Friday, 21 February 2020

Flight by Water

I’ve always liked Carole Silver’s description of News from Nowhere as ‘the first of Morris’s final group of romances’.  That generic affiliation means that you can run the hermeneutic traffic between Morris’s utopia and his late romances in both directions: forwards from News from Nowhere, thereby exposing political implications in those otherworldly romances that we might not have supposed to be there; or backwards from the late romances, so that narrative elements of the utopia are revealed as having meanings in excess of their overt political ones.

Why, for instance, should William Guest leave London and head upriver?  Well, officially, because he’s seen the utopian city and now he needs to see the utopian countryside too, thus covering the whole social range.  But then we remember those early exchanges between Birdalone and Habundia in The Water of the Wondrous Isles.  The magical wood-wife informs Birdalone that ‘it is by way of the water that thou shalt fare to the land of men-folk’, and a few pages later the heroine ‘called to mind what Habundia had said to her, that it was by water that she must flee’.  So a journey by water releases you from the captivity of the evil witch-wife who had kidnapped you on the opening page of the book.  Can something like this be true of William Guest’s water journey too?

Well, we might think of Guest as being narratively trapped within old Hammond’s endless expositions in the British Museum.  After all, as readers, we probably feel ourselves shackled during those gruelling expository chapters too.  In a more important because political sense, we might regard Guest as trapped within a narrow, excessively static and pastoral utopia in the transfigured London, and as needing to break out of that to a wider, more challenging world and politics beyond.  He will meet Ellen on his river journey, after all, and she is indeed a dynamic new force in this otherwise too placid future.

Whether Guest’s upriver adventures can be paralleled in any precise way with Birdalone’s tribulations on her great lake, I’m not sure.  Could we think of the cottage at Runnymede as a version of the Isle of Increase Unsought, with the old Grumbler as its dangerous and short-memoried witch – politically short-memoried, in his case?  At any rate, the juxtaposition of The Water of the Wondrous Isles and News from Nowhere will have made us think of aspects of the latter in a new way.  For if a water journey breaks you out of stasis and captivity towards new challenges, then we will have to look at William Guest’s 130-mile trip up the Thames in a new light.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Morris in the OED

Ah, so now I know how many William Morris words are cited in the original Oxford English Dictionary, without the later Supplements: 1,359 words in 1,522 quotations.  But is that good or bad?  Is that an impressive tally, or is it not?  Well, a comparison with other Victorian writers reveals that he has fewer OED words than Charles Dickens (5,553 words in 7,512 quotations), John Ruskin (2,879 in 3,231) or George Eliot (2,430 in 2,618).  But he has more than Thomas Hardy (1,111 in 1,129), Matthew Arnold (1,064 in 1,139), Charlotte Brontë (807 in 840) or Dante Gabriel Rossetti (350 in 356).

Of course, such arithmetical tallies tell us very little about what it means, qualitatively speaking, that an author should be cited in the OED in this way.  For a splendid example of how such a philological analysis might be conducted, I refer you to Dennis Taylor’s Hardy’s Literary Language and Victorian Philology (1993), which is where I got that Morris figure from in the first place.  We’ve had useful analyses of Morris’s literary language here and there (particularly by Norman Talbot), but we could certainly do with a study of it as subtle and comprehensive as Taylor’s of Thomas Hardy’s.