Monday, 6 January 2014

Who Killed William Morris?

In 1951 E.P. Thompson published an article with the dramatic title ‘The Murder of William Morris’, though the killing to which he referred was metaphorical rather than literal, a matter of the depoliticising of Morris’s life and work by the American biographer Lloyd Eric Grey. Still, just occasionally Morris scholars have taken Thompson’s title more literally and suggested how their subject might indeed have been killed rather than dying in his bed from the complications of diabetes in October 1896.

A. Clutton-Brock memorably gives us two such scenarios in his 1914 study of Morris. In the chapter on ‘Morris as a Socialist’, he writes: ‘we cannot doubt that, if the revolution which he hoped for had come in his time, he would have been a revolutionary leader; or that, if it had failed, he would have been put to death by the victors. He might also, if it had degenerated into a terror, have been put to death by the victors of his own side. But even, then, we may be sure, he would have died with courage and without despair’ (p.150).

It has been one of the recurrent motifs of this blog, prompted by the extraordinary rise of creative writing courses in university English Literature departments in recent years, that creative means may avail where history, criticism or scholarship let us down. We may not have had that Morrisian revolution in the UK, but could not some aspiring short story writer out there take up Clutton-Brock’s two imaginary scenarios and narratively flesh out for us his powerful political answers to the title of this post: who killed William Morris?


M. Frelock said...

Another, less political answer to your question "who killed Morris?" would be Madeline Wardle, by means of a poisoned cup of coffee. As Fiona MacCarthy writes: "Rossetti later took a macabre revenge, with another of his cruel dramas based on real people. His playlet, The Death of Topsy, has Morris finally disposed of at the hands of his manager George Wardle's wife" (p.344). See pp.344-7 for the full text.

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for the reminder about the Rossetti play. I have a feeling that yet another answer to the question might be, very surprisingly, Jenny Morris. Was there not a moment where, in the grip of her epileptic illness, Jenny was convinced that she had indeed killed her father? I feel that I've come across that story somewhere in the biographies and will hunt for the reference. Can anyone else confirm it from memory?

Makiko Minow-Pinkney said...

Ah yes, here it is, though it's a matter of meningitis rather than epilepsy. "Blunt, expanding on this episode later in his diary, writes that Jenny 'really went mad', imagining she had murdered her father and attempting to throw herself out of the window" (MacCarthy, p.624). Gosh, that poor girl certainly went through the mill.

Tim Holton said...

Mr Pinkney,
Was there not an anarchist plot to throw a molotov cocktail through the window of Morris & Co? Perhaps its aim was not to kill Morris, but it might have. In any case, it was certainly aimed to destroy his work, which for Morris especially was something close to an aim to kill the man.