Thursday, 11 December 2008

Mrs Dalloway, London, William Morris

In their iconoclastic youthful days at the country home Bourton, the characters of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) secretly read the political writings of William Morris. Clarissa Dalloway recalls that ‘Aunt Helena never liked discussion of anything (when Sally gave her William Morris it had to be wrapped in brown paper) ... They meant to found a society to abolish private property’.

Given Morris’s intense presence in Clarissa and Sally’s youth, does he still somehow survive 30 years later, in the novel’s present, the London of 1923? Clarissa does at one point conclude that there is ‘an unseen part of us, which spreads wide [and] might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death’. Might Morris, then, haunt the London of Mrs Dalloway?

As Peter Walsh strolls into Trafalgar Square should we be spectrally aware of the events which took place there on Bloody Sunday, 13 November 1887? Well, perhaps, since Peter, after all, ‘had been a Socialist’. When Miss Kilman takes refuge in Westminster Abbey should we be latently aware of Morris’s own efforts on behalf of this building, in his campaigns for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings? And is it just accident that Richard Dalloway will later order up Imperial Tokay, William Morris’s favourite wine, from his cellars?

What is certain, at any rate, is that the latent Morrisian presence in this book is strong enough to generate the curious family – Mr and Mrs Morris and their children Charles and Elaine – that Peter Walsh meets at dinner in his Bloomsbury hotel towards the end of the novel. These 1920 Morrises have nothing much in common with the family of their great socialist namesake, yet, as Peter Walsh concludes, with an ardour that seems more appropriate to the nineteenth-century Morrises than to their Bloomsbury hotel counterparts, ‘no family in the world can compare with the Morrises’. Amen to that!

Dallowayan London is thus arguably also Morrisian London, and the 1920s are haunted by the 1880s. We would therefore benefit from a more systematic Morris-orientated reading of Mrs Dalloway and of Woolf in general, and there might be a more far-reaching lesson here about the persistence of a Morrisian spatial and political ‘unconscious’ in modernist works that may, on the surface, seem to have spurned his social and aesthetic legacy.

Monday, 8 December 2008

'Envisioning Utopia' Conference

The Whitworth Art Gallery’s well-attended event on ‘Envisioning Utopia: Art and Socialist Politics, 1870-1900’ on December 5-6th was built around its 5000-piece Walter Crane visual archive, some of which was simultaneously on display in a fine exhibition entitled ‘Art and Labour’s Cause is One: Walter Crane and Manchester, 1880-1915’.

Professor Tim Barringer of Yale University kicked off the conference with a learned overview of ‘Ford Madox Brown in Manchester’, demonstrating how consistently across his career Brown had sought to produce ‘history painting for the industrial age’. In a session on ‘The City’ Matthew Beaumont offered an astute analysis of ‘Socialism and Occultism in late-Victorian London’, in which the young W.B. Yeats turned out to be a crucial figure in mediating between William Morris’s Socialism and Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy; ‘universal brotherhood’ was a central value for both movements, as Annie Besant would proclaim when she herself converted to Theosophy. Ruth Livesey followed up with a study of ‘Art and Socialism in Leeds: The Ford Sisters and the Leeds Art Club’, which persuasively showed what a slippery mode allegory was for political artists like Emily Ford, how it could be reinscribed by different verbal captioning in different contexts of reception.

A session on ‘The Country’ then had Michael Hatt celebrating Edward Carpenter’s enthusiasm for songs and singing. If democracy, for Carpenter, involves new somatic and sexual as well as political relations, then the act of singing, as it roots one joyously in the body, provides a utopian experience of what the desired political future might actually feel like, here and now. Anna Vaninskaya gave an illuminating analysis of the Socialist Sunday School movement, persuasively demonstrating that its stress on the cycle of the seasons, on Nature and fieldwork for children, was always kept in dialectical relation to the ‘human note’, to a concern for the social relations of rural life and agricultural labour.

In the final session on ‘The World’, Jo Briggs looked at the ways Walter Crane’s doubts during the Boer War about the political efficacy of his lifelong anti-imperialism found expression in, among other things, his Don Quixote illustrations of 1900; and Sarah Turner showed that Crane’s involvement with the India Society and the Festival of Empire in 1910-11 was part of his ‘cosmopolitan nationalism’, as expressed earlier in his India Impressions of 1907 and later in his designs for a ‘World Order of Socialism’ badge.

Pushing the story into the early twentieth century in this way reminded us that a whole new socialist visual culture was about to come into being, that associated with Bolshevism: the Tatlin Tower, Soviet posters and film, Constructivist design. And the more pastoral tradition of Crane and Morris, with its gently meandering stems and leaves, its winged figures and fruit trees, its slow rowing expeditions up the utopian Thames, was then shouldered aside by the leaner, meaner, more industrial and urban Soviet iconography.

For us in the early twenty-first century, both traditions are compelling, as is beautifully demonstrated in the contemporary visual work of David Mabb. In Mabb’s powerfully unsettling images, Morrisian pastoralism and Constructivist avant-gardism exist tensely side by side: there is no easy either-or choice between them, but no glib Hegelian synthesis of the two visual languages is possible either. In our environmentalist age, the Morris-Crane tradition has acquired new pertinence, but we shall also want our utopias to go through and beyond industrial modernity, not just to revert primitivistically behind it.

To what extent the Whitworth conference truly illuminated its overt topic, ‘Envisioning Utopia’, I’m not sure; the term ‘utopia’ didn’t actually get used a lot during the event. But it did abundantly demonstrate just how lively the oppositional visual cultures of the 1880s and 1890s were, and how much intense scholarly interest there is in this field today.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

To boldly William-Morris ...

The only use I know of Morris's full name as a verb is in F.R. Leavis's Nor Shall My Sword (1972), which forthrightly declares: 'I have not been William-Morrising, and I have proposed no ideal condition of humanity to be found in any past'. Leavis's strong rejection of Morris here is a curious one, however, given that two of the book's three epigraphs actually refer to him in positive terms.

We have an excellent survey by Peter Faulkner of 'William Morris and the Scrutiny Tradition', where he persuasively demonstrates that Leavis and the Scrutineers 'failed ... to recognise what a vaulable ally they might have had in William Morris' (Journal of William Morris Studies, XVI, 4, Summer 2006, 27-46).

This is certainly true at the level of explicit social attitudes, but I wonder if there might be another way of telling the Morris-Leavis story, with T.S. Eliot as a necessary intermediary. For it seems to me that the utopian values that Ruskin and Morris find in the labour of the medieval craftsman on the Gothic cathedral - the union of artistic creativity with manual skill, in effect, of intellectual and manual labour - comes through as a linguistic value in Eliot and Leavis.

In Eliot's great 'Metaphysical Poets' essay the witty conceit in Donne or Chapman achieves 'a direct sensuous apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling'. Only thereafter does the famous 'dissociation of sensibility' set in, whereupon thought and feeling go their own tragically separate ways, as intellectual and manual labour will under capitalism for Ruskin and Morris. Leavis's own term for this holistic poetic integration of senses and intellect is 'Shakespearean English'.

What is a fully social position in Ruskin and Morris dwindles to a position about language in Eliot and Leavis; but it is the very same utopianism, none the less, with the medieval cathedral metamorphosed into the more portable Metaphysical conceit or challenging modernist metaphor. So for all his overt repudiations or silences about Morris, Leavis is in the end, with this holistic utopianism at the very core of his thought about language, no less of a romantic anti-capitalist than Morris himself. Leavis thus after all William-Morrises a good deal more than he realises!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Utopias Editor Recants

Readers of John Carey's splendid Faber Book of Utopias (1999) will have been struck by how dismissive he is in his editorial comments to the section of News from Nowhere that he presents in his book. Morris's utopian scheme, Carey remarks, 'ignores virtually every basic factor of social and economic reality', and displays 'in its adequacies, the confusion and hypocrisy that have dogged the course of English Socialism' (p.316).

These are hard words, but it appears that the former Merton Professor of English at Oxford University has mellowed over the years; for more recently he writes (in a personal communication to the author, 6.03.08): 'You should not pay much attention to my views on WM. My main grudge against him is that he is so rude about Hammersmith Bridge, to which I fondly recall being taken to feed the seagulls when I was a child'.

Perhaps we could have this comment appended to any future edition of the book itself...?

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Lectures in Japan

Tony Pinkney will shortly be giving the following lectures in Japan:

1. 'Greening News from Nowhere: Morris's Utopia and Contemporary Ecotopias', Ruskin Library of Tokyo, Saturday 1st November 2008, 1pm onwards.

2. 'Postmodernising News from Nowhere: Morris, Jameson, Utopia', Keio University (Mita Campus), Sunday 2nd November, 2pm onwards.

3. 'Japanising News from Nowhere: Japan in Morris's Utopia', Otani University, Kyoto, Wednesday 5th November, 1.30pm onwards.

Monday, 6 October 2008

WM's Book of Ballads

In an interview on the Kelmscott Press given to the journal Bookselling in 1895 William Morris declared cheerfully that 'The books I would like to print are the books I love to read and keep. I should be delighted to do the old English ballads - and I will some day'.

In fact, however, he never did so: his death in October 1896 put an end to this proposed ballad collection, as it did to so many other Kelmscott Press projects; it became yet another Morrisian Book That Never Was. Of all the lost Kelmscott works, it was this one which his daughter May most lamented in editing her father's Collected Works: 'Of all these, I think the non-fulfilment of the Ballad volume is most to be regretted; it would have been a mirror of his taste in traditional poetry, and interesting to see what he chose and what left out'.

We will certainly never now get that lost ballad book back in anything like its full form. But may it not be possible to collect the references to both ballads in general and individual ballads across Morris's copious writings and reconstruct from these something like the lost volume? A glancing mention of a ballad in, for example, a political lecture is a clue that Morris may have been sufficiently interested in it to have included it one day in his ballad collection. To be sure, as Morris and SPAB so often reminded us, a restoration or reconstruction is a poor substitute for the original itself; but in this particular instance, where no original now remains, a speculative reconstruction is the best we are ever going to get.

So there is double task here: for a determined reader to glean all those scattered references to ballads across the immense reaches of the Collected Works, and for an enterprising publisher to get the results - William Morris's Book of Ballads - out into the public realm.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Utopia's Minor Characters

Utopias frequently contain minor or even marginal characters who have very much more narrative potential than the books’ main plot lines (insofar as utopia does have a plot) seem to allow for them.

Take, for instance, the child Ini, whom the utopian anarchist Shevek meets on his visits to the Pae household in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. ‘He represented something to the child which Ini could not describe. Even much later in his life, which was profoundly and obscurely influenced by that childhood fascination, Ini found no words for it, only words that held an echo of it: the word voyager, the word exile’ (ch 7).

Or take, from Morris’s News from Nowhere, the daughter of Philippa the Obstinate Refuser: ‘a taller woman, quite a girl she seemed, who was at work nearby, had already knocked off, and was standing looking from Clara to Dick with delighted eyes. None of the others paid much heed to us … she turned out to be Philippa’s daughter, but was a tall strong girl, black-haired and gipsey-like of face and curiously solemn of manner … [Philippa] only shrugged her shoulders when her daughter came up to her and touched her’ (ch XXVI).

Such intriguing details may be no more than what Roland Barthes terms the ‘effet du réel’, whereby, through its surplus of signification, a narrative attempts to give persuasive groundedness to its fictional world. But Ini and Philippa’s daughter surely also take us beyond that immediate world, whether Le Guin’s Urras or Morris’s Nowhere. We want to know what kind of profound and obscurely influenced life the boy Ini subsequently leads, and we ask ourselves why Morris’s young woman is so fascinated by Dick and Clara, why her manner should be so curiously solemn, why her mother’s final gesture to her is so cold and unfriendly, and above all what may become of such a tantalising figure in the years ahead.

Such narrative promises are not kept, in either text, but they have none the less been made; and in such tiny ways, I would suggest, utopias begin to sketch the outline of possible sequels to themselves, sequels which might build systematically on the latent but undeveloped narrative potentials all such works secrete in the margins of their major or ‘official’ story-telling projects.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Eros and Psyche

Edward Thompson's enjoyable critical biography of the poet Robert Bridges - Robert Bridges 1844-1930 (OUP, 1944) - at one point throws down the gauntlet to enthusiasts for Morris's poetry. For Thompson writes: 'Of Eros and Psyche, which Bridges published in 1885, Mr de Selincourt says, "There is no more delightful long narrative poem in our language". William Morris's rendering of the same story, in The Earthly Paradise, he remarks justly, "seems heavy and mannered beside the swift movement and exquisite grace" of Bridges's version. Mr Brett Young, too, considers the latter "if not the best, the most beautiful narrative poem in English". I think it may be' (p.34).

Has any close reader of Morris's verse taken up this comparative challenge?

Monday, 11 August 2008

The Savage Train

The Liverpool Walker Art Gallery's exhibition on 'Art in the Age of Steam' was an extraordinary gathering of visual art devoted to trains and railways from the 1830s onwards. Early railway landscapes show this terrifying force of modernity violating the traditional sanctities of nature (scaring horses in the fields, swathing peasants in steam). Later Impressionist images of the Gare Saint-Lazare glean fleeting moments of urban beauty from the new technology. Futurist paintings flamboyantly celebrate the dynamism and power of the locomotive in jagged, angular images that turn the entire canvas into an angry swirl of sharp edges and motion. Eerie Surrealist images distil the possibilities of anxiety or oneiric liberation that trains and their settings surreptitiously offer. And busy realist canvases from William Powell Frith's great image of Paddington Station onwards explore railway stations or train compartments as places of class confrontation and sexual opportunity.

Making one's way around this wonderful exhibition in its closing days, one couldn't help but think of William Morris's own attitudes to trains. For the most part resoundingly negative, to be sure, as the recurrent phrase in his letters - 'the savage train' - indicates well enough, and the railway is after all abolished entirely in News from Nowhere. But might there be other possibilities here too? After all, trains made the great socialist lecturing tours of the 1880s possible in the first place, and Morris did much literary composing upon them, by all accounts. Arthur Compton-Rickett wrote that Morris was 'keenly alive to the minutest points of railway organisation, which always interested him', and there even seems something of a match or analogy or even causal relationship between Morris's own jerky energies and the dynamism of the railway itself. At any rate, George Wardle noted that Morris would arrive at work 'as if he would go at 20 miles an hour and rather expected everything to keep up with him. This was, I think, the effect of the railway journey'.

Trains could be places of uncanny mystery for Morris too. May Morris tells of her father getting in to the wrong carriage on a train journey: 'the first thing he saw was his own name scratched on the glass with a diamond, "WM" ... it remains as half a story'. One could imagine De Chirico making a vividly unsettling Surrealist canvas out of this incident, with Morris bumping into evidences of an eerie urban Doppelganger haunting his every move.

Savage trains indeed, then; but beneath the kneejerk Morrisian indignation at a noisy and dirty modernist technology (which in his later years he also saw as a tool of capitalist colonisation, whether of the Lake District or of India), it might be just possible to elaborate a more nuanced account of William Morris on trains, one which would be more faithful to the whole rich spectrum of artistic responses on display at the Walker Gallery's exhilarating show.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Cycling around Kelmscott

In a little piece entitled 'Cycling in Nowhere' (Journal of the William Morris Society, 13.2, Summer 1999, 29-33), I lamented the absence of bicycles in News from Nowhere, despite the emergence of a culture of socialist cycling around Morris in the years preceding its composition. Commonweal itself, for instance, contained an appeal 'To Socialist Cyclists' on 30 July 1887 (p.245); and I speculated that if Ellen were indeed some sort of 1880s 'New Woman', then we might have expected her to cycle, rather than to row, up the Thames in pursuit of William Guest.

I should, however, have taken the time and trouble to pursue these issues into the next generation of the Morris family. What Morris did not give us in News from Nowhere his younger daughter May in a sense gives us in the years after his death. In her later years at Kelmscott, as she narrates them in her letters to John Quinn, May Morris emerges as an intrepid cyclist, braving the most inclement conditions on two wheels: ' riding home from the station in inky darkness, my lamp blown out, and no possibility of lighting again - wondering which was ditch and which was road - all this was the best part of the day'. On Easter Monday 1912 she was attending a festival of dancing at Cirencester, fifteen miles from Kelmscott Manor, and made a bold choice of two wheels over four:

'I got my guest, Miss Sloane, up somehow … by seven in the morning, and sent her off with friends who were driving, while I started on my cycle. It was a beautiful day, but with a fearful, icy, violent head wind blowing … But there is a sort of primitive pleasure, is there not?, in battling with elements, esp. if one is a bit out of sorts; I got there somehow - rather dishevelled, and left far behind by the carriage-folk, but enjoying the free air, and the wide lonely country …then the beautiful ride home - no wind, a solemn sky and glorious moon, and all down-hill'.

Cycling seems, indeed, to denote in her mind a peculiar loyalty to her father, as in the case of her visits to the White Horse at Uffington. First, the bare facts of the trip: 'it is some 12 miles south from here, and I cycled & got sunburnt & still have a red nose'; and then a sense of its emotional meaning, as she reflects that Morris himself had 'always paid it a yearly visit, & I have done so ever since - mostly alone on my cycle, in all sorts of weather'.

So our disappointment that Ellen does not cycle in News from Nowhere can be somewhat tempered by these vivid images of May Morris, a decade and a half after her father's death, bicycling staunchly across the very landscapes of his utopia, thereby keeping faith with an ethics of cycling that News from Nowhere itself could sadly not quite encompass. And if we want to strengthen this image of May Morris as cycling eco-warrior, we need do no more than turn to Elfrida Manning's comment on May in her diary entry for March 1925: 'She cannot bear driving in a car' (Society Journal, 4.2, summer 1980, p.19).

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Old Man Who Knows Everything

Early on in News from Nowhere Old Hammond declares to William Guest, 'I am old and perhaps disappointed' (ch IX). Nothing seems to me more important in the interpretation of Morris's text than establishing exactly what the 105-year-old Hammond means by this. If the Old Man Who Knows Everything (to borrow H.G. Wells's fine phrase for the utopian expositor), the figure who more than anyone else is the keeper of utopia's flame and conscience - if he is 'disappointed' with the way things have turned out, then you surely know you're in trouble!

So, what Hammond means is one key question; but what he might do about it is another. And here we might need to turn to contemporary utopian writing to give ourselves some possible narrative models. In Kim Stanley Robinson's fine ecological utopia, Pacific Edge (1990), the elderly Tom Barnard, who has retreated from the activism of his earlier years into a depressed, silent, detached existence on the top of Rattlesnake Hill after the death of his wife, will painfully have to descend that hill, reintegrate himself in society, return to the political struggle as capitalism begins to reassert its ugly head behind disputes about local zoning and water laws.

Can we write a future narrative for Old Hammond along such lines? Can we imagine him as having dispiritedly shut himself away from Nowhere in the dusty and claustrophobic vaults of the British Museum? Why is he worried, in chapter XV, about 'how ... you prevent the counter-revolution from setting in'? To what developments elsewhere in the text does this anxiety correspond? Will he accordingly need to sally forth again, imparting his long historical perspectives to a culture of younger Nowherians who seem dangerously oblivious to them? And in so doing will he, like Robinson's Tom Barnard, recapture the fire and fervour of his early political days, inspiring a younger generation of activists in the process?

News from Nowhere declares itself on its title page 'some chapters' from a utopian romance. Clearly, there are others to be written...

Monday, 14 July 2008

Ruskin, Morris and the Terraforming of Mars

Abstract of a paper to be delivered at the 'Persistent Ruskin' Conference, Lancaster University, 18th-19th July 2008:

This paper aims to construct a Ruskinian tradition in utopian writing around the issue of work practices. It sees William Morris's News from Nowhere as the first Ruskinian utopia, but one which is twisted awry in its very moment of conception by the impact upon Morris of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. That archetypal clash between utopias of sustainability and utopias of scientific advancement (going all the way back to Thomas More versus Francis Bacon) is then re-enacted, but also partly reconciled, in some of the great utopias of the second half of the twentieth century. Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia, Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed and above all Kim Stanley Robinson's great Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) will be shown to provide a complex contemporary home for Ruskinian-Morrisian ideals of unalienated labour, as the Gothic craftsman unexpectedly mutates into Martian terraformer.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Dreams of Fishing

In a fine essay on News from Nowhere James Buzard states correctly that 'When Guest sleeps in the Britain of tomorrow, he doesn't dream' (Victorian Studies, 40:3, 1997, p.466). Such deep mental placidity is at one with Guest's earlier enjoyment of the 'little feast' and entertainment that evening. For in utopia, for the first time, he can enjoy the present moment 'without any of that sense of incongruity, that sense of approaching ruin, which had always beset me hitherto' (chXX).

But if Guest doesn't dream, the utopians themselves do; and this is surely surprising. For if utopia is indeed the place of achieved felicity, then what, under a Freudian theory of dreams as wish fulfilments, could there possibly be to dream about? In this genre, all wishes are, by definition, fulfilled in advance. And yet Morris's Nowherians do dream, as Bob the weaver alerts us early in the book. Summoned by Dick Hammond, Bob asks him cheerily, 'what is it this morning? Am I to have my work, or rather your work? I dreamed last night that we were off up the river fishing' (chII).

I haven't yet seen any commentary on that last sentence in all the copious scholarly writing that we have on News from Nowhere. Even in a place (or genre) where all wishes are fulfilled, the wish to fish - or to fish more - asserts itself clamorously. We know that Nowhere still struggles with the whole area of human sexuality, but it seems it hasn't quite cracked the issue of angling either, since its inhabitants still dream so longingly about it.

There is plenty more to be said about angling, or its lack, in News from Nowhere (how did that fine leash of perch at Ellen's cottage get on the dinner table in the first place, after all?). But we must in the end, I think, interpret Bob's dream as bearing upon Morris's work as a whole. We know what a passionate angler Morris was in real life, and his entire oeuvre, through Bob's dream of fishing, thus seems to be crying out for the fullscale piscatorial interpretation which it has not yet had.

Friday, 20 June 2008

William Morris and Life-Writing

The very successful conference on ‘Victorian Life-Writing’ at the University of Keele on 17 June 2008 (held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Keele’s Victorian Studies programme) prompts one to think about life-writing issues in relation to William Morris.

J.W. Mackail’s 1899 Morris biography is a fine book, certainly, but suffers from the kind of ‘reticences’ familiar from Victorian biography in general: there is little about Morris and Jane’s marital difficulties, little about Jenny’s illness, and the treatment of Morris’s socialist politics is slight and unsympathetic. Years later (1954) R.D. Macleod actually felt obliged to publish a counterblast in the form of a small pamphlet polemically entitled Morris without Mackail!

Morrisian life-writing moves on from Mackail by a series of advances in content. E.P. Thompson gave us the full political story in 1955. Jack Lindsay (1975) and more recently John LeBourgeois (2006) emphasise the role of Morris’s affection for his sister Emma. Fiona MacCarthy, in her own ‘great ebullient portrait’ of Morris (to borrow a Yeatsian phrase), downgrades the role of Burne-Jones as the friend of friends, has plenty to say about Jane’s affairs with Rossetti and Blunt, goes fully into Jenny’s epilepsy and Morris’s painful sense of responsibility for it, and very effectively emphasises Morris’s strangeness and idiosyncracy.

But a recurrent topic at the Keele conference was the relation – indeed, the parallelism, the too neat fit – between biography as a literary form and the realist novel. Both are thoroughly wedded to ideals of narrative linearity, psychological complexity and development, organic plot closure. Given that Morris himself was for the most part distinctly hostile to the realist novel (Ellen speaks very powerfully against it in News from Nowhere), we might wonder whether Morrisian life-writing, to remain faithful to its subject, doesn’t need to advance beyond Mackail in terms of form as well as content.

Could we therefore imagine a life of William Morris written in the form of an Icelandic saga, that pre-realist genre which stirred him so deeply, both as translator and poet? We’ve had a rather crude first stab at this project in Edward and Stephani Godwin’s Warrior Bard: the Life of William Morris (1947), a generic experiment which they claim was endorsed by May Morris herself. Or could there be a biography of Morris written in that extraordinary new literary form which he himself invented late in life: the medievalising romance or ‘modern fantasy novel’ (from The Story of the Glittering Plain onwards) which proved so influential in the twentieth century, all the way to and beyond The Lord of the Rings?

In the early twenty-first century we are postmodern readers rather than realist ones, and while scholars will keep extending the boundaries of our knowledge of the content of Morris’s life, the onus is perhaps now on us to invent new forms of biographical narrative in which to present such findings. The Keele Life-Writing conference, which contained so many fine papers, helpfully offers a prompt in that direction.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Sentences in Utopia

Not prison sentences, oh no - they've all been long since abolished! But sentences in the sense of bits of language, units of syntax, the very linguistic material in which utopia is evoked in the first place ...

Critics have long argued that Morris in News from Nowhere would have to dramatise the attractiveness of socialism not just in terms of content (institutions, customs, buildings, everyday interactions) but formally too. As Krishan Kumar insisted in 1993, 'the point of [Morris's] prose romance was that form - "the slight envelope of romance", the way and manner of expression - mattered as much as content, "the serious essay", the exposition of socialist ideas'. And this isn't just a matter of genre, but of the very shape and feel of individual sentences in the book.

We've had some promising work in this vein. In a stimulating piece in the Journal of the William Morris Society, Alexander MacDonald argued that in Morris's utopia 'contradictory feelings and ideas are captured in the language of individual sentences' and offered some fine close local analyses to prove his point (X, 2, Spring 1993, 22-26). More recently, David Latham has beautifully suggested that 'much of the first chapter is a play on the "dis-" prefix' (XVII, 2, Summer 2007, 11). So we have some good pointers in the right direction.

Other examples will occur almost at random. Is Hammond/Hammersmith some kind of pun, bonding the family and the place tightly together( after the industrial dissociation of humanity and nature)? Other words are punningly transformed in the course of the text, certainly: the 'seal of the "stir and intellectual life of the 19th century"' which was once impressed on the Oxford meadows is linguistically transmuted into that 'sele of the morning' which the neighbours regularly give Guest as he heads upriver. More bleakly, however, Guest suffers so many 'pangs' in the book, from his first departure from Ellen at Runnymede all the way through to his final disappearence from Nowhere, that the village name Pangbourne comes to look like a stoical pun in its own right. For he will indeed have to teeth-grittedly bear all these pangs and pains if he is to contribute actively again to the socialist struggle in his own day.

What we need, then, it seems to me, is a Christopher Ricks of Morris criticism, someone who would do in detail for the language of News from Nowhere what Ricks so brilliantly did in 1963 in his Milton's Grand Style, i.e. demonstrate the treasures of subtle phonetic and semantic life in language that previously had been taken to be merely solemnly impressive (Milton) or merely politically functional (Morris).

Monday, 19 May 2008

Old Saws and New Insights

Has anyone yet published the study we need of the use of proverbs in Morris's writings? Have I just missed this in the welter of Morrisian analyses coming out every year?

For evidence of strong interest in the form on Morris's part we need only look at the index of 'Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings' at the end of his translation of Grettir's Saga. Yet there is already a contradiction here between the index and the text to which it is attached: proverbs are a lapidary encapsulation of collective wisdom, distilled memorably from a shared past as a guide to the future wiser than any whimsical individual choice, whereas the Saga itself is the celebration of as intransigeantly asocial a being - Grettir himself - as you could possibly imagine, a truculent anarchistic outlaw by nature long before he ever actually becomes outlawed legally. But then, this is a familiar contradiction within Romanticism itself, not just Morris: between its organicist-collectivist tendencies and its equally irrepressible extreme individualism.

News from Nowhere at one point describes the Bible as the 'old Jewish proverb-book', as if to announce its own interest in this theme. It contains a good number of 'old saws' and 'maxims', and during the civil war we can almost sense new proverbs coming into being in the course of the conflict. But here too a deep structural ambivalence pertains: if the 'old saws' can benignly articulate the settled cooperative wisdom of the new socialist culture, the anarchists at the Socialist League meeting on the first page of the text announce a quite different socio-semantic impulse, away from what they would see as the claustrophobically communal towards the experimental, the daring new edges of experience, that which hasn't yet been said (and perhaps cannot) rather than that which has been been fixed in linguistic amber - or Roland Barthes-style doxa - once and for all.

So the study of proverbs in Morris is likely to be a rich field: as linguistic forms in their own right, as proto-narratives themselves and in relation to the wider Morrisian narratives in which they are embedded, and in terms of their social implications which I have just crudely sketched here. And if we want a theoretical starting point for such a study we could do no better than to turn to Andre Jolles's Einfache Formen ('Simple Forms', 1930), an invigorating study of many oral speech-forms (including proverbs) which still, bafflingly, has not been translated into English.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Convalescence, Rainbows, Utopia

In a brilliant paper delivered at the ‘Victorian Street Lives’ conference at Kings College, London, on May 9th Matthew Beaumont showed just how much literary-critical mileage there is in the notion of ‘convalescence’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Convalescence can provoke the frantic, irrational curiosity of the narrator of Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ or the beautifully refreshed sensory perceptions of Giorgio de Chirico sitting in a square in Florence (among Beaumont's many other fine examples).

But can it do more than this? Can it perhaps not just revivify the already existing, but also allow the radically new to break through? Take, for instance, Ursula Brangwen, convalescing after her miscarriage at the end of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow: ‘As she grew better, she sat to watch a new creation … She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture’. This is not just a Russian-Formalist defamiliarisation of what is already present (but automatised), but rather a break-through to the utopian, to a fleeting glimpse of a new, benign social order beyond her own industrial-capitalist one.

Can we even extend this sort of account to Morris himself? Could we say – elasticating the concept, admittedly – that William Guest is ‘convalescing’ at the start of News from Nowhere from a particularly gruelling and dysfunctional meeting of the Socialist League, and that this is one of the factors that in some strange way allows him to open himself radically to utopia, to genuinely new intimations from the far future, the next morning?

There has been a good deal of discussion of the external historical factors that make utopian speculation possible in particular periods; but do we not also need a theory of the internal textual factors that, in any specific utopia, make possible the opening or break-through to the startlingly new? And among such factors it might well be that the notion of convalescence, as so fruitfully developed by Matthew Beaumont, may play an unexpectedly significant part.

Friday, 2 May 2008

New Approaches to Morris

Things move fast in the world of academic nineteenth-century studies, and we can safely predict that two of the latest trends sweeping through the field will very soon find their detailed application to William Morris.

‘Thing theory’ may sound like an oxymoron (since the brute actuality of things is conventionally opposed to the highfalutin, wiredrawn speculations of theory), but is actually an important new trend that we are surely going to see much more of. It is succinctly defined in a complex, challenging essay entitled, precisely, ‘Thing Theory’, by Bill Brown in Critical Inquiry 28 (Autumn 2001), pp.1-16. Of its relevance to Morris and his work there can be no doubt, since it has been a truism of Morris studies since J.W. Mackail’s 1899 biography that (in Mackail’s own words) ‘with him the love of things had all the romance and passion that is generally associated with the love of persons only … He was interested in things much more than people’ (I, 225; II, 93). We thus eagerly await work - probably already in the pipeline - on Morris and the complex ‘thinginess’ of things.

The other new fashion in Victorian studies – and indeed, in literary and cultural criticism much more generally – is ‘food studies’. Anthropology has always been interested in comparative eating practices, but we are now witnessing a much more general ‘alimentary turn’ in cultural studies; and even philosophy, that most disembodied of all disciplines, is getting in on the act!

Of the relevance of food studies to Morris there can, as with thing theory, be no doubt at all. We might cite his own abundant gustatory appetites (which produced that portly figure in the first place), his interest in cooking, the famous post-SPAB dinners at Gattis or post-socialist lecture dinners at Kelmscott House, his stress in the political lectures on us being ‘good animals’ before we are anything else, his contributions to debates around vegetarianism in Commonweal, his own fascination with anthropology as evident in his Germanic romances, and the revealing attention to food and eating habits in News from Nowhere. After all, as every utopian writer since Thomas More (who banished butchers outside the city) has known, food preparation and eating habits are a crucial index to the quality of a civilisation. We already have books on Shakespeare and Food, Jane Austen and Food, etc. Is there enough material, one wonders, for an entire volume on William Morris and Food? Quite possibly: Morrisian gastroaesthetics is likely to prove an ample field.

So, thing theory and food studies … aspiring PhD students, dig here!

Friday, 25 April 2008

Ruskin, Morris, Little Girls

In early spring 1887 Sydney Cockerell visited John Ruskin at Brantwood: ‘We were soon talking of men that I admired. Morris was “beaten gold”, he said, “a great rock with a little moss on it perhaps”. His “love of Turner, primroses and little girls” had prevented his ever being Morris’s close friend…’ (cited in Tim Hilton, John Ruskin, 2002, p.817).

We know that Burne-Jones was certainly very much closer to Ruskin than Morris ever became, but could it truly have been the issue of ‘little girls’ that played a part in the relative distance between the two men? How much did Morris know of what Hilton himself, Ruskin’s best recent biographer, terms his ‘paedophiliac’ sexual orientation (p.253), or of Ruskin’s disastrous passion for Rose La Touche, who was a girl of nine when the 39-year-old Ruskin first met her in 1858?

We are used to thinking of Morris’s News from Nowhere as a Ruskinian utopia in terms of its medievalism and its work-practices; but might we also have to begin to think of it as a Ruskinian utopia in sexual terms too? For the central emotional relationship of that work develops between the 20-year-old Ellen and a William Guest who is ‘hard on fifty-six’, an age difference even greater than that of Ruskin and Rose La Touche; and one might even sense a certain progressive ‘girlification’ of News from Nowhere as the text proceeds. The indeterminate ‘children on the road’ in Kensington wood in the early chapters become the three girls and a boy on Greylocks outside the British Museum half way through, who in turn later become the eroticised ‘half a dozen girls playing about on the grass’ up the river near Goring and Streatley (‘they had been bathing, and were light clad and bare-footed’).

So it may be that if the issue of Ruskin’s predilection for ‘little girls’ was indeed a distancing factor in Morris’s relationship to him, the younger man makes what amends he can to his mentor in this respect in News from Nowhere – all the while, however, ensuring that a sexual barrier between the generations is firmly in place after all, by having Guest vanish away from Ellen at the end of his utopian vision.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Imaginary Conversation 2: In Praise of Wine

In an earlier posting (12.01.08) I suggested that some enterprising Morrisian might write for us a conversation between Oscar Wilde and William Morris on his death bed, a meeting several times referred to after Morris’s death but which in fact never took place (so all the more scope for imagination, one would think).

May Morris seems to have enjoyed the same game of inventing imaginary conversations for her father. Here, for instance, are her reflections on how a genial chat between Morris and the literary critic George Saintsbury (1845-1933) might have gone: ‘It seems a pity that the late George Saintsbury, who wrote with such brilliant discernment about my Father’s poetry, did not come into contact with him then. A third in company might have listened with refreshment to the poet and critic exchanging thoughts about grands crus and vintage-years’ (William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist, I, 64).

William Allingham wrote in his diary for 1st August 1866, ‘At dinner William Morris, pleasant, learned about wines and distilling’. We have some fine contemporary memories of Morris coming up from the cellars in Red House hands full of wine bottles and others tucked under his arms; more research could be done on Mr Diosy, Morris's wine supplier; and H.G. Wells in A Modern Utopia (1905) is shrewdly aware that ‘a News from Nowhere utopia with the wine left out’ would be a totally different, and presumably much lesser, thing (ch.2, section 6).

Saintsbury’s own side of this conversation can be gleaned from his Notes on a Cellar-Book, first published in 1920 and kept in print by wine enthusiasts intermittently since. ‘Wine has been stinted of its due literary sizings’, Saintsbury there complains, and Morris might well have agreed. But it’s clear that political differences would have troubled their oenophiliac exchanges. While Morris celebrated Ruskin calling him ‘the ablest man of his time’ with a bottle of his favourite Imperial Tokay, Saintsbury writing many years later reflects dolefully that Imperial Tokay ‘will probably never recover the disappearance of those Hapsburgs, with whom it was so inseparably connected. Republican Tokay would be a contradiction in terms’.

The raw materials, on both sides, are richly there. May Morris’s imaginary conversation simply awaits its writing up!

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Under Another Name ...

The Dream of John Ball contains one of Morris’s most profound political meditations: ‘I pondered … how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name’. It is a reflection that has resonance well beyond the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which is so vividly dramatised in John Ball itself.

‘Turns out not to be what they meant’. So it is that the great electoral defeat of the Thatcher government in 1997 and the arrival of Tony Blair and the Labour Party in power, in which so many on the Left had invested such hopes (I remember friends confidently telling me that the Party had only used Blair to win the election and that, now in government, it would ditch him for a man of the Left like Robin Cook), has led to a decade-long right-wing “New Labour” project which has in some respects (creeping privatisation of the National Health Service, say) gone further than Thatcherism itself would ever have dared.

‘Have to fight for what they meant under another name’. At which point, it seems to me, politically active Morrisians have increasingly invested their own dreams of transformation in the emergent politics of the Green movement. And, as a little historical footnote to this shift of allegiances, I offer the following eco-socialist motion put to the conference of the Green Party of England and Wales in 1996, the year of Morris’s centenary:

“Conference celebrates the centenary of Green Left pioneer William Morris, and his artistic and political work. Conference reaffirms the Green Party’s commitment to building a sustainable society based on the values we share with William Morris and those who came before and after him.

“In particular we share Morris’s vision of:

“ - an equitable and just society based on co-operation, peace and harmony with nature,

“ - sustainable production for need in harmony with the environment, not exploitation of planet and people for individual greed and corporate profit,

“ - a commitment to usefulness and beauty, not the ugliness of throw-away mass production for naked materialism,

“ - participation in a living community empowered to make their own decisions, not least through community ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange,

“The Green Party Executive is instructed to give priority to coalition building with others who share these values and this vision of the future basis of society and the economy.

“Proposed by John Norris, Penny Kemp, Johann Sikora, Tony Martin”.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Board Games in Utopia

Board games have been a significant element of the utopian imagination since the very inception of the genre with Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). After their six-hour working day More’s utopians settle down to some postprandial recreation, which may involve playing: 1. a game of numbers, in which one number eventually captures another (we might expect Bob the weaver in Morris’s Nowhere, with his passion for mathematics, to be a grandmaster at this); or: 2. a game in which the vices fight a battle against the virtues, which sounds a good deal more complex, and edifying, than its simpler numeric counterpart.

In an intriguing article on ‘How to Play Utopia’ (1971), Michael Holquist has developed a whole series of analogies between chess and literary utopias – to the point, indeed, where utopia becomes, generically speaking, a kind of fictional chess. It is as if for Holquist board games, in their stylisation of a messily contingent world, are the secret inner generative principle of utopia itself. [It is then a minor disappointment in Ursula LeGuin’s otherwise magnificent The Dispossessed (1974) that its imagination of board games, in what is in all other respects such a richly created fictional world, should be so thin. The boy Shevek notices ‘two old men at the other end of the room cackl[ing] over their game of “Top ‘em”’ - and that is all! (ch2).]

What kind of games, then, can we imagine the Nowherians playing in Morris’s utopia? Well, we can certainly extrapolate forwards from his own personal favourites. J.W. Mackail tells us that ‘his chief indoor games were backgammon, draughts, and cribbage’; and Sidney Cockerell gives a fine sketch of Morris and Janey together in their later years: ‘When I went up into the drawing room to say goodnight Morris and his wife were playing at draughts, with large ivory pieces, red and white. Mrs. M. was dressed in a glorious blue gown, and as she sat on the sofa, she looked like an animated Rossetti picture or page from an old MS of a king and a queen’. Morris gives us some fine depictions of board games in his Icelandic translations (‘Now Gunnlaug and Helga would be always at the chess-playing together’), and we can assume that all these old favourites persist even in his post-revolutionary 22nd century England.

However, News from Nowhere is in some respects higher-tech than one is inclined to remember. There are force-vehicles or force-barges ploughing their mysterious way up and down the Thames, and therefore I delight to imagine (to borrow a Yeatsian phrase) that there may be ‘force-games’ in Nowhere too, complexly powered by the new energy source of the novel, whatever that is. So we might envisage Ellen and Guest in the Tapestry Room of Kelmscott Manor playing something like the complex game vlet in Samuel Delany’s astonishing ‘heterotopia’ Triton (1976):
‘He gazed over the board: within the teak rim, in three dimensions, the landscape spread, mountains to the left, oceans to the right …micro-waves lapped, micro-breezes blew, micro-trees bent, and micro-torrents plashed and whispered down micro-rocks …Lawrence assembled the astral cube: the six-by-six plastic squares, stacked on brass stilts, made a three-dimensional, transparent playing space to the right of the main board, on which all demonic, mythical, magical, and astral battles were enacted … Lawrence turned a switch: the grid flickered over the board...’.
Gripped by the epic struggles of such a high-tech game, William Guest might, one can’t help hoping, have sufficiently overcome his obsession with the Victorian past to have remained contentedly in utopia thereafter.

Monday, 17 March 2008

William Morris on Youtube

Morris is not yet well represented on Youtube, which is surprising given the visual as well as literary dimensions of his imagination. Among my trawl of sites - and avoiding such misdirections as the William Morris advertising agency in Los Angeles or William Morris the contemporary American glass-blower - I can only usefully come up with:

1. 'William Morris', posted by Mariangels, 7mins 59 secs. Attractive series of Morris-related images, covering Red House, his design work (furniture, textiles, stained glass wallpapers, Kelmscott Press books), his collaborators, and with a feeble glance at his socialism. Makes me wish I'd extended my school languages beyond French and German so I could read the Spanish (?) captions - though one can usually deduce the meaning from the visual context.

2. 'William Morris in Oxford', posted by buntworthy, 2mins 24 secs. Tony Pinkney introduces his new book on William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895 (Illuminati Books, 2007, £12-95, ISBN 978-0-9555918-0-8), which shifts the emphasis from Morris the Oxford undergraduate (a story we've had told many times) to Morris the middle-aged Oxonian activist, architectural and political. See further

3. 'The Romantic Spirit: The Pre-Raphaelites', posted by MrPogle, 6mins 52secs. Six minutes on the 'Romantic journey', narrated by Anthony Andrews, from a 1982 Anglo-French series, with some emphasis in this episode on Morris. Contrasts his attempt to bring the Romantic vision into confrontation with industrial realities rather than cultivating it as an escape. Oddly ends up with Alice in Wonderland ...

If you know of other rewarding Morris Youtube sites, please do post an announcement here to share them with us. Otherwise, make one yourself and post it for us to enjoy!

Friday, 7 March 2008

Morris returns to Manchester, March 6th 2008

On Thursday March 6th 2008 William Morris stood at a lecture podium in Manchester for the first time in well over a hundred years. In frock coat and with bristling beard, he glared around at us intensely in the Friends Meeting House and then launched into an impassioned discourse on ‘Art, Wealth and Riches’. In a mood of fierce indignation Morris denounced the ‘competitive commerce’ that had destroyed popular art from the Renaissance onwards. With raised index finger he stabbed accusingly at the middle class who had brought such a dire state of affairs about; with gruff humour he mocked its hypocritical pretensions; and with great sweeping gestures of his arms he opened to us alternative horizons, better possibilities of social living. This was indeed the archetypal Victorian Sage or Prophet, alive, alert, exasperated and denunciatory in every last fibre (and beard hair) of his outraged being.

Naturally, however, it wasn’t that William Morris himself had acquired an early prototype of H.G. Wells’s Time Machine and whizzed vertiginously forwards in it to our own postmodern Mancunian present to harangue us in 2008 as forcefully as he tackled his original nineteenth-century audiences on his one great theme, the relation of Art to Labour. What we were witnessing in the Friends Meeting House was the lecturer and actor Paul O’Keefe, togged up in Victorian costume and Morrisian false beard brilliantly performing ‘Art, Wealth and Riches’ on the very day (March 6th) and in the very city in which it had originally been delivered. The sweat glistened on O’Keefe’s forehead afterwards, as he painfully peeled off his beard, so astonishingly energetic and stentorian had been his rendition of the Morris text – and the audience was almost as emotionally exhausted as he was. None of us, certainly, will ever read the printed words of that lecture in the same way again; they will stir into uneasy, agitated, accusing life before our eyes, and resonate with O’Keefe’s memorably emphatic delivery.

How accurate was such a mode of delivery to what we know of Morris’s own lecture style? There are a vast number of contemporary responses to Morris as a public speaker, and he may himself have had different styles for different subjects (architecture, crafts, socialism), different audiences (middle-class, proletarian) and different locations (indoors, outdoors). I have not been back to check out all the potential references here, but my sense would be that the broad consensus is that, while everybody who heard him was deeply affected by Morris’s evident sincerity of belief and depth of content, they also tended to contrast him with the more flamboyantly and grandly rhetorical speakers of the socialist movement (John Burns, say). He seems not to have held forth in that charismatic, Barack Obama fashion, grandstanding his audience, but rather, I suspect, won them over more gradually, by the cumulative persuasive force of what he was saying and by the doggedly workmanlike manner of delivery; and there are even some contemporary voices who regard him as an ineffectual presence on a public platform. That, at any rate, is my offhand recall of my desultory reading in this field, and I certainly stand open to correction.

So it may be the case that Paul O’Keefe (who also performs Ruskin lectures) played his role with more impassioned fluency and flamboyancy than Morris himself could muster on similar occasions; and perhaps it is indeed that, at this distance in time, we have acquired a powerful generic sense of the post-Carlylean Victorian Sage, savagely indignant about the human abuses of his own period, a Platonic essence or Form which then overrides the particularity of the individual figure being dramatically re-enacted. But whether this is so or not, O’Keefe certainly mesmerised all of us in the Friends Meeting House, and when he turned on us, as Morris eventually in that text does to his audience – ‘You in Lancashire’ – we were jolted momentarily back in our seats with an alarmed sense of self-recognition and class-guilt!

[Left click on image to enlarge it].

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

William Morris in the Novel

Morris has appeared in novels occasionally over the years. The earliest examples include Hubert and Edith Bland's Something Wrong (1886), which contains a depiction of Morris as a socialist leader, and George Gissing’s Demos (1886), where the writer and socialist Westlake (‘long-haired, full-bearded, he had the forehead of an idealist and eyes whose natural expression was an indulgent smile’) is loosely modelled on Morris, as is his sister Stella on Jane.

Morris then features very briefly, as an ‘enthusiastic angler’, towards the end of Theodore Watts-Dunton’s Aylwin (1899), when the heroine Winifred recovers from her dementia at Hurstcote Manor (Kelmscott) under the benign care of Mr D’Arcy (Rossetti). Morris would certainly not have been amused by the little piscatorial vignette in which he appears, since it shows him as out-fished on his very own Kelmscott waters by a girl in a trance! Linda Miller, in her excellent series of articles in the UK Morris Society Newsletter, has recently drawn our attention to William Cameron’s novel The Day is Coming (1944), which depicts a meeting between Morris and C.R. Ashbee at Kelmscott in December 1894, and in which Morris is a lifetime inspirational presence to the working-class hero, Arthur Cullen (based on Cameron’s own father). The American modernist poet H.D. has an unpublished novel about Morris, Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, and no doubt there are other examples to which learned colleagues could draw our attention.

But it may be that we stand on the brink of a whole new manifestation of William Morris in the novel. For a new genre of the “historical-figure-turned-detective” is emerging all around us. As straws in the wind, we might take Michael Gregorio’s Critique of Criminal Reason (2006), in which the ageing philosopher Immanuel Kant comes out of retirement to help the detective Hanno Stiffeniis in Königsberg in 1804; Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder (2006), in which Sigmund Freud is drafted into a criminal investigation on his trip to New York; and Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders (2007), in which both Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle turn detective in fin-de-siècle London and Paris. The more intelligent works in this genre naturally try to tell us something interesting about the historical figure-cum-detective’s thought-system in the process of generating a gripping detective narrative – all the more readily where that thought-system itself, as with psychoanalysis, is from the start a mode of decoding tiny clues and signs and parapraxes.

Is it not time, then, that William Morris himself emerged into this new fictional sphere of writers and philosophers turned detective, in a criminal plot that would both be revealing about his own thinking and, conceivably, about the fate of socialism more widely? Morris himself, as I have suggested elsewhere, was a keen reader of the detective novels of Emile Gaboriau, so he might well relish such an early twenty-first century fictional reincarnation.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Umberto Eco asks ...

In a fine essay on 'Dreaming of the Middle Ages', Umberto Eco asks (in his husky, sexy Italian accent): 'What would Ruskin, Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites have said if they had been told that the rediscovery of the Middle Ages would be the work of the twentieth-century mass media?'

Has anyone ever answered that challenging question?

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Hours of Work in 'Nowhere'

In The Great Society: A Psychological Analysis (1914), Graham Wallas remarks that ‘once, while I listened to him [William Morris] lecturing, I made a rough calculation that the citizens of his commonwealth, in order to produce by the methods he advocated the quantity of beautiful and delicious things which they were to enjoy, would have to work about two hundred hours a week’ (p.326). And since News from Nowhere is the fleshing out of the economic, social and political principles of Morris’s lectures, we must assume that Wallas’s calculation of hours of work applies to it too.

200 hours a week – in a week of only 168 hours (=7x24)?! Good grief, it’s almost enough to send you scuttling back, with William Guest, to nineteenth-century capitalism as some sort of escape from this overwhelming utopian work schedule. Or we might exclaim: come back Looking Backward, all is forgiven, since there at least one retires from the utopian work-force at the age of forty-five. It’s true that work in Morris’s utopia is indistinguishable from art, creativity and pleasure; but even so, two hundred hours of it seems rather too much of a good thing. Whatever happened to the high ideals of the Socialist League manifesto, which argued that when labour was distributed fairly two to three hours work per person per day would be enough to produce the necessaries of life?

Graham Wallas had been a Fabian, and May Morris in her Artist, Writer, Socialist mocks the Fabians’ habit of taking their slide rules to her father’s utopia: ‘The materialist frame of mind was amusingly shown by the Fabian criticism that the economic process by which the inhabitants of News from Nowhere got wine from France was never known: people didn’t seem in that happy country to be producing for exchange, and some active young minds were anxious about it. My Father often laughed over this’ (II, 334).

Well, it’s difficult to defend Wallas’s point against William Morris’s own robust laughter, and nowadays we often invoke Miguel Abensour’s notion that Nowhere is a heuristic ‘education of desire’ which is not subject to a Wallasian hours-and-minutes critique that might indeed be apt enough for the more detailed blueprints of the classical utopian tradition. But even so, I find myself intrigued by Graham Wallas’s calculation of two hundred hours: is there any way, I wonder, in which we could retrace the steps by which he arrived at that figure, or even boldly venture an independent, new calculation of our own (Bob the Yorkshire weaver, with his passion for mathematics, would be the character in Nowhere most likely to help us with this)? For if Morris’s utopia, with its radical simplification of life, does indeed require more work to sustain it than there are hours in the week, then its ‘dream’ is likely to remain just that, and never arrive at the status of a shared ‘vision’ after all.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Things That Go Bump On Your Head

In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) the provincial doctor, Charles Bovary, receives a memorable birthday present: ‘Il reçut pour sa fête une belle tête phrénologique, toute marquetée de chiffres jusqu’au thorax et peinte en bleu’. Thirty pages later, disturbed by his wife’s mysterious ailments, Charles takes refuge in his office, ‘et il pleura, les deux coudes sur la table, assis dans son fauteuil de bureau, sous la tête phrénologique’. And towards the close of the novel, as the bailiffs arrive to seize Charles’s goods to settle Emma’s massive debts, his birthday present has a lucky escape. The bailiffs ‘n’inscrivirent point la tête phrénologique, qui fut considérée comme instrument de sa profession’.

Charles Bovary’s phrenological head can thus serve as a reminder to us of just how pervasive the pseudo-science of phrenology was in the nineteenth century, and it often had a distinctly radical edge to it. Phrenological lectures were popular with working-class audiences; the Owenites of New Lanark welded phrenology and utopian socialism together for a time; and even Karl Marx cheerily announced in a letter to a friend: ‘So you see, phrenology is not the useless art which Hegel imagined!’ This radical phrenological tradition came through to William Morris and his circle in the person of E.T. Craig, elderly Chartist and Co-operator, who used to offer readings in the garden of Kelmscott House. As May Morris recalls: ‘one time when we were having our characters described by the bumps on our heads, Shaw, who was one of the company and also undergoing examination, naughtily asked if he had a bump of veneration. “A bump?” shrieked the old gentleman, “why it’s a ‘ole there!” and stuck his stick into the ground to emphasise the answer’.

Did Morris ever have his own head read by Craig or anyone else? Not as far as I know; or if he did, we seem to have no record of it. Is, then, the chance of a phrenological analysis of William Morris gone for good? Not necessarily. The Phrenological Magazine published in June 1880 a four-page ‘Phrenological Description of Mr. John Ruskin’ by L.N. Fowler. It is an impressively detailed piece of work: ‘His brain is of full size and of peculiar shape, being long, high, and narrow … Form is very large …He is equally large in the organ of Size, giving fullness to the corner of the eye, next to the nose … the largest of these [faculties] is Benevolence, as seen by the extreme height of his head above the forehead’, etc. Yet far from running his fingers and calipers patiently all over the Sage of Brantwood’s face and skull, Fowler has concocted his analysis, as he himself admits in a footnote to his article, ‘from photographs’. So all is not, after all, lost in the case of Morris. A trained phrenologist, or even just a keen amateur, should be able to sit down with his or her copy of Fiona MacCarthy’s well-illustrated biography and write out a detailed phrenological study from the assorted Morrisian photographs collected there. We await results with interest!

Friday, 1 February 2008

Questions in 'Pickwick'

May Morris narrates an entertaining battle of wits between her father and a Birmingham acquaintance. The latter 'prided himself on his knowledge of Dickens, and was rather given to displaying it. This he did by putting (as his own) the questions he got from Calverley's Examination Papers. "He put them," says a friend, "to your father, who had no difficulty in answering all of them. He doubtless knew all about Calverley's questions, and having disposed of them, he proceeded to test M's knowledge of the book [Pickwick] and he put to him question after question which M could not answer. The questions seemed to show that your father knew Pickwick pretty well by heart"'.

The Pickwick examination, thirty questions long, was set in 1857 by the eccentric Cambridge don, Charles Stewart Calverley. It was first held, as a mock-formal exam, in his rooms at Cambridge where the undergraduate Walter Besant won first prize for his answers and refreshed himself after his Dickensian labours with a supper of oysters, beer and milk-punch. This gruellingly detailed test on the novel subsequently achieved considerable notoriety, though by 1889 Andrew Lang was writing mournfully in his Lost Leaders that 'The number of people who could take a good pass in Mr Calverley's Pickwick Examination Paper is said to be diminishing'.

We are fortunate today that Calverley's Pickwick questions are readily available in an online edition of his Fly Leaves at:, so that Morris fans who share their hero's passion for Dickens can now test themselves out on the book. Immediately following the thirty questions is the set of authorised answers to them, so take care how you scroll down into the site.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Archibald MacLaren and Physical Education

Archibald MacLaren is a vivid minor character in the major biographies of William Morris as the owner of a gymnasium in Oriel Lane where Morris and his undergraduate friends honed their physical skills at singlestick, boxing and fencing. Some twelve years older than Morris and Burne-Jones, MacLaren took to the two of them, inviting them regularly to his home in Summertown and even commissioning the young Burne-Jones to illustrate a collection of fairy ballads he was putting together.

But MacLaren was to become a figure of national, as well as of local Morrisian, importance, since his system of physical training was adopted wholesale by the British Army and the public schools in the later nineteenth century. Some sense of the whole range of his life's work can be gleaned from a notice of his death in the Oxford Magazine for February 27th 1884 (p.114), which I attach below. It opens up a whole new vista on MacLaren which Morrisians, I think, have little suspected. Would it be possible, one wonders, using MacLaren's later physical education writings, to envisage a study of the patterns of physical movement, gesture, pose in Morris's early poetry and stories which related them illuminatingly back to the training he received in his Oxford days at the Oriel Lane gymnasium?


By the death of Mr. Archibald MacLaren, which took place at Summerfield, near Oxford, on Tuesday the 19th inst., one of our principal modern authorities on the science of physical education has been lost to the world. He had long been unable from illness to take the active part which he formerly played in the University, though till a few months back he continued to superintend the work in his gymnasium. He was employed by the Government for several years to put his system into practice in most of the large army depots in the country, and while holding this position he directed the erection of gymnasia at Curragh, Dublin, Chatham, Woolwich, Sandhurst, and elsewhere. As to the results of his system, we quote from a short biography in the Oxford Chronicle of last week:

“How far Mr. MacLaren succeeded, anyone who considers the gymnastic training which now prevails throughout the army depots and public schools of the country will not be slow in comprehending. The enthusiasm which he awakened at the time of the publication of his book on Physical Education will be best shown by cuttings which we take from the Lancet and Macmillan’s Magazine.

“’Few men have done more for physical education than the writer of this book. By his Gymnasium at Oxford he has promoted in an extraordinary degree the health and vigour of the young men of the better classes, while by his excellent athletic code for the army, and by his influence with successive War Ministers, he has aided largely in introducing that admirable athletic training which is transforming the stiff, slow-moving grenadier of old times into the vigorous, rapid, and enduring soldier of modern days. But these services, great as they are, are the least of his merits; he has written on his subject largely, and has written so well and so sensibly, without exaggeration and without clap-trap, that he has succeeded in gradually bringing the whole nation to consider the important subject of physical training. Himself a physiologist, and conversant with the scientific part of the subject, he has been more able to set forth principles and to convince by reason than his predecessors, and his influence has been so much the wider, and will be so much the more enduring.’ – Lancet.

“’It will be no news to the readers of this Magazine to tell them that to Mr. MacLaren of Oxford, more than to any other man living, is the cause of physical education indebted for the rapid strides it has of late effected in this country. His magnificent Gymnasium at the University, and the marvellous results there produced, constitute only a small portion of the work he has been for many years accomplishing. The British Army is now trained on his principles, and in Gymnasia invented by him. His last effort is worthy to be placed on a level with any of his former achievements. It is a little book, but it contains the refined wisdom and experience of a quarter of a century; it throws open to all the world the knowledge obtained in endless studies, experiments, and meditation.’ – Macmillan’s Magazine.

“Another work of Mr. MacLaren’s, Training in Theory and Practice, deals with the whole question of training, which has of late become such a popular one; it is supplemented by diagrams and tables, and an appendix by the Rev. T.H. Hopkins, Fellow of Magdalen, on the use of the sliding seat.”

We may add to the above, that Mr. MacLaren wrote a book of fairy ballads, called The Fairy Family, which has made many friends among literary men.

Probably few of the Undergraduates amongst us were familiar with him: those who were, knew how to value his friendship; but of the members residing in Oxford, and of the Undergraduates of days gone by, we think there are few indeed who did not know him, and few who knowing him will fail to miss him.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Drama of the Far Future

As they cross London on their way from Hammersmith to visit old Hammond in the British Museum, William Guest and Dick Hammond pass through an exuberant cluster of utopian architecture which contains, on the south side of the road, ‘an octagonal building with a high roof, not unlike the Baptistry at Florence in outline, except that it was surrounded by a lean-to that clearly made an arcade or cloisters to it; it also was most delicately ornamented’ (News from Nowhere, chapter four). The building turns out to be ‘our theatre’, and Dick is particularly concerned that Guest should admire it because ‘I had a hand in it; I made the great doors, which are of damascened bronze’. ‘We will look at them later in the day’, Dick promises; but he and Guest in fact never do, so our one chance to learn more about what kinds of drama flourish in Nowhere is gone for good, and the octagonal theatre will forever remain as silent and enigmatic as the little town of Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, from which ‘not a soul to tell/Why thou art desolate, can e’er return’.

Well, Keats’s Grecian urn teases us out of thought; can William Morris’s utopian theatre tease us into thought? We have some excellent accounts of Morris’s actual tastes in drama, contemporary and historical. Nick Salmon has a trenchant article on ‘The Unmanageable Playgoer: Morris and the Victorian Theatre’ (Journal of the William Morris Society, 12.4, Spring 1998, 29-35) and Pamela Bracken Wiens’s introduction to her edition of Morris’s own dramatic experiment, The Tables Turned or Nupkins Awakened (Ohio University Press, 1994), valuably extends Nick Salmon’s thoughts. Such discussions may give us some sense of what might be playing in Nowherian theatres in the immediate ‘Morrow of the Revolution’; but the novel itself also requires us to think very much further ahead than this, towards the ‘future of the full-developed new society’ decades or centuries down the line. We will need, therefore, to be boldly speculative, to draw not only on Morris’s own historical dramatic tastes but on the whole later history of political, modernist and postmodern theatre, if we are to tentatively sketch the lineaments of what might be playing in Nowhere’s octagonal theatre the day that Guest and Dick jog gently past it with Greylocks. And surely News from Nowhere encourages us to do just this. It is, after all, merely ‘some chapters from a utopian romance’ (my emphasis), a heading which licenses us to go on and write other, additional chapters for it, including, I would like to think, one on drama (whose possibility and validity the text has thus architecturally marked out for us in advance).

However, drama in utopia can have its unsettling moments too, as Samuel Delaney’s marvellous novel Triton, one of the new-wave 'critical utopias' of the 1970s, reminds us. For its hero, Bron Helstrom, discovers that his exciting early encounter with an attractive, enigmatic woman in the ‘unlicensed sector’ – rich, it appears, in sexual promise – is actually nothing but a carefully coordinated dramatic performance staged for his benefit alone (‘we’re operating on a Government Arts Endowment to produce micro-theater for unique audiences’). Which might suddenly open up the vertiginious possibility that William Guest’s encounter with his own desirable but disturbing woman, Ellen, on the upper Thames in Morris’s utopia might just be a piece of colourful Nowherian micro-theatre whose theatricality he so painfully fails to grasp …

Monday, 28 January 2008

William Morris and Jack the Ripper

Dorothy Coles's moving obituary for Dawn Morris (1955-2007) in the latest issue of the Morris Society Journal (XVII, 3, Winter 2007, 10-12) reminds us what a vivid person and devoted Morrisian Dawn was, and how welcome her Sheffield events were as a northern counterbalance to the Society's London focus.

Years ago, after I gave a paper on Morris and Sherlock Holmes at one of her Sheffield conferences, Dawn informed me, to my amazement, that she had heard or read that Morris had once been arrested on suspicion of being Jack the Ripper. I was incredulous, since no such story appears in any of the main Morris biographies, but she was convinced about this and said she would endeavour to track down her source.

Time passed, we both became busy with other things, and we never did go further into this curious Jack the Ripper claim. Certainly Morris was active in the East End as a political activist during the Ripper years, and one could, I suppose, imagine the police, as part of their campaign to harrass socialists, trying to intimidate one of the movement's leaders by arresting him on such grounds. Maybe. But is there any genuine historical evidence out there that he ever actually was arrested as a Ripper suspect? Dawn Morris was convinced that he was, but does anyone else know what her putative source might have been?

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Morris and Wilde: The Final Meeting?

In his wonderful William Morris: A Reference Guide (1985), which is such a rich source book for the multifarious highways and byways of Morris scholarship, Gary L. Aho lists a 1950 letter from Sydney Cockerell to the Times Literary Supplement which ‘attempts to lay to rest the legend popular among Wilde biographers, that Wilde visited WM [sic] on his deathbed. As WM’s secretary, Cockerell was constantly with him, and he does not recall a Wilde visit; more significantly, Wilde was in prison during the months of WM’s last illness’ (p.158).

A later item blames Hesketh Pearson’s biography of Shaw for ‘the anecdote that WM, when he was slowly dying, enjoyed a visit from Wilde more than anyone else’ (p.245); and Aho’s final mention of the topic a few pages later ups the ante considerably. For it seems to be not one but a whole series of Wildean visits that are at stake: ‘many fresh anecdotes, drawn mainly from Shaw’s correspondence, also appear here, among them the mistake concerning Wilde’s supposed visits to WM on his deathbed’ (p.253).

One visit or several; Wilde’s biographers, Hesketh Pearson or Shaw: beyond the scholarly conundrums here, we can surely play mentally with the dazzling idea itself – a final visit of Oscar Wilde to the dying William Morris. We have had some good general accounts of the relationship between the two men’s work, including recently a trenchant piece by Peter Faulkner in the Morris Society Journal (vol XIV, no 4, Summer 2002, 25-40); but could not some Morrisian enthusiast with strong creative writing interests exercise his or imagination and write us a fictional dialogue between Morris and Wilde under these circumstances in late 1895 or 1896 (Morris died on 3rd October)? Such a project would be strongly in the spirit of Wilde himself, with his own brilliant dialogues on ‘The Critic as Artist’ and ‘The Decay of Lying’. Could the Society Journal not announce a prize for the best Wilde-Morris deathbed dialogue – ranging across literature, decoration, art, politics, with Wilde flamboyantly expounding his individualist perspectives and Morris rousing himself for one last effort to defend his more collectivist stance - and then later print the winning entry?