Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Letter to Marina Warner

Dear Marina Warner,

I’m teaching H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine on an undergraduate literature course on ‘Decadence to Modernism: 1890-1939’ and, my old Pan Classics copy of the book having finally disintegrated (to my great sadness, it having such a wonderful image of the time machine on its front cover), I have finally had recourse to the Penguin Classics edition of 2005, which contains your 14-page Introduction to the text. Overall, you've given us a very fine piece of writing, highly illuminating about Wells’s book and its literary and scientific context; and I shall be glad to direct students to this. But when you deal with the relation of The Time Machine to Morris’s News from Nowhere (p.xviii) my reservations begin.

First, matters of accuracy. Morris was not a ‘founder of the Pre-Raphaelites’, as you claim. That honour belongs to Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais; Morris and Burne-Jones come along later and constitute a second-generation of the movement. And to call Morris a ‘much softer optimist and dreamer’ (than Samuel Butler) puzzles me too. I certainly wouldn’t use the adjective ‘soft’ to describe a man who threw himself so militantly into the early socialist movement as Morris did, risking violence and arrest many times over, or whose utopia contains an impassioned and detailed account of the bloody civil war of 1952-54 which brings its socialist society into being.

Second, questions of literary interpretation. Has the world of Nowhere ‘regressed’ behind modernity quite as thoroughly as you suggest? Isn’t it in fact a brand-new energy source (admittedly not much specified in the text) which powers both the ‘banded workshops’ and the ‘force-vehicles’ which William Guest happens upon?

And to talk, as you do, of the ‘Morris-like Eloi’ of Wells’s book is certainly to stretch a point – most implausibly, in my view. The Eloi are the descendants of capitalists who have brutally driven the working-class underground; Morris’s Nowherians are the descendants of socialist revolutionaries who defeated those masters. The Eloi don’t work at all; the Nowherians are devoted to the vigorous practice of the crafts, not to mention the heavyduty road-mending we come across at one point. The Eloi are feeble and effete; the Nowherians contain spectacular physical specimens like Dick Hammond, the musclebound Arnold Schwarzenegger of this text. The Elois’ love-making is lightweight and transitory; the Nowherians have intense encounters which lead, at worst, to extreme sexual jealousy and crimes of passion. The most memorable Eloi is Weena, who is more of a pet than girlfriend to the Time Traveller; the most memorable Nowherian is Ellen, an extraordinary ‘second-generation’ utopian who proves just how much more dynamism this society is capable of generating.

So: many thanks indeed for your helpful thoughts on The Time Machine itself, but may I recommend another, and more careful, reading of Morris’s utopia to you?

1 comment:

Owlfarmer said...

Thank you for good six-gun argument (one to keep at one's hip, to draw upon when needed) against common perceptions of both Morris's career and the content of NFN. I'm going to be teaching a "philosophical perspectives" class in January on the Arts and Crafts movement (although I'm going to pinch Pevsner's "Pioneers of Modern Design" as a title for the course so students won't confuse the content with the frilly picture frame and scrapbook crowd). At any rate, you clear up nicely a number of erroneous assumptions about both Morris and the book, making my job somewhat easier.

Guess it's time to read The Time Machine again, too.