Wednesday 30 September 2020

Surgery for Utopia

The Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis once had a plan to boldly reorganise George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda.  Not thinking much of the Derondian and Jewish dimensions of the book, he proposed to junk them all and instead rebuild it around its central female character Gwendolen Harleth (to whom Deronda becomes a kind of spiritual mentor during her disastrous marriage to Grandcourt).  Leavis even, apparently, took this drastic proposal to a publisher and planned to bring out a new, slimmed-down novel called, precisely, Gwendolen Harleth.

That dramatic editorial project comes to mind when a colleague writes to me, in disconsolate mode, to announce that when he’s recommended News from Nowhere to his friends they ‘simply failed to see the revolutionary wood for the utopian trees: they never got as far as ‘How the Change Came’ or the upriver journey, because they were turned off by the opening horse-and-cart journey’.  At which point, some Leavisian surgery on Morris’s utopia might surely be in order to give it renewed currency in our own time.

Suppose we produced an edition of News from Nowhere which started with ‘How the Change Came’, which is certainly far and away the most politically complex and narratively gripping portion of the book in its account of a revolutionary civil war – and only then went back to William Guest’s dream-like arrival in the Hammersmith Guest House.  The more socially expository discussions between Guest and old Hammond could still take place later in the British Museum, but the history and politics of Nowhere’s violent coming into being would have been shunted back to the very beginning of the text.  I think that this could be plausibly done, and, since I am retiring from Lancaster University on this very day, I might now have ‘world enough and time’ to have a stab at the necessary editorial work.

This would also be an occasion, as I suggested some years ago (see my post for 16 November 2014), to remove all those self-belittling adjectives – quaint, dainty, pretty, little, and so on – which Morris so unfortunately wove into the verbal texture of his utopia.  With revolution and civil war breaking out on the text’s very first page, and those ubiquitous self-diminishing epithets gone, a leaner, meaner, more muscular News from Nowhere would surely emerge.



Saturday 19 September 2020

J.W. Mackail: Imagist

One of the minor thematic strands of this blog has been to develop a case that Morris’s official biographer J. W Mackail is a figure who demands some – perhaps not a great deal, but at least some – literary attention in his own right.  So I am glad to come across this mention of him in George Sampson’s Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (1943), one of those admirable old-fashioned histories of the subject that nobody writes any more: ‘John William Mackail has to his credit excellent biographies of William Morris (1899) and George Wyndham (1925) as well as some equally excellent critical essays, including the delightful and illuminating Latin Literature (1895), The Springs of Helicon (1909), Lectures on Poetry (1911), and Studies of English Poets (1926); but his fame is perhaps most firmly established by his translations, especially Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1890).  Mackail’s classical scholarship is of the exquisite kind’. 

Used in critical parlance today, the adjective ‘exquisite’ would no doubt damn with faint praise; we want our classical scholarship to be robust rather than lapidary, Dionysian rather than Apollonian, in Nietzsche’s terms.  But for Sampson himself, it is presumably wholeheartedly positive.  And that he is right to thus use the word of Mackail is shown by the curious literary-historical fact that the Select Epigrams was a significant book for the Imagist poets of the early twentieth century.  Turning as they did to far-flung literary sources which would help them renew what they saw as the abstract verbiage of the late-Victorian poetic tradition, they found Mackail’s versions of the Greek epigram as relevant to them as that other exotic miniature form, the Japanese haiku.  So Morris’s culturally conservative biographer paradoxically plays at least some small role in enabling one of the avantgarde literary movements of the twentieth century.