I’ve always liked those old volumes of poetry or criticism – often intended as school editions – which have lists of essay or exam questions at the back, so that you can test yourself out when you’ve finished the book. My volume of Matthew Arnold’s poems in the King’s Treasuries of Literature is of this kind: ‘Do you consider that Arnold was master of the sonnet?’; ‘Show that Arnold is at his best when describing river scenery’; and so on. So too is my old Macmillan Casebook anthology on The Tempest: ‘How important is music in the play?’; ‘Trace the interplay of feelings of wonder and disillusion in the play’, etc.
In the case of Morris, we could compile a whole series of such exams from Fiona MacCarthy’s 1996 biography. Has any other biography ever asked itself so many questions, some just rhetorical, others indicating genuine puzzlement on the author’s part? By extracting a run of these one could set a whole series of test papers on Morris and his circle. So here, lifted out pretty much at random, is a set of such questions to get your teeth into (I’ve given page references in case you’re moved, after trying these, to look up MacCarthy’s own answers to them):
1.How original was Red House? (161)
2.Without Morris in fact would there have been a Gertrude Jekyll? (165)
3.Why did Jason succeed where Guenevere failed? (204)
4.Were Janey and Rossetti technically lovers? (225)
5. Is poetry socially useful or superfluous? (240 – a rather big topic, I admit)
6.What did Morris like so much about the sagas? (290)
7.A blue movie Morris? (353 – an enigmatic little teaser, that one)
8.What did Morris gain from Leek? (356 – the place, not the vegetable)
9.How successful was the [carpet=making] episode? How Eastern were these carpets? (405)
10.What has been the reason for such longevity that even the well-educated middle classes of late-twentieth-century Britain can measure out their generations in William Morris rooms? (414)
11.But how idealistic was the Firm now in reality? (452)
12.How far was Mrs Morris conscious of her son’s activities? (483)
There are in fact so many self-posed questions in MacCarthy’s mighty tome that one could repeat this exercise many times over.