Friday, 30 April 2021

Utopians in Oxford

Let us try to recall our very first reading of Morris’s utopia where, as William Guest, Dick and Clara set off by boat from Hammersmith Guest House, we were not yet sure of what the final destination of this upriver journey may be.  The only critic I know who has ventured at all in this direction is Norman Talbot, who observes that ‘we feel certain the destination must be either Oxford or his beloved Kelmscott’.  Let us suppose, as a thought-experiment, that it were Oxford, that Morris’s characters disembark in the university city and do not travel further upriver. 


Would News from Nowhere be a better utopia if it had ended in Oxford, a place, we must suppose, of continuing mental energy rather than of the outdoor harvest work of Kelmscott itself?  Morris would then have had the chance to show us in detail what a communist university looks like, just as Ernest Callenbach sketches the lineaments of an ecological research institute in his Ecotopia of 1975.  We might have met some of the scientists who had developed those enigmatic but technologically advanced ‘force-vehicles’ that Guest and his fellow-travellers have seen on the Thames.  A post-revolutionary Oxford certainly might have suited Ellen nicely, given her own intellectual liveliness and taste for long historical perspectives.  She might successfully have reintegrated herself into Nowherian life here, after the spell of isolation with her grandfather at Runnymede.


 We may even speculate as to whether the time-travelling William Guest might not have been able to remain in utopia if the book had ended in Oxford rather than Kelmscott.  Might not the transfigured university have afforded him the chance of becoming a lecturer in Victorian history in the way that Edward Bellamy’s narrator Julian West does in Looking Backward, where he ends up teaching in the Historical Section of Shawmutt College in the future Boston of that socialist utopia?  Ellen notes that Guest is too wrapped up in his endless past-present contrast to fully belong to the younger utopians in the Kelmscott fields, but this might have been the very quality that would make him a vividly firsthand history lecturer at Oxford.


Indeed, the benefits of ending in Oxford might have been felt not just by Guest, but by News from Nowhere itself.  For one recurrent objection to Morris’s utopia is that it is excessively pastoral, too placid and idyllic, too dismissive of intellectual debate and scientific innovation.   To have closed in a university city rather than among the fields of Kelmscott would have made that charge against the book much harder to sustain.  Someone should surely write a new version of News from Nowhere in which Oxford is its terminus.

 

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