In his 1976 essay on ‘The Revision of News from Nowhere’ across its different textual manifestations, J. Alex Macdonald offers us a tiny but intriguing revisionary detail. In the 1890 Commonweal version of the early morning meadow at Runnymede, Ellen does not have a basket; in the 1891 Reeves and Turner book version, she suddenly does: ‘that was Ellen, holding a basket in her hand’ (ch.XXIII). Why, then, does Morris add a basket to this character and, more intriguingly, what might be in it?
Baskets and the mystery of what they may contain are indeed something of a minor motif in the revisions of News from Nowhere; for in the road-mending episode (also not in the Commonweal version), William Guest spots ‘a good big basket that had hints about it of cold pie and wine’ (ch.VII). Macdonald’s own explanation of Ellen’s new basket is modest enough: ‘the addition of it is a small touch which brings Ellen more clearly into view. Among utopian novels News from Nowhere is almost unique in its loving attention to detail, especially of landscape and architecture’ (12).
Fair enough; but then, almost any other daily object might have served the same purpose. The interesting thing about baskets, surely, is that they contain things, and not only cold pies. To my mind, the most striking fact we learn about Ellen in the course of the book is that she has been a pupil of old Hammond’s; so I am going to wager that her new basket is full of the sage of Bloomsbury’s writings about the history – and even perhaps the future - of Nowhere which she has taken out into the fields for a spot of plein air study before the rest of the Runnymede household wakes up.