Saturday, 2 May 2009

The 'Romancing' of News from Nowhere

I want to suggest a new hermeneutical principle for the reading of News from Nowhere, which goes as follows: one takes narratively similar episodes from Morris’s late romances, sets them beside their equivalents in his utopia, and lets the complex implications of such episodes in the romances play illuminatingly upon their News from Nowhere counterparts, where they may not, on the face of it, seem initially to be as semantically rich.

How would this method work in practice? When Walter arrives in the ‘wood beyond the world’, in Morris’s romance of that title, the sinister Mistress at whose castle he stays eventually remarks: ‘Wherefore now I ask thee, art thou willing to do me service, thereby to earn thy guesting’ (ch.XIII). An innocent enough request in context, one might think; but suppose now that we let the notion of ‘earning thy guesting’ radiate over William Guest in News from Nowhere itself?

If a guest cannot simply take for granted, but must actively earn, the hospitality he receives, whether from the eerie Mistress of the romance or from the genial neighbours of the utopia, then we must think of William Guest as playing an active rather than just passive role in the post-revolutionary world he visits. We must see him as playing a positive function there, actively changing the place by his presence, not just admiringly gawping at it. No room here, naturally, to go into what this might be; but it is the formulation from the romance, transposed across to Nowhere, which has suggestively opened this possibility to us.

Another instance. The Lady later tells Walter to ‘Go to thy chamber, and there thou shalt find raiment worthy of thee’. He does so and finds ‘raiment ... rich beyond measure; and he wondered if any new snare lay therein’ (ch.XX). Should William Guest have had similar misgivings when he comes across that handsome blue suit that the Nowherians lay out for him? I suspect he should; for dressing like his hosts contributes to making him feel he can belong permanently in the new utopian world (like Julian West in Looking Backward) and thus in part leads to all the later heartache he will endure in relation to Ellen.

The rich semantic potential of the late romances can thus open new vistas on Morris’s utopia, alerting us to a necessary ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which the genial, sunlit vistas of Nowhere might not themselves propose to us.

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