Friday 25 April 2008

Ruskin, Morris, Little Girls

In early spring 1887 Sydney Cockerell visited John Ruskin at Brantwood: ‘We were soon talking of men that I admired. Morris was “beaten gold”, he said, “a great rock with a little moss on it perhaps”. His “love of Turner, primroses and little girls” had prevented his ever being Morris’s close friend…’ (cited in Tim Hilton, John Ruskin, 2002, p.817).

We know that Burne-Jones was certainly very much closer to Ruskin than Morris ever became, but could it truly have been the issue of ‘little girls’ that played a part in the relative distance between the two men? How much did Morris know of what Hilton himself, Ruskin’s best recent biographer, terms his ‘paedophiliac’ sexual orientation (p.253), or of Ruskin’s disastrous passion for Rose La Touche, who was a girl of nine when the 39-year-old Ruskin first met her in 1858?

We are used to thinking of Morris’s News from Nowhere as a Ruskinian utopia in terms of its medievalism and its work-practices; but might we also have to begin to think of it as a Ruskinian utopia in sexual terms too? For the central emotional relationship of that work develops between the 20-year-old Ellen and a William Guest who is ‘hard on fifty-six’, an age difference even greater than that of Ruskin and Rose La Touche; and one might even sense a certain progressive ‘girlification’ of News from Nowhere as the text proceeds. The indeterminate ‘children on the road’ in Kensington wood in the early chapters become the three girls and a boy on Greylocks outside the British Museum half way through, who in turn later become the eroticised ‘half a dozen girls playing about on the grass’ up the river near Goring and Streatley (‘they had been bathing, and were light clad and bare-footed’).

So it may be that if the issue of Ruskin’s predilection for ‘little girls’ was indeed a distancing factor in Morris’s relationship to him, the younger man makes what amends he can to his mentor in this respect in News from Nowhere – all the while, however, ensuring that a sexual barrier between the generations is firmly in place after all, by having Guest vanish away from Ellen at the end of his utopian vision.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Imaginary Conversation 2: In Praise of Wine

In an earlier posting (12.01.08) I suggested that some enterprising Morrisian might write for us a conversation between Oscar Wilde and William Morris on his death bed, a meeting several times referred to after Morris’s death but which in fact never took place (so all the more scope for imagination, one would think).

May Morris seems to have enjoyed the same game of inventing imaginary conversations for her father. Here, for instance, are her reflections on how a genial chat between Morris and the literary critic George Saintsbury (1845-1933) might have gone: ‘It seems a pity that the late George Saintsbury, who wrote with such brilliant discernment about my Father’s poetry, did not come into contact with him then. A third in company might have listened with refreshment to the poet and critic exchanging thoughts about grands crus and vintage-years’ (William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist, I, 64).

William Allingham wrote in his diary for 1st August 1866, ‘At dinner William Morris, pleasant, learned about wines and distilling’. We have some fine contemporary memories of Morris coming up from the cellars in Red House hands full of wine bottles and others tucked under his arms; more research could be done on Mr Diosy, Morris's wine supplier; and H.G. Wells in A Modern Utopia (1905) is shrewdly aware that ‘a News from Nowhere utopia with the wine left out’ would be a totally different, and presumably much lesser, thing (ch.2, section 6).

Saintsbury’s own side of this conversation can be gleaned from his Notes on a Cellar-Book, first published in 1920 and kept in print by wine enthusiasts intermittently since. ‘Wine has been stinted of its due literary sizings’, Saintsbury there complains, and Morris might well have agreed. But it’s clear that political differences would have troubled their oenophiliac exchanges. While Morris celebrated Ruskin calling him ‘the ablest man of his time’ with a bottle of his favourite Imperial Tokay, Saintsbury writing many years later reflects dolefully that Imperial Tokay ‘will probably never recover the disappearance of those Hapsburgs, with whom it was so inseparably connected. Republican Tokay would be a contradiction in terms’.

The raw materials, on both sides, are richly there. May Morris’s imaginary conversation simply awaits its writing up!

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Under Another Name ...

The Dream of John Ball contains one of Morris’s most profound political meditations: ‘I pondered … how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name’. It is a reflection that has resonance well beyond the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which is so vividly dramatised in John Ball itself.

‘Turns out not to be what they meant’. So it is that the great electoral defeat of the Thatcher government in 1997 and the arrival of Tony Blair and the Labour Party in power, in which so many on the Left had invested such hopes (I remember friends confidently telling me that the Party had only used Blair to win the election and that, now in government, it would ditch him for a man of the Left like Robin Cook), has led to a decade-long right-wing “New Labour” project which has in some respects (creeping privatisation of the National Health Service, say) gone further than Thatcherism itself would ever have dared.

‘Have to fight for what they meant under another name’. At which point, it seems to me, politically active Morrisians have increasingly invested their own dreams of transformation in the emergent politics of the Green movement. And, as a little historical footnote to this shift of allegiances, I offer the following eco-socialist motion put to the conference of the Green Party of England and Wales in 1996, the year of Morris’s centenary:

“Conference celebrates the centenary of Green Left pioneer William Morris, and his artistic and political work. Conference reaffirms the Green Party’s commitment to building a sustainable society based on the values we share with William Morris and those who came before and after him.

“In particular we share Morris’s vision of:

“ - an equitable and just society based on co-operation, peace and harmony with nature,

“ - sustainable production for need in harmony with the environment, not exploitation of planet and people for individual greed and corporate profit,

“ - a commitment to usefulness and beauty, not the ugliness of throw-away mass production for naked materialism,

“ - participation in a living community empowered to make their own decisions, not least through community ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange,

“The Green Party Executive is instructed to give priority to coalition building with others who share these values and this vision of the future basis of society and the economy.

“Proposed by John Norris, Penny Kemp, Johann Sikora, Tony Martin”.