Wednesday 12 December 2007

Morris on the Novel, Morris as Critic

The canonical version of William Morris’s tastes in the novel runs roughly as follows: passionate about Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, a great enthusiast for Alexandre Dumas, and with a quirky fondness for the sporting novels of R.S. Surtees (‘he placed Surtees in the same rank with Dickens as a master of life’, writes Mackail, baffledly).

There is much truth in this, of course; but it may also be possible to complicate the story productively. One could, for example, demonstrate a sustained and complex interest on Morris’s part in the works of Daniel Defoe, and even in some aspects of nineteenth-century detective fiction, such as the novels of Emile Gaboriau (an enthusiasm he shared with Ruskin and Burne-Jones). Such novelistic tastes could then provide the basis for new generic hypotheses about his own writings, which might fruitfully defamiliarise them. One could try the thought-experiment of construing News from Nowhere as a detective novel, with Guest as the sleuth and the (arguably precarious) fate of socialism in Nowhere as the mystery that needs solving.

The rewriting of Morris’s tastes as a reader of novels might be part of a larger project of revaluing him as a literary critic. It’s not difficult to locate remarks of his which are entirely dismissive of critics; ‘for professional literary criticism, beyond all, his feeling was something between amusement and contempt’, Mackail informs us. And yet there’s plenty of literary criticism of different sorts scattered about in Morris’s voluminous writings – often, admittedly, in works that are formally about other things – and there is also a good deal in publications he edited, such as the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine and Commonweal. So we might well see him as a pivotal figure in articulating a ‘Pre-Raphaelite criticism’ in his early days and, with his comrades of the 1880s, a distinctively socialist literary criticism in his later, politically committed years. Our sense that Marxist literary criticism in this country only begins with Christopher Caudwell in the 1930s surely needs revaluing.

Morris may have turned down the opportunity to hold forth on literature as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, but it may none the less be possible to extrapolate a fair amount of what he would have said there, had he accepted the invitation, from his published works and those of his contemporaries. A.H.R. Ball has given us a useful volume on Ruskin as Literary Critic (1928, reissued 1969). Is it not time we had such a volume on Morris?

Monday 10 December 2007

William Morris Research Seminar

The William Morris Research Seminar held at Northampton University on 17th November 2007 was an experiment in providing a forum for academic work on and around Morris in the UK, and the band of enthusiasts who gathered on that day enjoyed discussions as every bit as lively as those which take place at the Socialist League at the opening of News from Nowhere (even if we did not quite finish by roaring out very loud and damning all the rest for fools).

Professor Ruth Levitas framed the day politically with a paper on 'Freedom and Equality in Marx and Morris' and provoked a lively discussion on work and equality in utopia. Dr Will Hoon meditated on 'Morris and the Contemporary Design Curriculum', analysing the fate of Arts and Crafts 'hands on' aesthetic ideals in an age of desktop digital design techniques. The artist David Mabb showed and discussed his latest Morris-related work, Rhythm 69, which continues his bold project of montaging Morris's designs with aspects of the twentieth-century avantgarde (Kasimir Malevich and Hans Richter in this case). Tony Pinkney gave a paper on 'News from Nowhere as Seance Fiction', which situated itself as part of the 'spectral turn' of contemporary cultural studies, and Phillippa Bennett continued her project of rehabilitating Morris's late romances by seeing in them possible models of revolutionary violence which may have their bearing on Morris's general political thought.

All the participants felt they had enjoyed an intense and illuminating day's debate, and we are grateful to Phillippa Bennett's organisational energy in making the event happen so smoothly. Offers of papers for future seminars have already been received in significant numbers, and we trust that this event will establish itself as a regular part of the left-wing Victorian studies scene.

Friday 30 November 2007

Birdalone's Many Kisses

How many kisses does the dynamic heroine Birdalone receive in Morris's late romance The Water of the Wondrous Isles?

This is surely a question worthy of the literary quizzes in John Sutherland's popular So You Think You Know ... series (volumes out so far on Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen). But in fact it has already been answered for us in a little piece in Analysis 52 (18th December 1897), p.549; and the tally is an impressive 105, according to that count.

Has anyone ever doublechecked this figure? Dr Philippa Bennett, whose fine PhD on the concept of wonder in the late romances will one day surely appear as an important monograph, raises another moot issue: how many of those 105 kisses does Birdalone actually enjoy (as opposed to endure)?

And when will we finally get a So You Think You Know William Morris volume to tuck in our friends' Christmas stockings ... ?

Wednesday 28 November 2007

'Commonweal' on John Ruskin

On 15th September 1892 Sydney Cockerell noted in his diary that after attending a meeting of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings he had supper with William Morris and Philip Webb and there was 'talk about Munera Pulveris, etc'. One aches for that 'etc' to have been expanded, feeling that here we might have got a more detailed exposition of Morris's views of Ruskin's social thinking than we find elsewhere in his writings.

What we can usefully turn to, however, for some hints in this direction is a series of four articles which Thomas Shore contributed to 'Commonweal' in June to September 1886. Titled 'Ruskin as a Revolutionary Preacher' and amounting to almost 9000 words in all, Shore's articles constitute the paper's most sustained engagement with Ruskin's social thought; and given Morris's role as editor, we may assume that he was in at least broad agreement with Shore's detailed exposition and critique of Ruskin here.

'Ruskin as a Revolutionary Preacher' has now been reprinted for the first time since its original publication 121 years ago. Parts 1 and 2, with a brief introduction by myself, appear in the 'Ruskin Review and Bulletin', vol 3 no 3, 2007, pp.3-16, and Parts 3 and 4, again with a short introduction, will appear in vol 4, no 1, forthcoming shortly. The 'Ruskin Review and Bulletin' is published by the Lancaster University Ruskin Programme and further details can be found through its website.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Beginnings and Endings

In Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie's 'The First Fabians' (1977) we learn that the early Fabian Sydney Olivier, "a great admirer of Morris, would read his work aloud to Margaret [his wife] in the evenings' - to the point, indeed, where 'they named their second child Brunhild after the heroine in Morris's romantic saga "Sigurd the Volsung"' (p.99). Shades of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one can't help thinking, who used to name his children after whichever philosopher he happened to be reading at the time.

A less cheerful, rather more solemn, use of Morris's works was made by the prominent Christian Socialist Henry Scott Holland. For according to the 'Oxford Dictionary of National Biography', Scott Holland 'died in his house at Christ Church, Oxford, early on a Sunday morning, 17 March 1918, after reciting Wordsworth's "Yarrow Revisited" and having William Morris's "The House of the Wolfings" read to him' (vol 27, p.670). The whole of it, one asks in amazement?

There must be many other instances across the years of Morris's works being used to mark significant 'rites de passage' in his admirers' lives. It would certainly be interesting to draw a chrestomathy of such examples together...

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Pulling Pike out of the Thames

Occasionally the William Morris Society has organised boat journeys up the Thames from London to Kelmscott Manor in honour of those Morris and friends made in The Ark in the early 1880s, and which Guest, Dick Hammond and Clara make in 'News from Nowhere'.

However, to truly honour Morris's passion for the Thames, should the Society not also be organising fishing trips around Kelmscott? Here, for instance, is Morris on a piscatorial expedition in February 1877: 'We got a few small perch & 3 pike, Ellis a big one 9 1/2 lbs, at Goblin Reach - he was so happy - Ellis, not the pike'. Or, on an even better day a year or so later, 'Edgar got three smallish pikes: on the other hand Ellis captured a monster under the willow on the Berkshire side of the Old-Weir pool: he weighed 17 lbs'. Morris even on occasion managed to rope his wife into these fishing outings. Writing to his daughter in August 1888 he notes: 'your mother went with me (walking) and my fishing-rod to the infallible hole near Buscot, & sure enough I got 3 perch there'.

So there we are! My suggestion for the next Morris Society expedition is, accordingly, pike fishing at Goblin Reach and the Old-Weir Pool and some serious detective work to establish what Morris meant by his 'infallible hole near Buscot'. The rewards? Monstrous pike every bit as eerie and scary as those celebrated in the famous Ted Hughes poem on the topic.

William Morris Club in Oxford?

According to M.P. Ashley and C.T. Saunders in 'Red Oxford' (2nd edition, 1933), "In 1928 and 1929 members of the Labour Club ran, but as an independent organisation called the William Morris Club, a club room where meals could be obtained. It was situated first in Queen Street, later in the High" (p.43).

Does anybody know more of this Morris Club than just the name? Was it some kind of rallying point for the left in the Oxford University Labour Club, or was it really just a glorified cafe?

Tuesday 2 October 2007