William Morris: A Life for Our Time, by Fiona MacCarthy, Faber and Faber, 780 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0571255597
News from Nowhere, Or, an Epoch of Rest: Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance, by William Morris, edited by David Leopold, Oxford University Press, 207 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-0199539192
Walter Crane once said that the multi-talented William Morris (1834-1896) had been six different people. And Morris crammed all six into a relatively short life. He was one of the, if not the, most significant English socialist thinkers of his time and a central figure in the history of the early English socialist movement. Although he was one of the leading poets of his day, his politics prevented him from becoming poet laureate on the death of Tennyson. He has some claim to be the greatest pattern designer ever. He was certainly an influential interior designer, and an accomplished artist-cum-craftsman in such diverse areas as wallpaper, tapestry, and carpets. He was involved in the Gothic revival in, for example, stained glass. In textiles, he was both a weaver and a dyer – he was interested in production as well as design, and in a production that utilised natural (vegetable) rather than artificial (chemical) dyes – and so both the technical and the aesthetic aspects of his work are of interest. He was a businessman and manufacturer, and founded a successful company, Morris & Co. He combined his publishing and entrepreneurial expertise to become one of the most important private printers of the modern era. He was a noted translator, and has some claims to being the foremost nineteenth century translator of the Icelandic sagas. The scale of his achievements is impressive. In his own time, he was famous as a poet and infamous as a socialist – “as a Socialist I stink in people’s nostrils”, he once said. Posterity has been much kinder to his art than to his poems, and today he is best known for his accomplishments in the decorative arts and design.
Morris was a tremendous worker: Edward Carpenter noted as “characteristic” of him that “his chief recreation was only another kind of work”. He was also incredibly versatile. As a designer, he worked in areas such as stained glass, wallpaper, textiles, and the Kelmscott Press. He sometimes wrote as many as eight hundred lines of verse in a single day, and once declared, “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry … he had better shut up, he’ll never do any good at all.” He should be better known for his endeavours to recreate, recover, or preserve dead and dying handicrafts in the United Kingdom ‑ such as embroidery, high-warp tapestry, textile dyeing, and the production of carpets and books.
No surprise that for Max Beerbohm, “The thought of him has always slightly irritated me. Of course he was a wonderful all-round man, but the act of walking round him has always tired me”.
While Morris’s whole is much greater than the sum of his parts, the various parts are in and of themselves so wonderful that it is easy to become lost in one of his many facets. Not only was he a designer, handicraft artisan, manufacturer, businessman, political activist, conservationist and man of letters, he was successful enough in these (and other) endeavours for each to have become the focus of specialist attention. To give but one example, of the many books on William Morris published in 1996, the centenary of his death, one was William Morris Tiles by Richard and Hilary Myers.
A number of full-scale, comprehensive biographies have been published to date, of which at least two, those by JW Mackail (1899) and EP Thompson (1955), are excellent. The latest biography is MacCarthy’s William Morris: A Life for Our Time. Biographical works at times have emphasised one aspect of Morris at the expense of others – “Perhaps more than any other Victorian celebrity,” MacCarthy says, “he has been the victim of the keepers of the flame, people anxious to play down [Mackail] – or even up [Thompson] – his revolutionary Socialism”. In a more modern mode, MacCarthy discusses his private life, and refers to earlier reticence as “a conspiracy of memory”, a “conspiracy of silence”.
Mackail’s commemorative narrative ignores his unhappy marriage and downplays the politics, while Thompson focuses largely if not exclusively on his socialism. Morris’s unconventional domestic arrangements have only slowly come to light. As MacCarthy says, “The full extent of his unhappiness, and his fortitude and generosity in facing it, is only now being revealed.” We now know, for instance, that his wife, Jane (widely known in the literature as Janey), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were lovers from 1867 or 1868 to 1875, and that Jane and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt were lovers for about a decade to 1894.
When compared to previous works, one advantage of MacCarthy’s biography is that she has been able to make use of these latest revelations and to access the latest Morris research. Given that so much time has passed since the publication of the last major biography, it is no surprise that MacCarthy’s work draws on new material. Scholars such as Charles Harvey and Jon Press in particular have produced some very impressive academic work. And she has tapped into the tremendous edition of The Collected Letters of William Morris edited by Norman Kelvin, the commentary of which provides a rich biographical resource. Morris’s letters are famously cold and unrevealing, and MacCarthy supplements them with his literary works, which are treated as confessional pieces that shed light on his inner state of mind. Here she takes Mackail’s hints to heart and accepts the autobiographical significance of literary writings such as The Earthly Paradise. The result is a comprehensive life that examines all aspects of this complex and multifaceted man.
Anecdotes about Morris abounded. One well-known story has him angrily accusing the press of wilful neglect at a party also attended by Oscar Wilde – “The press ignores me”, he claimed, “There’s a conspiracy of silence about my book”; to which Wilde retorted “Why not join it, Morris?”
Sir Edmund Beckett called him a “poetic upholsterer”, and Rossetti also called him the “upholsterer & author of Earthly Paradise”. In his “The Tables Turned”, Morris has himself described by Lord Tennyson as “a stumpy little fool in blue”. Henry James described him in 1869 as “short, burly, and corpulent, very careless and unfinished in his dress … [with] a very loud voice and a nervous restless manner and a perfectly unaffected and business-like address”. He was indeed a bluff, cheery and hearty man. His attitude to art was a robust and commonsensical one. On being asked for advice on decorating a kitchen, Morris is said to have replied, in Jack Lindsay’s words, “as a start a flitch of bacon hanging from the ceiling would do very well”.
In his own time, he was known for his physical strength, his fits of anger, his untidy appearance and unconventional dress, his love of the simple rural life, his unconventional marriage, and his passion for angling. This is all covered in detail by MacCarthy.
As a manufacturer, a capitalist-socialist who employed labour, Morris has been seen as an inherently contradictory and hypocritical figure. He himself drew a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from his work, but one has to ask whether the same was true of his employees. The contradiction between his passionate belief in creative, satisfying, and independent work, and the practices of Morris & Co., or the Firm, in which his designs were produced by tedious and repetitive work, is an issue that MacCarthy does not tackle so well.
A biographer must break a single lifetime into sections that can be dealt with in single chapters. MacCarthy says: “Morris’s life unfolded in cycles”, and that “His activities surge onwards in overlapping phases, each of them approximately five years in duration”. His life is thus broken down into distinct periods. For instance, “The middle 1870s were Morris’s dyeing years, the late 1870s his weaving years”, while the 1890s are defined as the “post-Socialist” period. However, some of his activities lasted throughout his life.
Morris is remembered for his interest in the Middle Ages and his hatred for his own age. The ugliness of industrialised Britain and the squalor associated with industry and capitalism had often been condemned, but Morris was unrelenting in his despair and anger. In Thompson’s words, the Middle Ages provided him with a vantage point from “which he could stand and look upon his own age with the eyes of a stranger or visitor, judging his own time by standards other than its own”. In “How I Became a Socialist”, Morris himself wrote: “The hope of the past times was gone, the struggles of mankind for many ages had produced nothing but this sordid, aimless, ugly confusion; the immediate future seemed to me likely to intensify all the present evils by sweeping away the last survivals of the days before the dull squalor of civilization had settled down on the world.” The struggle against “the dull squalor of civilization” or what he called “shoddy” and “make-shift” became the central theme of his life. The forward-looking progressive socialism and backward-looking romantic medievalism that was so characteristic of his mature outlook can be seen as a conservative and nostalgic reaction to the radical changes prompted by capitalism.
Morris was born on March 24th, 1834, in Walthamstow. Much later in life, in 1883, he was to describe Walthamstow as “a suburban village on the edge of Epping Forest … once a pleasant place enough, but now terribly cocknified and choked up by the jerry-builder” (he should see it now!). His father was an affluent bill broker, whose shares in the Devonshire Great Consolidated Copper Mining Co., usually known – no wonder – as the Devon Great Consols, underwrote the family’s affluence. After his father’s death, some shares were sold, but thirteen were put aside for each of the nine children for when they came of age. Annual dividends from Morris’s thirteen shares were to provide him with the independence and comfort of a private income.
According to his daughter May, Morris was raised “in an atmosphere of intelligent housekeeping of the old style – homemade beer and bread, real butter and real cream and the like … There were well-stocked gardens and orchards, horses and cows and pigs and poultry.” When he was six, his prosperous parents moved to Woodford Hall, a house situated on about fifty acres of parkland and a hundred acres or so of farmland. He attended a preparatory school from the age of nine, from where, in 1848, he went to Marlborough College. His father had died in 1847, and the family moved to the smaller but still genteel Water House in 1848.
He entered Exeter College, Oxford in 1853. His Oxford was very much that of Matthew Arnold. “Beautiful city!”, as Arnold said in his Essays in Criticism, “whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age … home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!”
Though he arrived after the heyday of the Oxford Movement and John Henry Newman’s defection to Rome, religious thought was still very much in the air. He met Edward Jones, later Sir Edward Burne-Jones – on whom MacCarthy’s next monograph is eagerly awaited – who was to be a lifelong friend. Both Morris and Burne-Jones were attracted to a High Church Anglo-Catholicism, and both initially intended to become clergymen. Two early influences were John Ruskin and in particular his “On the Nature of Gothic”, and Thomas Carlyle, especially Past and Present. And from Ruskin, Morris learned of the Pre-Raphaelites.
In the summer of 1855, Morris and Burne-Jones visited France, where, in Le Havre, they decided to pursue careers in art rather than the church. Morris decided to devote his life to architecture (Burne-Jones decided to become a painter). Also in 1855, on coming of age, Morris came into what was, for a young and single man, a small fortune.
Having graduated, he began to work in George Edmund Street’s architectural firm in 1856. An Anglo-Catholic and leading Gothic architect, Street was a significant influence (MacCarthy does not however pursue this particular line of thought). There he met Philip Webb, who became a very close friend. Street’s office moved from Oxford to London, and to London went Morris where, in August 1856, he moved into rooms in Bloomsbury with Burne-Jones, and through Burne-Jones met Rossetti. After a few weeks in Bloomsbury, Morris and Burne-Jones moved to Red Lion Square, where they led a Bohemian lifestyle within a subculture of male camaraderie.
Having fallen under Rossetti’s dominating influence, Morris determined to become a painter and, in late 1856, resigned his position at Street’s firm. MacCarthy depicts Rossetti as a sadistic bully, and Morris as the butt of cruel jokes. This may be true, but saying that “He had a southern European callousness” weakens her point, as does her observation about “the southern melancholy that ebbed and flowed so tragically in his life”.
In 1857, Morris met one of Rossetti’s discoveries, Jane Burden, a famous – indeed the archetypal Pre-Raphaelite – beauty. Jane Burden was from a poor family, but despite their social differences, they were married in 1859. It was not a happy marriage, and seems to have always been loveless on her part. According to MacCarthy, “Rossetti’s looming presence over the liaison of the two sexually inexperienced and socially disparate young people helped to confirm the marriage in its doom.” Morris was also known for his fits of rage, perhaps epileptic in origin, which cannot have helped. Jane quickly became an invalid, although her symptoms are usually seen as neurotic. Not yet thirty, she took to a sofa in 1869 and in effect never left it, except, it must be said, in her husband’s absence.
The Defence of Guenevere, which was published in 1858, contains a number of poems now often counted as among Morris’s best. George Saintsbury wrote of it: “there is in it, prosodically speaking, trumpet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music”. MacCarthy says: “at their best they have a brilliance, a freshness and a quirkiness that Morris’s poetry did not achieve again”. One of the characteristics of his verse is the use of stops in the middle of the line and the combination of realism and experimental meters. He took to anapaests, which served to provide a rolling flow to his verse, and has a recognisable style which was apparent from his first published pieces. An example can be seen in works such as “The Haystack in the Floods”, one section of which goes:
With a start
Up Godmar rose, thrust them apart;
From Robert’s throat he loosed the bands
Of silk and mail; with empty hands
Held out, she stood and gazed, and saw,
The long bright blade without a flaw
Glide out from Godmar’s sheath, his hand
In Robert’s hair; she saw him bend
Back Robert’s head; she saw him send
The thin steel down; the blow told well,
Right backward the knight Robert fell,
And moan’d as dogs do, being half dead,
Unwitting, as I deem: so then
Godmar turn’d grinning to his men,
Who ran, some five or six, and beat
His head to pieces at their feet.
Whatever its merits, The Defence of Guenevere was panned by the critics and not received well by the public either. Morris did not publish any more verse until The Life and Death of Jason in 1867.
In the meantime, the newlyweds could not live in Morris’s bachelor accommodation at Red Lion Square. Morris commissioned the building of a new home, Red House (it was built of red brick) in Kent, which enabled Webb to set up his own practice. Mr and Mrs Morris moved into the house, which his friends named the Towers of Topsy, in 1860. Red House was an architectural success, and has been seen as a major development in British domestic architecture. MacCarthy’s description of the house becomes lyrical. “The house is plain and functional, beautiful and homely, with the simple solid structure and respect for its materials that recommended it to modern movement architects in the 1930s, whose paradigm building it became. But Red House is also playful, wilful, an amalgam of surprises, gables, arches, little casements of a size to shoot an arrow through.” Here and elsewhere, MacCarthy demonstrates a sense of place and landscape that is one of the great strengths of her biography.
In the early 1860s, Morris’s income from his inheritance declined rapidly and the idea of a business that would manufacture items for domestic life was floated. This idea was further stimulated by the need to decorate the Red House interior. This led, at least in part, to the foundation of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in April 1861 – the prospectus includes the names of Ford Madox Brown, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Webb. In its first years it specialised in ecclesiastical work and especially stained glass and then received two prestigious non-ecclesiastical commissions for St James’s Palace in 1866-1867 (and once again in 1880-1881) and the South Kensington Museum in 1867. It was dissolved in 1875, reorganised as Morris & Co, and was to remain of central importance to Morris for the rest of his life.
Morris spent perhaps the happiest years of his life at Red House. Both of his two beloved children, May and Jenny, were born during these years. However, in 1865, he sold it and moved to London in order to better run his business. Jane, MacCarthy writes, would have been aware that “the move entailed a definite loss of social status”.
The Life and Death of Jason, a book-length poem, was published in June 1867. The Earthly Paradise was published in four parts and three volumes from 1868 to 1870 (Morris was embarrassed by what he termed its “elephantine bulk”). It is of this that Mackail said that “In the verses that frame the stories of ‘The Earthly Paradise’ there is an autobiography so delicate and so outspoken that it must needs be left to speak for itself.” As we have already seen, MacCarthy accepts the idea of using of the verse to shed light on the life. Neither The Life and Death of Jason nor The Earthly Paradise is read much, if at all, today, but both were extraordinarily successful with the Victorian reading public. For the rest of his life, Morris was known as “the author of The Earthly Paradise”.
Of the two poems, perhaps the prologue of The Earthly Paradise is best known.
Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasure of past years,
Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears,
Or hope again for aught that I can say,
The idle singer of an empty day.
Another extract suggests escapism, and looks forward to some of the themes of News from Nowhere.
Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small and white and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green;
The stress on the marriage until about 1870 is marked only by the lack of a single surviving letter to Jane from before March 1870. After this, some accommodation – in which he seems to have agreed to turn a blind eye to her relationship with Rossetti – must have been reached, and letters are preserved. But the poetry conveys some idea of his personal anguish and suffering during those earlier years.
Rossetti’s Poems – this was the work condemned as “The Fleshly School of Poetry” by Robert Buchanan – was published in 1870, and Morris, who had promised to review the book, did so in The Academy. Many of the love poems were written to Jane, which must have been obvious to her husband. Mackail mentions “those stormy years of The Earthly Paradise time and the time following it”, adding that his own biography’s description of these years “must be excessively flat owing to the amount of tact that had to be exercised right and left”, while admitting that tact “is a quality unpleasantly near untruthfulness often!”. Less encumbered by the need to be tactful, MacCarthy helps to fill in the details of a sad marriage. Morris rented Kelmscott Manor, the house now so closely associated with his name, together with Rossetti from 1871. “The house in the country,” MacCarthy says, “was an attempt to find a civilized modus vivendi for Morris, Janey and Rossetti, giving the triangle the stamp of permanence and at least a veneer of respectability”.
In 1871 and again in 1873, Morris visited Iceland as Rossetti and Jane lived together, and even when in England, he spent much his time in London. In Iceland, he pursued a new interest, the sagas. As MacCarthy notes, “His new passion for the sagas was itself in effect a discarding of Rossetti and Pre-Raphaelite influence.” Iceland was thus a double distancing: he was not only leaving behind him an unhappy marriage but also rejecting Rossetti’s influence. He regarded his Sigurd the Volsung, published in 1876, as his greatest work of literature. MacCarthy agrees that “technically surely Sigurd is his masterpiece”.
Morris took possession of the house now known as Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, in 1878. In August 1880, he hired a small houseboat on which he, his family, and friends sailed up the Thames from Kelmscott House to Kelmscott Manor. The journey was repeated the next year, and then again in the pages of News from Nowhere.
Until the late 1870s, Morris had been a passive liberal. He became involved actively in politics through two movements – the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (which he dubbed “Anti-Scrape”) and the Eastern Question Association. The former was constituted in 1877 and held its first annual meeting in 1878. The latter, of which Morris was treasurer, was established in 1876. It was triggered by a nationalist revolt in Bulgaria against Turkish rule, and by what was seen as a savage suppression of Christians by the Ottoman Empire (this occasioned WE Gladstone’s well-known polemic, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East). These two movements provided him with a political education.
By the 1880s, Morris had come to be recognised as one of the leading poets of his generation (in 1877, he was asked to stand for the chair of poetry at Oxford University, an offer he declined), as a significant voice for the arts, and as a leading practitioner of what were then called the “decoration arts”. He was a successful businessman and manufacturer. In January 1883, he was elected an honorary fellow of his college at Oxford. It was at this very moment, in January 1883, two months short of turning fifty, that he joined HM Hyndman’s Democratic – later Social Democratic – Federation. Two of his oldest friends – Charles Faulkner and Webb – followed him into socialism, but Burne-Jones did not. Morris had turned his back on Victorian respectability, and perhaps also on Jane, who is often said to have deeply disapproved of socialism and his new socialist friends. Lindsay notices that “while he was still struggling as a Liberal for the cause of peace he wrote accounts of his activities to Janey; now that he had turned to socialism he wrote mainly to [one of his daughters,] Jenny”.
The federation was characterised by internecine discussion rather than fraternity. One source of friction was the debate over the means by which the end, socialism, was to be achieved, with some, such as Hyndman, opting for parliamentary action, and others, such as Morris, rejecting it. Eventually, in December 1884, Morris and his supporters left the federation and founded the Socialist League. As had been the case in the federation, however, the league was also characterised by angry discussion and secession. News from Nowhere begins with “a brisk conversational discussion” at the league: “there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented, four of which had strong but divergent Anarchist opinions”. In 1889, anarchists seized control of the organisation; Morris withdrew as it disintegrated in 1890, forming the Hammersmith Socialist Society. His socialism was one which opposed both the statism and parliamentarianism of the centralists and the violence of (some of) the anarchists. But the Fabian socialist argument that some of Morris’s views – the desirability of civil war, for instance, or the refusal to alleviate suffering because suffering increases discontent – would “render Socialism a subject of mockery to sane men and women” is compelling.
Tennyson died in 1892. Despite his politics, Morris was suggested as the new poet laureate. He was approached by a member of cabinet and asked whether he would accept the position if offered it. Morris said he was honoured, but could not possibly accept. He had been radicalised to such an extent that he could no longer see himself working with the establishment.
Morris had initially begun collecting early printed books for their woodcuts, or for information on subjects such as dyeing. In reviving the art of natural dyeing, Morris turned to books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, even to Pliny. He later developed an interest in printing and type-setting, which in turn led to the Kelmscott Press. His last piece of great artistic workmanship was the 1896 Kelmscott Chaucer, which contains eighty-seven pictures by Burne-Jones. This was, as Mackail notes, “the final masterpiece of his multiform production”. He died in 1896 – a doctor said that he died because of “simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men”. Drawing on a great wealth of primary and secondary materials, MacCarthy has provided a vivid picture of this radical conservative and romantic socialist.
Much of Morris’s work can be found today in galleries. This review essay was drafted in Adelaide, South Australia, about as far away from Hammersmith and Kelmscott as it is possible to get, but the Art Gallery of South Australia has a large collection, some of which I was able to see, much of it consisting of work purchased directly from Morris & Co. to decorate the Adelaide homes of families such as the Barr Smiths, who alone furnished seven houses with Morris & Co. works.
Of Morris’s translations, prose, and verse, little is readily available. In some cases this is perhaps not surprising: Saintsbury says his “versions of the Aeneid and the Odyssey dissatisfied merely classical scholars without greatly pleasing those who can taste romance”. And his Beowulf was and remains unreadable. The verse however, in my view, does deserve better. Morris also published prose: he was influential in mobilising public opinion to the causes of architecture and art through his writings, and he was also known for his novels and socialist journalism. While much of the prose oscillated between escapist fantasy and ideological critique, his celebrated utopian novel News from Nowhere, which is still widely available, managed to combine the two.
As is frequently the case with biographies and biographers, opinion has been split on the merits of News from Nowhere. Mackail dismissed it as a “slightly constructed and essentially insular romance”, adding that Morris had “clothed his own dream of a new age in the innocent draperies of a romantic pastoral”. AL Morton however saw it as “the crown and climax of his whole work”. While MacCarthy seems to agree with Mackail that Morris’s socialism was a regrettable waste of energy, she disagrees with his evaluation of News from Nowhere. It is, she says, his “most enduringly popular and most wonderfully disconcerting work”.
The immediate trigger for the novel was a remarkably popular and, as Morris says, “deadly dull” utopian work by Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000–1887, published in 1888. Morris was reading Looking Backward, 2000-1887 in May 1889 and reviewed it in June. It was after this, from January 11th to October 4th, 1890, that he serialised News from Nowhere in the Socialist League’s journal, Commonweal.
A second inspiration was provided by the debate within the socialist movement. At the very time Morris was serialising News from Nowhere, he was losing control of the League to the many anarchists who had joined it because of his opposition to parliamentary politics. As already noted, he was embroiled in a number of disputes within the socialist movement, and found himself arguing for a rapidly disappearing middle ground between the anarchists and the state socialists. Bellamy’s utopia was of an urbanised, centralised and industrialised socialist state in which traditional family structures were preserved and in which consumption was emphasised. According to Morris, Bellamy’s “scheme may be described as State Communism, worked by the very extreme of national centralization”. Morris clearly saw this vision as being identical to that of state socialism, and advocated instead a rural, decentralised and de-industrialised version of socialism, thereby putting himself at odds with state socialists such as Bellamy and the Fabians. He also argued for a collective and communal authority, which separated him from the anarchists.
A third inspiration was his romantic medievalism. In News from Nowhere, Morris attempts to counter what he viewed as the mechanical view of socialism as advocated by Bellamy with an aesthetic view. His utopia, while situated in the future, draws inspiration from the past, especially the fourteenth century. Morris contributed a short foreword for the 1893 Kelmscott edition of Thomas More’s Utopia, in which he wrote: “his imaginations of the past he must needs read into his ideal vision, together with his own experiences of his time and people”. This was as true for Morris as for More. His imaginations can be seen in a letter to “Louie” (Louisa) Baldwin: “suppose people lived in little communities among gardens & green fields, so that you could be in the country in 5 minutes walk, & had few wants … & studied (the difficult) arts of enjoying life, & finding out what they really wanted: then I think one might hope civilization had really begun”. We can see here not only the idea of a garden city, seen also in More, but also a description of life in “Nowhere”.
According to Morris, industrial capitalism was not only responsible for poverty; it was also ugly. William Guest, the hero of News from Nowhere, rides on the underground in the dystopian nineteenth century. It was a “vapour-bath of hurried and discontented humanity”. He returns home, where there is an “ugly suspension bridge”. When he wakes up in utopia, it is no longer winter. It is a hot June day. He hastens outside where he is met by “fresh air and pleasant breeze”. A major contrast is made between the ugly (unaesthetic) nineteenth century and the beautiful (aesthetic) future of the twenty-second century. The people of the future are handsome, and look much younger than they actually are. They also seem to live longer. Their attire, which reflects that of the fourteenth century, is mentioned several times, and the “sombre greyness, or rather brownness, of the nineteenth century” is compared to “the gaiety and brightness” of the future. Architecture is discussed in similar terms. For instance, “the old hideous iron abortion” of a bridge has been replaced by “a handsome piece of very solid oak framing”.
Another major contrast is with Bellamy’s view of labour as misery (in his utopia, all are conscripted into an industrial army and forced to work). Carlyle had argued that “All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble.” Morris too emphasised the dignity and pleasure of work, seeing it as a form of art, a communal, creative, fulfilling, and joyous activity.
The economy of “Nowhere” seems to be based on handicrafts, not industrial mass production. Industrialisation was for Morris a central problem. An industrialised society in which the means of production were nationalised would remain industrialised. The people of “Nowhere” seem to be concerned about work running out because they enjoy it so much but at the same time build things to last. As one character says, he is “sorry to say” that “rough work” or hard physical labour, “is getting somewhat scarce”. One of the final chapters discusses the “Obstinate Refusers”, who like work so much that they continue to engage in it rather than in the festival of haymaking. Labour has thus become something markedly different from the labour of the nineteenth century. People take pleasure in work (handicraft artisanship), which is an expression of aesthetic taste and creative individuality. Morris even compares the pleasure one might receive from work to sexual pleasure. As old Hammond says: “If you are going to ask to be paid for the pleasure of creation, which is what excellence in work means, the next thing we shall hear of will be a bill sent in for the begetting of children.” Bellamy’s “work” on the other hand is seen as something to be endured, not to be enjoyed.
“Nowhere” is a communist, or more exactly a post-communist, society. The revolution is well and truly over: both the language of capitalism and the habits and customs associated with capitalism have disappeared. Morris would not perhaps have approved of the word, but it looks very much like an amiable anarchy. The institution of marriage has vanished. Crime hardly exists, and where it does, people refuse to punish the criminal (to put it another way, crimes of passion exist, but irrational behaviour is dealt with in a rational fashion). Private property is unknown.
Morris’s utopia is a product of a revolutionary change in attitude, and especially attitudes to work and property. There has been a massive deurbanisation of the population from cities to the villages, a revival in countryside living, and a revival of handicrafts. Not only has the urban population moved out to the shires, making for a sophisticated rural population, but the countryside has repaid the compliment: London has been countrified – there are salmon in the Thames and orchards in the city itself (Morris’s utopia has been called an ecotopia, or at least an early model for an ecotopia, in the past. The Green movement owes him much.)
One of the most interesting things about Morris’s utopia is that it is imperfect, as was indeed that of More. “Nowhere” has its critics: the old grumbler or “praiser of past times” provides a contrast to old Hammond. More significantly perhaps, the problem of violence has not been resolved. Death by violence is mentioned twice, and old Hammond also admits that violence does occur. Men still fight over women – “love is not a very reasonable thing”.
News from Nowhere ends when the hero, William Guest, wakes up and realises he is back in the nineteenth century. In Bellamy’s work, the hero has a nightmare about returning to the nineteenth century, but does not, and so Looking Backward, 2000-1887 ends on a happy note. Morris’s work differs in that the future is a dream: he is perhaps suggesting that it must be fought for, that it will not be provided to us on a platter.
Bernard Shaw once described a reading by Morris of his Sigurd the Volsung, at which he rocked his body from side to side in time to the rhythm of his poem “like an elephant”. To read about Morris is to fall a little in love with the man. And to read News from Nowhere is to be a little inspired by him.
David Askew is an Associate Professor of Law at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. Recent works include David Askew (with P Close and X Xin), The Beijing Olympiad: The Political Economy of a Sporting Mega-Event (Routledge, 2006), and chapters in BT Wakabayashi ed, The Nanking Atrocity, 1937-8: Complicating the Picture (Berghahn, 2007).