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?

No comments: