Sunday 28 October 2012

Jimmy Savile and the Victorian Novel

In Morris’s The Water of the Wondrous Isles the heroine Birdalone is kidnapped as a baby and brought up abusively by a witch in the aptly named forest of Evilshaw. The figure of the harshly abused child – often an orphan, as Birdalone is not – is one of the recurrent icons of Victorian fiction: Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, or Pip in Great Expectations. I’ve been teaching these books to students for years with the comfortable feeling – never explicitly formulated between us, but I think definitely in mind on both sides – that such child abuse was specific to the Victorian period and that it certainly was not, could not be, happening pervasively around us in our own enlightened epoch.

But now the Jimmy Savile case has blown that complacency right out of the water. It is not just that the eccentric BBC disc jockey has been exposed as a sexual predator on children on an industrial scale, but rather that we are seeing how widespread such abuse is, with the Rochdale child sex ring recently and many victims of other abusers now coming forward in the wake of the Savile scandal. And child sex abuse then links up with other kinds of abuse of vulnerable groups that we have learnt of lately – the Patients Association 2009 report into nurses’ neglect of and cruelty towards the elderly in the NHS, or the brutality of private care nurses at Winterbourne to patients with learning disabilities – to the point where you can begin to feel, as indeed is the case in the Victorian novel, that almost the whole of society is riddled with cruelty and exploitation.

I’m inclined to feel that it is capitalism itself which is ultimately behind all such specific instances of abuse, that its predatory ethos which involves treating others as mere opportunities for personal gain (what Morris himself might have termed ‘devil take the hindmost’), ripples out from the economy into all aspects of human life, in both the Victorian period and our own. But that confidence has been shaken too; perhaps this is too glibly political a point to make, though I don’t want to tip over into a theory of original sin either. For I still feel that even if there were the occasional case of child or elder abuse in a socialist society like that of News from Nowhere, at least the prevailing cooperative ethos of that culture would prevent it from ever becoming systemic, as it now seems to be with us.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Class Justice at the Boat Race

‘There is a dreadful thing called a “Boat Race” in our part of London, which I am only too glad to avoid’, wrote Jane Morris on 20 March 1885. Whether she thought the Oxford-Cambridge contest on the Thames was dreadful because it is elitist, which is the reason protestor Trenton Oldfield gave for disrupting it by swimming into the path of the boats on 7 April this year, I do not know. Quite possibly: having grown up in squalid lodgings in Oxford’s Holywell Street, with her ostler father looking after the horses of university gentlemen and her brother William employed as a college servant, Jane may well have had ambivalent feelings towards the ancient universities. Trenton Oldfield has recently been sentenced for his boat race protest, getting a swingeing six months in jail for peacefully interrupting this ‘dreadful’ sporting event. Thus the English establishment, loud in its condemnation of Pussy Riot’s two-year jail sentence for political protest in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, hypocritically protects its own class-based pleasures at home. One can imagine Morris himself angrily denouncing the vindictive sentence on Oldfield in one of his trenchant little Notes on News in Commonweal.

Monday 22 October 2012

Writing Oxford, Writing Morris

My colleague John Schad has for some years been making it his personal mission to erode the generic boundary between literary criticism and theory, on the one hand, and creative writing on the other. I recently sat through a dramatised reading of his 2007 book Someone Called Derrida: An Oxford Mystery, a philosophical detective story which interweaves the Oxonian experiences of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida with those of John’s father there and elsewhere, a very unsettling mix indeed. Having published my own Oxford book in 2007 - William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895 - I now wonder if I wasn’t too generically timid in that project. Certainly I tried to find a lively mode of narration, but the book is basically a standard scholarly study of its topic. Yet Schadian boundary-breaking suggests that it could have been done quite differently.

We know that on his sea journey back from Norway in August 1896 Morris was afflicted by sinister hallucinations. Could William Morris in Oxford not have been written in that mode, then, as a disjointed stream-of-consciousness in which episodes, themes and figures from his Oxford campaigning years recur to Morris in eerily heightened fashion, with the Ashmolean metamorphosing suddenly into St Marks in Venice, the gaunt medieval statues and gargoyles on St Marys Church coming alive and preaching communism on Port Meadow, and the socialist chimney sweep William Hines assaulting the Master of Balliol with his brush in Broad Street? My text might thus have been as fragmentary as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and any unity or meaning it has would have to be actively constructed by the reader rather than being guaranteed in advance by the conventions of scholarly narrative. Surely our task as Morrisians in the years to come will indeed be to forge what Roland Barthes would term writerly or scriptible rather than readerly or lisible modes of writing about our hero.

Thursday 18 October 2012

All for the Cause

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending Professor Roger Bromley’s Inaugural Lecture on ‘Keeping the Narrative Alive: Reading and Writing the Arab Spring’, which also launched Lancaster University’s new ‘Writing for Liberty’ lecture series. Roger marvellously evoked the energy and courage of writers in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria as they lend their literary talents to the revolutionary cause. And his trenchant accounts of works like Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and Samar Yazbek’s Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution gave a vivid sense of the complex formal strategies such authors have adopted to narrate social upheaval – realism being only one relevant means among many others.

Roger also broached issues of the concept of literature operative here. What is, or should be, the relation of the writer to the people’s cause? Full-blooded commitment, in Sartrean fashion, or should literature in some sense be above the immediate struggle, taking more complex and longer-term views? William Morris made his own very forthright choice in this respect in the English political battles of the 1880s, abandoning the languorous role of ‘idle singer of an empty day’ for that of militant author of Chants for Socialists, Pilgrims of Hope, etc. If the aim of the Arab demonstrators was, as Roger asserted, ‘to reclaim squares’ in their cities, then that was no less true for Morris and Trafalgar Square than it has been for the Egyptians and Tahrir.

Roger Bromley has long been an important figure in the development of British cultural studies, and it is good to see that mode of analysis, fashioned by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall from the late 1950s on, still capable of resourcefully engaging the most stirring political events of our own epoch. But what Roger’s superb account of Arab Spring literature, music and blogging most convinced me of is that deeply Morrisian discussions of the relation of culture and politics may fruitfully take place without once mentioning Morris’s name or the 1880s. Indeed, we may be most true to Morris when we leave his specific history quite behind us and fully engage our own.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Kelmscott Wine

In a letter of 25 April 1912 to John Quinn, May Morris wrote: ‘Sweetheart, I drank your health on the 23rd – in wine made at Kelmscott and very good wine too ... We are quite proud of our vintage’. I don’t recall any references to wine-making at Kelmscott in Morris’s own letters (though he does mention jam-making), so perhaps this practice post-dated him. Nor does May give any more detail about her Kelmscott vintage, so what are the possibilities here?

The manor’s gardens yielded cherries, strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, apples and plums, any one of which might have been used to produce a traditional country wine. We hear less about vegetables from the kitchen garden, but there are possibilities here too (they grew peas at Kelmscott, so May might have made pea-pod wine, for example). From the elder trees in the garden both blossom and berries could be used in wine-making, as could mulberries from the mulberry tree (my own best home-brewing effort was elderberry wine, as it happens, though our rowanberry brew was interesting too). Flowers are also an option, from the garden - roses or primroses - or the riverside (could there be such a thing as fritillary wine, I wonder?); and the nearby hawthorn hedges would afford blossom and berries. Local farmers grew barley, wheat, beans, mangolds, sugar beets, peas and vetches, all of which have their viticultural uses.

Moreover, May Morris once described her Hammersmith Terrace home as ‘set in a bower of grape-vines at the back’, and vines grew against the house-wall at Kelmscott manor too. So in the end, it seems, we have a positive embarras du choix for the origins of her Kelmscott vintage.

Monday 1 October 2012

William Morris Communist: 2

I am a great admirer of David Leopold’s edition of News from Nowhere for the Oxford World's Classics series. It’s a handy and reasonably priced volume, the Introduction is a superb account of Morris’s thought as whole as well as of News from Nowhere in particular, and the notes at the end are full and helpful. None the less, reading David’s Introduction through again, I have a significant reservation about it this time round: for it does not once use the words ‘communism’ or ‘communist’ to describe Morris’s politics, either in his utopia or more generally.

Why should this matter? First, and philologically, because News from Nowhere does use these terms a fair number of times, so an Introduction as good as this should offer at least some account of them. William Guest finds himself amidst ‘the present rest and happiness of complete Communism’ (ch.XXVII). Enlightened men in the late-Victorian period, old Hammond tells us, concluded that ‘the only reasonable condition of Society was that of pure Communism (such as you now see around you)’ (ch.XVII). Narrating the revolution, he then speaks of ‘the spread of communistic theories ... a simple condition of Communism ... the Communism which now loomed ... a system of life founded on equality and Communism’ (ch.XVII). Chapter XV is headed ‘On the Lack of Incentive to Labour in a Communist Society’, and as Hammond describes the operation of local democracy in Nowhere he asks Guest ironically, ‘a terrible tyranny our Communism, is it not?’ (ch.XIV).

Second, and politically, because after the long twentieth-century experience of what did indeed prove to be ‘terrible tyrannies’ in the name of Communism, some key figures on the Left such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek are now asking whether it might not be time to use the term ‘communism’ again, as the basis of a new emancipatory politics for the twenty-first century. On these two grounds, then, of Morris’s own usage and our contemporary politics, I hope that any future edition of David Leopold’s News from Nowhere might tackle this term and topic.