Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Morris's Death Day

The fact that today is William Morris’s deathday reminds me of that strange gambit in Morris biography whereby you try your hand at predicting what he might have gone on to do if he had not died at the relatively early age of sixty-two.  Here is his best recent biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, having a go at this in 1996: ‘It is tempting to consider what Morris would have turned his hand to had he lived a few years longer.  Metalwork is the prime candidate’.  But this mode of speculation begins a good deal earlier than that. In a letter to John Quinn of 16 October 1912 May Morris informs him of her father’s interest in Persian literature and continues: ‘If life were longer, I am sure he would have burrowed deep in eastern material – I mean out of the way things – he knew much of the usual Eastern “classics”’.  

I recently discovered, rather to my surprise, that I have contributed to this guessing game myself, in my William Morris in Oxford (2007); for on p.153 of that book I remark that ‘had Morris lived longer’ we might have seen a new, ‘third’ relationship opening up between him and Oxford University, in which cultural co-production might have superseded the passive receptivity of his undergraduate years (first relationship) and the transformative militancy of his middle-aged activist phase in the city (second relationship).  No doubt there are other hypotheses already out there in the Morris scholarship, and it seems unlikely that there will be an end to such post-1896 thought-experiments!