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.



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