early twenty-first century. So we need a national and international survey of Victorianist colleagues in literature departments and Left-leaning colleagues in Politics or Sociology to see which Morris texts are getting taught, and, in the longer-term, to encourage more of them on to the syllabus.