Wednesday, 13 June 2018

William Morris in Preston

Listening to the audience responding to Terry Eagleton’s talk at the Hay Festival the other day reminded me how often, in local press coverage of Morris’s own socialist lecturing tours, we get excellently detailed reports of the queries and challenges his audiences put to him.  One memorable example of this is the article ‘Conference with a Socialist’ in the Preston Guardian for 25 October 1884, reporting on Morris’s talk in that city on ‘A Socialist’s View of Art and Labour’, which was chaired by the Unitarian minister William Sharman.  The lecture, according to the reporter, was ‘mostly read from a voluminous roll of manuscript’, and ‘There was a good attendance’, though disappointingly he doesn’t give an actual figure.

Morris’s lecture is effectively summarised, and then the fun begins.  The first question came from a Mr Greenhalgh: ‘a query with regard to the Socialists on the Continent: Were they not a political body trying to subvert society in its present form?’  Various speakers challenged what Mr Geo. Bancroft describes as ‘the Lecturer’s laudatory descriptions of the artisans of the Middle Ages’; and ‘Another person wanted to know what plans were to be taken to make “all folk of one web”’, i.e. economically equal despite their varying capacities.  Mr Newsham asked about the means of social transformation proposed by the Democratic Federation: ‘What modus operandi must they adopt to bring about change without serious trouble and anxiety?’  One local gentleman seemed to have a bee in his bonnet about working-class intemperance: ‘Did he [Morris] not think there would be less destitution in England if the 136 millions spent in drink annually was spent on what he called art’.  And ‘the concluding question was as to whether the working classes had derived benefits from the improvements of machinery’.

It seems that all the questions were asked in one block, and Morris must have been making notes furiously, since he then answered them all in what amounts to a second speech.  It might be interesting to pursue my Eagleton/Morris comparison a little further, and to compare the typical questions addressed to Morris across the whole range of his political lectures, not just the 1884 Preston talk, with those ten standard criticisms of Marx and Marxism which Eagleton ventriloquises, and then powerfully answers, in his 2011 volume Why Marx Was Right.   


Tony Pinkney said...

The local press is not always so obliging with accounts of audience response for the Morris scholar, however. Even the 'Preston Guardian' itself, two years later, in reporting on Morris's November 1886 lecture in the city, notes that 'Afterwards several questions were asked and admirably answered', and that's it!

Jan Marsh said...

Dear Tony

one of the audience questions to WM quoted here, viz:

'the Socialists on the Continent: Were they not a political body trying to subvert society in its present form?'

prompts me to wonder if the questioner had been reading Henry James' Princess Cassamassima, published 1884, which features such a bunch of Socialists [albeit rather shadowy] who were supposedly attempting to do just this. Do you know if anyone has written on HJ and the SDF etc?
WM makes a fleeting appearance in the novel [as a Socialist but not a conspirator] and as HJ is said to have done research into the prison where the main protagonist's mother is held before execution, I'm wondering if he's known to have investigated the Socialist world also?


Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for this, Jan. It's many years since I read 'The Princess Cassamassima', but the idea of further investigation into Henry James's own researches into the contemporary socialist movement is certainly a good one. As I'm sure you know, Morris memorably describes James as "the clever historian of the deadly corruption of society, the laureate of the flirts, sneaks, and empty fools of which that society is mostly composed, and into whose hearts (?) he can see so clearly' ('Commonweal', vol 4, no 153, 15 December 1888, p.397).

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