Sunday 6 December 2009

Radio 4: 'Our Mutual Friend'

So BBC Radio 4’s wonderful dramatisation of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend has finally ended, alas! It has been such a delight over the last four weeks, and makes one wonder what one will now find to fill the 15 minute gap each evening when it has been broadcast. ‘He do the police in different voices’, as Betty Higden remarks of Sloppy; and there were indeed some truly memorable voices coming through in this production, with Silas Wegg, Bradley Headstone and of course the Golden Dustman Boffin himself among the most haunting of them all.

I found myself turning back to Laura Donaldson’s essay ‘Boffin in Paradise, or the Artistry of Reversal in News from Nowhere’ (1990), which is still, as far as I know, the fullest account of Morris’s transformation of Our Mutual Friend in his utopia. Morris’s Boffin – or Henry Johnson, to give him his real name – makes a dazzling appearance to William Guest in the Hammersmith Guest House, hoping to lemon-squeeze plenty of information from Guest for the historical novels he, Boffin, is so fond of writing.

Donaldson gives an excellent account of Morris’s reworking of the 19th-century realist novel in his utopia, and at the end of her essay speculates on Nowhere’s political future beyond the last page of the book itself: ‘Recognizing the possibility that Nowherian society might grow too complacent in its utopian perfection, thereby losing its social vision, Morris ingeniously creates Boffin’s “curious” habit [of novel-writing] as a preventive measure against such a tragic loss’.

Food for thought here, indeed. If we should ever get a sequel to News from Nowhere (and I increasingly feel, 120 years after its publication, that we need one), and if in that sequel Nowhere does indeed politically degenerate, then its Golden Dustman Henry Johnson might, on Laura Donaldson’s showing, be a crucial figure in recognising and challenging those reactionary tendencies. He is certainly, we can say with confidence, far too memorable a character altogether to be introduced for two pages in chapter III and to be more or less entirely dropped thereafter!

Kelmscott 'News from Nowhere'

Professor Antoine Capet’s fine lecture on ‘William Morris and the Arts of the Book’ at Kelmscott House on Saturday 28 November was illustrated for a good stretch of time on a screen behind the speaker by the first page of the Kelmscott edition of News from Nowhere. Gorgeous decorated borders surround the heavy Kelmscott typeface of the text itself, and the first letters of the first words of the first two paragraphs become enormous and elaborately floriated initials, visually dominating the entire page.

And how do those first two paragraphs begin? Well: ‘Up at the League’ kicks the first one off; and ‘Says our friend’ is the beginning of the second. So the giant letters U and S spring at us from the first page of the Kelmscott utopia. U and S or, since the eye slides so readily from one to the other, US. In a chapter which tells of a deeply divided socialist meeting (‘six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented’), the visual layout of the Kelmscott page asserts, against the grain of the printed text itself, that a profound collective identity or ‘US’ underlies the immediate political dissensions.

Morris thus beautifully takes advantage of the serendipity of writing (the letter ‘u’ starting one paragraph, ‘s’ the next) to affirm a serene message of confidence about socialism’s longterm future which still speaks to us so compellingly from the Kelmscott page.

Friday 4 December 2009

Ghostly Goings-On At Kelmscott

I’ve just been reading a collection of Victorian Ghost Stories, first published in 1936 and then reissued as a Senate/Random House paperback in 1996. It features such spine-chilling tales as Le Fanu’s ‘The Dead Sexton’, Sutherland Menzies’ ‘Hugues the Wer-Wolf: A Kentish Legend of the Middle Ages’, Mark Lemon’s intriguing ‘The Ghost Detective’, and many others. Just the volume to curl up with in an arm-chair with a mug of steaming ovaltine on a dark winter’s night while the wind howls eerily outside!

Perusing this volume reminds me that ghost-stories were popular reading material in the Morris family circle. May Morris recalls that in Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus volumes ‘there is a certain ghost-story ... told by the negro African Jack, that father used to read impressively and dramatically, so that when the crisis came, one was positively stiff with excitement, and the pursuing horror of a corpse seemed to be actually wavering on the threshold of the room’ (CW, XXII, xvii).

However, the Morrises not only enjoyed literary ghost-stories, they sometimes found themselves in the midst of what may well have been actual ones. For as Fiona MacCarthy informs us, ‘The occult was a bond between Janey and Rossetti who used to go to séances together. Janey had a definitely spiritualist tendency, giving vivid accounts of ghost activity at Kelmscott: mysterious carriages being driven to the house’ (p.347).

There is a fine Victorian ghost story in the making here, clearly! Could not the Journal of William Morris Studies organise a creative writing competition based upon this snippet from MacCarthy’s biography and offer to publish the entry (no more than 8000 words, say) which most vividly gives us ‘The Strange Adventure of the Ghostly Carriage at Kelmscott Manor’?

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Tennyson in Utopia

In this year of Tennyson’s bi-centenary it is appropriate that we should think through again the relation of William Morris’s verse to that of his great Victorian predecessor, as Peter Faulkner has admirably done in the Summer 2009 issue of the Journal Of William Morris Studies, in an article that ranges across Morris’s letters and prose writings as well as his poetry. Peter’s contrasting of Tennyson and Morris’s Galahad poems, and of their treatments of the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere triangle, could hardly be bettered; and we would all surely concur with his conclusion (which was also that of most Victorian commentators) that, while Tennyson reworks his medieval poetic materials in contemporary, and often moralising, manner, Morris more radically takes us right back into the alien mind-set of his remote Arthurian or Sigurdian epochs.

But there is one significant Tennyson reference in Morris’s works which Peter Faulkner’s very full essay does not pick up. It occurs in News from Nowhere when William Guest admires the sky on the upper Thames: ‘the sky, in short, looked really like a vault, as poets have sometimes called it, and not like mere limitless air, but a vault so vast and full of light that it did not in any way oppress the spirits. It was the sort of afternoon that Tennyson must have been thinking about, when he said of the Lotos-Eaters’ land that it was a land where it was always afternoon’ (ch. XXVII).

Graceful casual allusion to a long-superseded Victorian wordsmith, or worrying suggestion that Morris’s Nowhere, like Tennyson’s Lotos island, may in fact tediously be ‘A land where all things always seemed the same’? Could the utopian ‘epoch of rest’ even conceivably one day slide to and beyond the delicious languor of ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ towards the more morbid stasis of Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’ or ‘The Lady of Shallot’? Is Nowhere after all, for all the social advance it represents upon Victorian London, in the end perhaps too pastoral, too placid, lacking sufficient challenge or stress – as a fair number of critics have over the years alleged?

Morris had certainly by 1890/91 long left Tennyson behind as an active poetic influence, yet his brief Tennyson allusion in News from Nowhere is still capable of pointing us to the most fundamental interpretive and political questions about that utopia – questions on which, even 120 years later, the jury is still out.