Saturday 26 October 2019

River Journeys

Yesterday I taught News from Nowhere in my Utopias seminar, and I felt once more that the Thames journey, which makes the second half of the book so vivid and memorable, possibly takes the wrong direction, that Guest, Dick and Clara should have headed down the Thames towards and beyond my hometown Southend-on-sea, rather than upriver through Oxford to Kelmscott.  This wasn’t particularly a thought I could share with my seminar group, since I need them to understand the text as it is, not as it might be, but it is one that has been pressing on me recently.  The Morris Society trip upriver this summer, immensely genial though that seemed to be for the participants, put it into my mind once more.

It’s not that I’m biased against upriver Thames trips just because I grew up in Southend, where the river debouches past the famous pier into the North Sea.  After all, I was a postgraduate student at Oxford and got married in Abingdon, so I love all that dimension of News from Nowhere.  Morris’s utopia is in fact one of the few Victorian literary texts to mention Abingdon, or at least a transfigured version of it – ‘We stopped again at Abingdon … lifted out of its nineteenth-century degradation’ (ch.XXVII) – so I’m very glad of that, personally speaking.

But the trip upriver in the book leads us deep into the heart of a mythic Englishness, a pastoral quietude of almost mystic dimensions – narrow reaches, willow trees, reed-warblers, and so on; and that quasi-religious aura then embodies itself in an actual church, at Kelmscott, where the book’s final harvest feast takes place.  Whereas a downriver journey, to and beyond Southend, would have led to widening vistas, faster currents, a turbulent Channel, and the whole of Europe, rather than just Kelmscott village, beyond.

Victorian literature certainly does have such downriver trips, though they are usually written in the mode of Gothic or of detective fiction: Pip and Magwitch being intercepted by the police and Compeyson as they flee down the Thames in Great Expectations; or Holmes, Watson and the police pursuing Jonathan Small and his killer tribesman Tonga downriver in The Sign of Four.  So it would take some very serious utopian reimagining to transfigure these dark and murderous boat journeys.  But a News from Nowhere that had run the river traffic that way might, I can’t help feeling, have been a more energetic and open utopia than one that deposits its travellers on the riverbank at Kelmscott Manor.

Sunday 13 October 2019

Gestures in Utopia: 2

I’ve always liked those new gestures that Francis Bacon invents in his 1627 utopian fragment New Atlantis.  An inhabitant of the island of Bensalem ‘lifted up his right hand towards heaven, and drew it softly to his mouth (which is the gesture they use when they thank God)’.  The passers-by who witness the visitors to utopia making their way to the House of Strangers ‘put their arms abroad a little, which is their gesture when they bid any welcome’.  And the official at that institution gives his instructions to those visitors by ‘lifting up his cane a little, (as they do when they give any charge or command)’.  There’s an implicit recognition in all this, surely, that utopian transformation will not just affect the major economic and political structures of a society, but will have to bed itself deep down into the substance of the human body too.

Does Morris give us enough sense of a transformed body in News from Nowhere?  There are certainly some memorable gestures in the book, as when Ellen stands with ‘one hand laid on her bosom, the other arm stretched downward and clenched in her earnestness’.  But this is an individual rather than social manifestation, and thus is not quite what I’m after here.  And let’s hope that Robert the weaver’s patronising gesture to one of the Hammersmith Guest House women – ‘patted her on the head in a friendly manner’ – is an individual lapse rather than a new social habit.

The characters in Morris’s Thames valley typically ‘saunter’ rather than ’walk’, so bodily movement has clearly slowed down in this utopia.  And there’s a great deal of neighbourly hand-holding, not only between men and women, as when the Hammersmith waitresses ‘took us by the hands and led us to a table’, but also between men, as when Dick Hammond takes William Guest into the British Museum: he ‘took my hand, and saying “Come along, then!” … ‘.  But though Morris is much concerned with the transformed body in utopia, this tends to be in terms of general health and activity rather of the specific invention of new gestures.  So in this respect New Atlantis, mere fragment though it is, might have had some useful lessons for him.