Tuesday, 26 February 2008

William Morris in the Novel

Morris has appeared in novels occasionally over the years. The earliest examples include Hubert and Edith Bland's Something Wrong (1886), which contains a depiction of Morris as a socialist leader, and George Gissing’s Demos (1886), where the writer and socialist Westlake (‘long-haired, full-bearded, he had the forehead of an idealist and eyes whose natural expression was an indulgent smile’) is loosely modelled on Morris, as is his sister Stella on Jane.

Morris then features very briefly, as an ‘enthusiastic angler’, towards the end of Theodore Watts-Dunton’s Aylwin (1899), when the heroine Winifred recovers from her dementia at Hurstcote Manor (Kelmscott) under the benign care of Mr D’Arcy (Rossetti). Morris would certainly not have been amused by the little piscatorial vignette in which he appears, since it shows him as out-fished on his very own Kelmscott waters by a girl in a trance! Linda Miller, in her excellent series of articles in the UK Morris Society Newsletter, has recently drawn our attention to William Cameron’s novel The Day is Coming (1944), which depicts a meeting between Morris and C.R. Ashbee at Kelmscott in December 1894, and in which Morris is a lifetime inspirational presence to the working-class hero, Arthur Cullen (based on Cameron’s own father). The American modernist poet H.D. has an unpublished novel about Morris, Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, and no doubt there are other examples to which learned colleagues could draw our attention.

But it may be that we stand on the brink of a whole new manifestation of William Morris in the novel. For a new genre of the “historical-figure-turned-detective” is emerging all around us. As straws in the wind, we might take Michael Gregorio’s Critique of Criminal Reason (2006), in which the ageing philosopher Immanuel Kant comes out of retirement to help the detective Hanno Stiffeniis in Königsberg in 1804; Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder (2006), in which Sigmund Freud is drafted into a criminal investigation on his trip to New York; and Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders (2007), in which both Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle turn detective in fin-de-siècle London and Paris. The more intelligent works in this genre naturally try to tell us something interesting about the historical figure-cum-detective’s thought-system in the process of generating a gripping detective narrative – all the more readily where that thought-system itself, as with psychoanalysis, is from the start a mode of decoding tiny clues and signs and parapraxes.

Is it not time, then, that William Morris himself emerged into this new fictional sphere of writers and philosophers turned detective, in a criminal plot that would both be revealing about his own thinking and, conceivably, about the fate of socialism more widely? Morris himself, as I have suggested elsewhere, was a keen reader of the detective novels of Emile Gaboriau, so he might well relish such an early twenty-first century fictional reincarnation.


Alias Guenevere said...

This really is a fascinating topic! The powerful idea of ‘William Morris in the Novel’ crosses cultural and national boundaries. See for example Margaret Atwood’s detective story Alias Grace (1996) where criminality lurks within William Morris epigraphs. Do you think that it would be worth a try looking up this issue?

Sue said...

Penelope Fitzgerald,biographer of Burne Jones, used the appearance and manifestations so recognisable to Morrisians for a bit part in her 1977 novel 'The Golden Child'.