Thursday 11 December 2008

Mrs Dalloway, London, William Morris

In their iconoclastic youthful days at the country home Bourton, the characters of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) secretly read the political writings of William Morris. Clarissa Dalloway recalls that ‘Aunt Helena never liked discussion of anything (when Sally gave her William Morris it had to be wrapped in brown paper) ... They meant to found a society to abolish private property’.

Given Morris’s intense presence in Clarissa and Sally’s youth, does he still somehow survive 30 years later, in the novel’s present, the London of 1923? Clarissa does at one point conclude that there is ‘an unseen part of us, which spreads wide [and] might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death’. Might Morris, then, haunt the London of Mrs Dalloway?

As Peter Walsh strolls into Trafalgar Square should we be spectrally aware of the events which took place there on Bloody Sunday, 13 November 1887? Well, perhaps, since Peter, after all, ‘had been a Socialist’. When Miss Kilman takes refuge in Westminster Abbey should we be latently aware of Morris’s own efforts on behalf of this building, in his campaigns for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings? And is it just accident that Richard Dalloway will later order up Imperial Tokay, William Morris’s favourite wine, from his cellars?

What is certain, at any rate, is that the latent Morrisian presence in this book is strong enough to generate the curious family – Mr and Mrs Morris and their children Charles and Elaine – that Peter Walsh meets at dinner in his Bloomsbury hotel towards the end of the novel. These 1920 Morrises have nothing much in common with the family of their great socialist namesake, yet, as Peter Walsh concludes, with an ardour that seems more appropriate to the nineteenth-century Morrises than to their Bloomsbury hotel counterparts, ‘no family in the world can compare with the Morrises’. Amen to that!

Dallowayan London is thus arguably also Morrisian London, and the 1920s are haunted by the 1880s. We would therefore benefit from a more systematic Morris-orientated reading of Mrs Dalloway and of Woolf in general, and there might be a more far-reaching lesson here about the persistence of a Morrisian spatial and political ‘unconscious’ in modernist works that may, on the surface, seem to have spurned his social and aesthetic legacy.

Monday 8 December 2008

'Envisioning Utopia' Conference

The Whitworth Art Gallery’s well-attended event on ‘Envisioning Utopia: Art and Socialist Politics, 1870-1900’ on December 5-6th was built around its 5000-piece Walter Crane visual archive, some of which was simultaneously on display in a fine exhibition entitled ‘Art and Labour’s Cause is One: Walter Crane and Manchester, 1880-1915’.

Professor Tim Barringer of Yale University kicked off the conference with a learned overview of ‘Ford Madox Brown in Manchester’, demonstrating how consistently across his career Brown had sought to produce ‘history painting for the industrial age’. In a session on ‘The City’ Matthew Beaumont offered an astute analysis of ‘Socialism and Occultism in late-Victorian London’, in which the young W.B. Yeats turned out to be a crucial figure in mediating between William Morris’s Socialism and Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy; ‘universal brotherhood’ was a central value for both movements, as Annie Besant would proclaim when she herself converted to Theosophy. Ruth Livesey followed up with a study of ‘Art and Socialism in Leeds: The Ford Sisters and the Leeds Art Club’, which persuasively showed what a slippery mode allegory was for political artists like Emily Ford, how it could be reinscribed by different verbal captioning in different contexts of reception.

A session on ‘The Country’ then had Michael Hatt celebrating Edward Carpenter’s enthusiasm for songs and singing. If democracy, for Carpenter, involves new somatic and sexual as well as political relations, then the act of singing, as it roots one joyously in the body, provides a utopian experience of what the desired political future might actually feel like, here and now. Anna Vaninskaya gave an illuminating analysis of the Socialist Sunday School movement, persuasively demonstrating that its stress on the cycle of the seasons, on Nature and fieldwork for children, was always kept in dialectical relation to the ‘human note’, to a concern for the social relations of rural life and agricultural labour.

In the final session on ‘The World’, Jo Briggs looked at the ways Walter Crane’s doubts during the Boer War about the political efficacy of his lifelong anti-imperialism found expression in, among other things, his Don Quixote illustrations of 1900; and Sarah Turner showed that Crane’s involvement with the India Society and the Festival of Empire in 1910-11 was part of his ‘cosmopolitan nationalism’, as expressed earlier in his India Impressions of 1907 and later in his designs for a ‘World Order of Socialism’ badge.

Pushing the story into the early twentieth century in this way reminded us that a whole new socialist visual culture was about to come into being, that associated with Bolshevism: the Tatlin Tower, Soviet posters and film, Constructivist design. And the more pastoral tradition of Crane and Morris, with its gently meandering stems and leaves, its winged figures and fruit trees, its slow rowing expeditions up the utopian Thames, was then shouldered aside by the leaner, meaner, more industrial and urban Soviet iconography.

For us in the early twenty-first century, both traditions are compelling, as is beautifully demonstrated in the contemporary visual work of David Mabb. In Mabb’s powerfully unsettling images, Morrisian pastoralism and Constructivist avant-gardism exist tensely side by side: there is no easy either-or choice between them, but no glib Hegelian synthesis of the two visual languages is possible either. In our environmentalist age, the Morris-Crane tradition has acquired new pertinence, but we shall also want our utopias to go through and beyond industrial modernity, not just to revert primitivistically behind it.

To what extent the Whitworth conference truly illuminated its overt topic, ‘Envisioning Utopia’, I’m not sure; the term ‘utopia’ didn’t actually get used a lot during the event. But it did abundantly demonstrate just how lively the oppositional visual cultures of the 1880s and 1890s were, and how much intense scholarly interest there is in this field today.