Tuesday 30 March 2021

William Morris at Verso

William Morris for the Corbynistas?  That is the way in which, in his general Introduction, Owen Hatherley pitches Owen Holland’s new collection of Morris’s political writings, which (as far as I can recall) is the first sustained attention the leftwing publisher Verso has paid to Morris since Perry Anderson’s fine chapter on ‘Utopias’ in his Arguments within English Marxism (1980).

Hatherley evokes ‘our current moment, when the first attempt in many decades to crash Socialism into Parliament has comprehensively failed, leaving a generation of young socialists bitterly angry and disorientated’.  They could, accordingly, ‘do much worse than turn to these serene, wise and humane essays, and they may find a vision of socialism that appeals to them in particular’.

 Yet it’s noteworthy that Hatherley, as a self-declared ‘modernist’, has some significant problems with Morris’s socialism.  ‘There are certain ideas of “nature” and “manliness” that are sometimes now hard to take”, and he feels more tempted by the realm of culture and media – ‘a Victorian theatre or a 1930s cinema’ – than Morris’s vision of nature and ‘fields in general’.  Hence he prefers Oscar Wilde’s inflection of Morris’s ideas to Morris tout court (since ‘socialism should have space for perverts’), and he refers rather dismissively to News from Nowhere as a ‘retro-utopia’.

Still, there is also much here to be grateful for: the emphasis on Morris’s vision of the social totality, on his clear-sighted diagnosis of reformism, and the unashamed and celebratory use of the term ‘communism’ for Morris’s overall political vision (this last is true of both editors, incidentally).  So we should all be glad to have this volume, which will replace our ancient, increasingly tattered copies of A.L. Morton’s Political Writings of William Morris (1973).  About time too!


Monday 22 March 2021

From Morris to Lawrence

The first sentence of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love reads as follows: ‘Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen sat one morning in the window-bay of their father’s house in Beldover, working and talking’.  In his old Penguin edition of the novel, Charles Ross adds a note to the third word here, the name ‘Gudrun’, so we dutifully turn to the back pages of the paperback.

The lengthy note reads thus: ‘In Teutonic legend the rival of Brynhild for the affections of Sigurd.  She dreams her role in the ensuing blood-feud: to steal Sigurd from Brynhild by magic, to watch him slain by Brynhild in revenge, and to repay in kind by marrying and murdering Atle, Brynhild’s brother.  Such is the legend in Volsunga Saga, adapted by William Morris in The Story of Sigurd (1876).  Morris also wrote "The Lovers of Gudrun" in The Earthly Paradise (1869), an adaptation of the Laxdaela Saga which ends with the husband-slayer lamenting: “I did the worst to him I loved the most”’.

Well, Women in Love is a modernist rather than realist novel, so it is open to legendary and mythological resonances in a way that something like George Eliot’s Middlemarch would on principle not be, and the later Loerke/Loki linkage in the book has often been noted.  But whether Lawrence’s novel is as fully in the grip of a Morris-mediated Teutonising as Ross’s early and weighty footnote implies, I’m not quite sure.  It would be interesting to see a fullscale reading of the book which tried to enforce in detail the Morris-Lawrence lineage suggested here.