Saturday, 2 August 2008

Cycling around Kelmscott

In a little piece entitled 'Cycling in Nowhere' (Journal of the William Morris Society, 13.2, Summer 1999, 29-33), I lamented the absence of bicycles in News from Nowhere, despite the emergence of a culture of socialist cycling around Morris in the years preceding its composition. Commonweal itself, for instance, contained an appeal 'To Socialist Cyclists' on 30 July 1887 (p.245); and I speculated that if Ellen were indeed some sort of 1880s 'New Woman', then we might have expected her to cycle, rather than to row, up the Thames in pursuit of William Guest.

I should, however, have taken the time and trouble to pursue these issues into the next generation of the Morris family. What Morris did not give us in News from Nowhere his younger daughter May in a sense gives us in the years after his death. In her later years at Kelmscott, as she narrates them in her letters to John Quinn, May Morris emerges as an intrepid cyclist, braving the most inclement conditions on two wheels: ' riding home from the station in inky darkness, my lamp blown out, and no possibility of lighting again - wondering which was ditch and which was road - all this was the best part of the day'. On Easter Monday 1912 she was attending a festival of dancing at Cirencester, fifteen miles from Kelmscott Manor, and made a bold choice of two wheels over four:

'I got my guest, Miss Sloane, up somehow … by seven in the morning, and sent her off with friends who were driving, while I started on my cycle. It was a beautiful day, but with a fearful, icy, violent head wind blowing … But there is a sort of primitive pleasure, is there not?, in battling with elements, esp. if one is a bit out of sorts; I got there somehow - rather dishevelled, and left far behind by the carriage-folk, but enjoying the free air, and the wide lonely country …then the beautiful ride home - no wind, a solemn sky and glorious moon, and all down-hill'.

Cycling seems, indeed, to denote in her mind a peculiar loyalty to her father, as in the case of her visits to the White Horse at Uffington. First, the bare facts of the trip: 'it is some 12 miles south from here, and I cycled & got sunburnt & still have a red nose'; and then a sense of its emotional meaning, as she reflects that Morris himself had 'always paid it a yearly visit, & I have done so ever since - mostly alone on my cycle, in all sorts of weather'.

So our disappointment that Ellen does not cycle in News from Nowhere can be somewhat tempered by these vivid images of May Morris, a decade and a half after her father's death, bicycling staunchly across the very landscapes of his utopia, thereby keeping faith with an ethics of cycling that News from Nowhere itself could sadly not quite encompass. And if we want to strengthen this image of May Morris as cycling eco-warrior, we need do no more than turn to Elfrida Manning's comment on May in her diary entry for March 1925: 'She cannot bear driving in a car' (Society Journal, 4.2, summer 1980, p.19).

1 comment:

Owlfarmer said...

Bicycling, as low-tech as it seems to us, was still a high-tech means of transportation when Morris was writing Nowhere. While horse and carriage, and even horse alone, were used at a fairly leisurely pace, bicycles promised speed and efficiency. So even though human-powered, the technology itself evoked suspicion about its eventual ends. After all, none of the characters shows any interest in being up-to-date, since the whole utopian project focused on meaningful work and convivial life rather than any more "modern" concerns.