Friday 27 June 2008

Dreams of Fishing

In a fine essay on News from Nowhere James Buzard states correctly that 'When Guest sleeps in the Britain of tomorrow, he doesn't dream' (Victorian Studies, 40:3, 1997, p.466). Such deep mental placidity is at one with Guest's earlier enjoyment of the 'little feast' and entertainment that evening. For in utopia, for the first time, he can enjoy the present moment 'without any of that sense of incongruity, that sense of approaching ruin, which had always beset me hitherto' (chXX).

But if Guest doesn't dream, the utopians themselves do; and this is surely surprising. For if utopia is indeed the place of achieved felicity, then what, under a Freudian theory of dreams as wish fulfilments, could there possibly be to dream about? In this genre, all wishes are, by definition, fulfilled in advance. And yet Morris's Nowherians do dream, as Bob the weaver alerts us early in the book. Summoned by Dick Hammond, Bob asks him cheerily, 'what is it this morning? Am I to have my work, or rather your work? I dreamed last night that we were off up the river fishing' (chII).

I haven't yet seen any commentary on that last sentence in all the copious scholarly writing that we have on News from Nowhere. Even in a place (or genre) where all wishes are fulfilled, the wish to fish - or to fish more - asserts itself clamorously. We know that Nowhere still struggles with the whole area of human sexuality, but it seems it hasn't quite cracked the issue of angling either, since its inhabitants still dream so longingly about it.

There is plenty more to be said about angling, or its lack, in News from Nowhere (how did that fine leash of perch at Ellen's cottage get on the dinner table in the first place, after all?). But we must in the end, I think, interpret Bob's dream as bearing upon Morris's work as a whole. We know what a passionate angler Morris was in real life, and his entire oeuvre, through Bob's dream of fishing, thus seems to be crying out for the fullscale piscatorial interpretation which it has not yet had.

Friday 20 June 2008

William Morris and Life-Writing

The very successful conference on ‘Victorian Life-Writing’ at the University of Keele on 17 June 2008 (held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Keele’s Victorian Studies programme) prompts one to think about life-writing issues in relation to William Morris.

J.W. Mackail’s 1899 Morris biography is a fine book, certainly, but suffers from the kind of ‘reticences’ familiar from Victorian biography in general: there is little about Morris and Jane’s marital difficulties, little about Jenny’s illness, and the treatment of Morris’s socialist politics is slight and unsympathetic. Years later (1954) R.D. Macleod actually felt obliged to publish a counterblast in the form of a small pamphlet polemically entitled Morris without Mackail!

Morrisian life-writing moves on from Mackail by a series of advances in content. E.P. Thompson gave us the full political story in 1955. Jack Lindsay (1975) and more recently John LeBourgeois (2006) emphasise the role of Morris’s affection for his sister Emma. Fiona MacCarthy, in her own ‘great ebullient portrait’ of Morris (to borrow a Yeatsian phrase), downgrades the role of Burne-Jones as the friend of friends, has plenty to say about Jane’s affairs with Rossetti and Blunt, goes fully into Jenny’s epilepsy and Morris’s painful sense of responsibility for it, and very effectively emphasises Morris’s strangeness and idiosyncracy.

But a recurrent topic at the Keele conference was the relation – indeed, the parallelism, the too neat fit – between biography as a literary form and the realist novel. Both are thoroughly wedded to ideals of narrative linearity, psychological complexity and development, organic plot closure. Given that Morris himself was for the most part distinctly hostile to the realist novel (Ellen speaks very powerfully against it in News from Nowhere), we might wonder whether Morrisian life-writing, to remain faithful to its subject, doesn’t need to advance beyond Mackail in terms of form as well as content.

Could we therefore imagine a life of William Morris written in the form of an Icelandic saga, that pre-realist genre which stirred him so deeply, both as translator and poet? We’ve had a rather crude first stab at this project in Edward and Stephani Godwin’s Warrior Bard: the Life of William Morris (1947), a generic experiment which they claim was endorsed by May Morris herself. Or could there be a biography of Morris written in that extraordinary new literary form which he himself invented late in life: the medievalising romance or ‘modern fantasy novel’ (from The Story of the Glittering Plain onwards) which proved so influential in the twentieth century, all the way to and beyond The Lord of the Rings?

In the early twenty-first century we are postmodern readers rather than realist ones, and while scholars will keep extending the boundaries of our knowledge of the content of Morris’s life, the onus is perhaps now on us to invent new forms of biographical narrative in which to present such findings. The Keele Life-Writing conference, which contained so many fine papers, helpfully offers a prompt in that direction.

Sunday 1 June 2008

Sentences in Utopia

Not prison sentences, oh no - they've all been long since abolished! But sentences in the sense of bits of language, units of syntax, the very linguistic material in which utopia is evoked in the first place ...

Critics have long argued that Morris in News from Nowhere would have to dramatise the attractiveness of socialism not just in terms of content (institutions, customs, buildings, everyday interactions) but formally too. As Krishan Kumar insisted in 1993, 'the point of [Morris's] prose romance was that form - "the slight envelope of romance", the way and manner of expression - mattered as much as content, "the serious essay", the exposition of socialist ideas'. And this isn't just a matter of genre, but of the very shape and feel of individual sentences in the book.

We've had some promising work in this vein. In a stimulating piece in the Journal of the William Morris Society, Alexander MacDonald argued that in Morris's utopia 'contradictory feelings and ideas are captured in the language of individual sentences' and offered some fine close local analyses to prove his point (X, 2, Spring 1993, 22-26). More recently, David Latham has beautifully suggested that 'much of the first chapter is a play on the "dis-" prefix' (XVII, 2, Summer 2007, 11). So we have some good pointers in the right direction.

Other examples will occur almost at random. Is Hammond/Hammersmith some kind of pun, bonding the family and the place tightly together( after the industrial dissociation of humanity and nature)? Other words are punningly transformed in the course of the text, certainly: the 'seal of the "stir and intellectual life of the 19th century"' which was once impressed on the Oxford meadows is linguistically transmuted into that 'sele of the morning' which the neighbours regularly give Guest as he heads upriver. More bleakly, however, Guest suffers so many 'pangs' in the book, from his first departure from Ellen at Runnymede all the way through to his final disappearence from Nowhere, that the village name Pangbourne comes to look like a stoical pun in its own right. For he will indeed have to teeth-grittedly bear all these pangs and pains if he is to contribute actively again to the socialist struggle in his own day.

What we need, then, it seems to me, is a Christopher Ricks of Morris criticism, someone who would do in detail for the language of News from Nowhere what Ricks so brilliantly did in 1963 in his Milton's Grand Style, i.e. demonstrate the treasures of subtle phonetic and semantic life in language that previously had been taken to be merely solemnly impressive (Milton) or merely politically functional (Morris).