Tuesday 24 November 2009

Masters of the Microphone

In a wartime radio broadcast on the tercentenary of John Milton’s famous defence of freedom of speech, Areopagitica, E.M. Forster provocatively asked of Milton, ‘And would he have approved of the wireless?’ Can we ask the same question of William Morris, I wonder?

The question is, of course, slightly less anachronistic in Morris’s case than it is in Milton’s. Radio was invented as a technical possibility in 1895, one year before Morris’s death; but more importantly he was well aware of a developed literary representation of something rather like a wireless broadcasting system in the form of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1889). Edith Leete takes the visitor to utopia, Julian West, into her music room in chapter ten and, after twiddling a few knobs, floods the space with organ music being relayed by telephone from a live orchestra elsewhere in the city; Bellamy’s editors usually refer us to Marconi at this point.

Historically, there have been two major opposing positions among Left intellectuals in regard to new communications technologies. There are those, such as Walter Benjamin, who are inclined to see a democratising and liberatory potential in new technologies; and on the other hand, those, like Theodor Adorno, who incline to view the mass media as producing passive, one-dimensional audiences. Given Morris’s preference for hand-craftsmanship over industrial production, we might see him as belonging to the latter, Adornian camp; but recent studies have shown that in the case of photography, at least, his attitude was more positive and exploratory than one might expect.

I like to toy, then, with the notion of Morris being open to developments in wireless technology, if he had lived into his late eighties and heard the BBC’s first radio broadcast in 1922 or somehow broken through into Bellamy’s new Boston and enjoyed a broadcast concert with Julian West. Perhaps he might have rewritten The Tables Turned or even News from Nowhere itself as radio plays – and the Radio 4 reading of the latter a few years back certainly showed just how effective it can be in that medium. His younger socialist colleagues Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells certainly became left-wing ‘Masters of the Microphone’, to borrow a phrase from a 1939 issue of The Listener.

And how, after all, could the tall, handsome, grey-eyed woman in chapter XXX of News from Nowhere have possibly been expecting Dick’s arrival by boat at Kelmscott Manor unless there had been some form of wireless communication between them beforehand?

Saturday 7 November 2009

William Morris and 'Adam Bede'

Today’s Institute of English Studies conference devoted to George Eliot’s Adam Bede affords us an opportunity to think through William Morris’s judgement on this novel, which is recorded in May Morris’s account of her father’s literary enthusiasms in volume XXII of the Collected Works: ‘Of George Eliot he could only read with any great enjoyment the “Scenes from Clerical Life” and “Silas Marner”. “Adam Bede” he thought cruel and perhaps this irked him the more because he knew that cruelty was no part of the writer’s character’ (p.xxvi).

May does not elaborate further, but I would imagine that it was the novel’s treatment of its ‘fallen’ 17-year-old village lass Hetty Sorrel, who is first sentenced to death for the murder of her baby, then transported to Australia, which struck Morris as cruel – an assessment in which many later readers of the book, and particularly feminist critics, have also concurred.

I wonder, then, whether Morris in his own ‘Pilgrims of Hope’ isn’t trying to tell the Adam Bede story differently, with a more positive and less ‘cruel’ inflection. His hero Richard is, after all, the illegitimate offspring of a country woman and her rich seducer; so that this Hetty Sorrel figure not only does not kill her child, but gives birth to a son who heroically commits himself to the forward movement of history in his own society and who aims ultimately to abolish the very class divisions which made his parents’ own flawed relationship possible in the first place. Had the mother known of her son’s future, he tells us later, ‘As some old woman of old hadst thou wondered, who hath brought forth a god of the earth’ (XI). This is a powerful rewriting of George Eliot’s Hetty indeed!

But, alas, such cross-class sexual tragedies are not so soon abolished after all. Richard’s mother may be a redeemed Hetty, but his wife later turns out to be a Hetty Sorrel too, as a lower-class woman who gets emotionally and perhaps sexually involved with the suave gentleman Arthur when the latter joins the socialist movement. Is Morris’s use of the same Christian name as Hetty’s seducer Arthur Donnithorne in George Eliot’s novel just accident here? I suspect not. You can rewrite or mend one aspect of Hetty’s sad and ‘cruel’ fate, it seems, but it then only crops out again elsewhere in the text. Insofar as ‘Pilgrims of Hope’ is a reworking of Adam Bede, it can thus alas only be a flawed and partial one.