Wednesday 9 June 2010

H.G. Wells on the Coach House

Those of us who attend Morris Society meetings in the Coach House at Kelmscott House, and who feel that this is a special, well-nigh sacred space for both socialism and utopia due to its historical associations from the 1880s and 90s, might be both amused and bemused by the Coach House’s strange transmogrifications in H.G. Wells’s memories of those days in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934).

He begins by announcing that ‘William Morris held meetings in a sort of conservatory beside his house’ (p.238), moves on to reflect, in the warm glow of memory, on sitting ‘in that little out-house at Hammersmith, a raw student again’ (p.244), and finally ends up, 350 pages later, with a last reference to ‘the old days in William Morris’s greenhouse meetings’ (p.597)!

Is Wells being deliberately belittling here? It’s hard to tell – I find the tone of such passages difficult to gauge. However, I’m rather more impressed by his pronouncement that, en route to such meetings, he and his socialist friends were ‘wearing red ties to give zest’ to the occasion (p.265). Perhaps this is a habit we today might revive, keeping not the red flag but at least the red tie provocatively flying in the Morrisian ‘greenhouse’ in these postmodernly cynical times.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

William Morris From the Other Side

In an essay in the current issue of the Journal of William Morris Studies I propose that we try reading News from Nowhere as a piece of ‘séance fiction’. In this generic thought-experiment, we can envisage the Nowherians holding a kind of seance to summon back the spirit of the long-departed William Guest, who may then assist them in dealing with some of the problems of their utopian society.

Other writers have, however, been rather less metaphorical with the notion of séance as applied to Morris and his works than I have. Thus it is that in 1936 there appeared an extraordinary book by the medium May Hughes, entitled From Heavenly Spheres: A Book Written By Inspiration from William Morris Poet Socialist and Idealist, Who Passed on – October 3rd 1896. It begins with Morris announcing: ‘In this book, written by me from the other side of the veil called Death, I will endeavour to describe … the different phases of life as lived on these planes’ (p.7).

Before dismissing the whole volume as so much hocus-pocus, we ought to pause, I think, taking a lesson here from FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder of The X-Files who, unlike his rationalist colleague Dana Scully, famously ‘wants to believe’. How might such a book persuade us that it in fact was by Morris? What criteria would it have to satisfy to make this at all plausible? After all, if William Guest turns up in the mid-22nd century, why shouldn’t William Morris turn up at a séance in 1936? Heaven knows we could have done with him - with Fascism so powerfully on the move across Europe - returning to us like King Arthur in difficult times.

On his death bed in 1896, according to Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, Morris announced to Mary de Morgan that ‘I cannot believe that I shall be annihilated’; and perhaps, on the evidence of May Hughes’s From Heavenly Spheres, he wasn’t.