News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890)

Reading William Morris’s fiction is difficult for two reasons:

  • his prose is poor, his characterisation and plotting non-existent
  • every cause he believed in and hoped for, and which his prose exists to champion, has been defeated

Morris’s life

Clive Wilmer’s introduction to this Penguin edition paints a handy overview of Morris’s life. Number one, he was rich. He inherited money from his father, who was a successful financier. He inherited an interest in a copper company, becoming familiar with then practicalities of business, at the young age of 21. Hence his later business ventures, namely William Morris and Co., unlike most artists’ ventures into business, were efficiently run and profitable. He died leaving some £60,000, which Wilmer calculates to be £12 million in 1990s money, even more today.

The trajectory of his life is clear enough:

  • involvement at Oxford with the pre-Raphaelite group round the charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti with their obsessive interest in medieval life, architecture, poetry, art
  • the powerful impact of John Ruskin with his belief that Art should be incorporated into everyday life, that Work should be made useful and rewarding instead of the slave labour of the factory
  • unsatisfactory attempts at painting which quickly gave way to interests in the decorative arts which came to include fabrics, wallpaper, furniture, stained glass window and book-making
  • as a young man he married the ‘stunner’ Jane Burden, a working class girl who married to escape her poverty but the marriage was unhappy and eventually Jane became mistress of Rossetti, plunging Morris into decades of personal unhappiness

Communism

As his arts & crafts business thrived, Morris worried that the works his company were making were only affordable by the rich. It was his lifelong concern to make beautifully-made things more accessible to everyone. Alongside this the growing conviction that society as a whole needed a wholescale revolution to abolish the crushing poverty of the Victorian age, to liberate the great mass of the labouring poor, to remove the ugliness of Victorian industrialism, to make work rewarding, the people free of the capitalist cash-nexus, and Nature restored to pristine beauty unspoilt by factories and pollution.

  • In 1883 Morris joined the Democratic Foundation, a socialist group, but left the following year to found the Socialist League (SL), disagreeing with DF support for Britain’s Imperalist foreign policy and readiness to accept a Parliamentary route to reform. Morris thought Parliament hopelessly corrupt. What was needed was a Revolution.
  • For the remainder of his life Morris poured immense energy into giving speeches, organising meetings, writing socialist poems and chants and songs, promoting his uncompromising Marxist beliefs in the necessity of an international communist revolution. He was introduced to Friedrich Engels and worked with Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. He was arrested a number of times when police broke up meetings and marches led to scuffles, but escaped prison due to his impeccable middle class credentials.
  • Morris edited, wrote and subsidised the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal. From November 1886 to January 1887 Morris’s novel, A Dream of John Ball, was serialised in it. From  January to October 1890, Morris serialised another novel, News from Nowhere.

News from Nowhere

The authors of utopias tend to adopt the form in order to make polemical points, resulting in many utopias being strangely monotonous books which unravel into shopping lists of the author’s obsessions. Compare and contrast the success and popularity of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) a fully dramatised vision of future worlds, with his much more preachy A Modern Utopia (1905), which no-one reads. This, Morris’s most famous book, is no exception to the rule.

‘Plot’

In News from Nowhere a man in his fifites like Morris wakes up in Morris’s house in Hammersmith to find it is a hundred years in the future, England has gone through a Revolution and become an earthly paradise in which there is no private property, no big cities, no authority, no money, no divorce, no courts, no prisons and no class systems. People work freely for the joy of it. Everything they do, because it is freely done with joy, results in objects which are beautiful.

The plot, if it can be called that, makes Morris – here renamed William Guest – meet the people outside his Hammersmith home, no longer crammed in next to busy factories, iron bridges and bustling Londoners and now just one of a handful of cottages standing in open fields next to a magically unpolluted river Thames. Perceiving his bewilderment these friendly strangers take Morris in a horse and cart across what was once London and is now a series of beautiful villages thinly populated with beautiful, healthy, artistically-dressed men and women, to meet an old man living next to what was once the British Museum who – in a loooong chapter – retells in detail the leadup to the Great Change ie the Revolution which brought about this communist paradise.

Then they go back to Hammersmith and get in a boat and row up the Thames, now pure and clean and sparking, denuded of horrible factories and the vulgar houses of Victorian nouveaux riches, until they reach Morris’s country house, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. Along the way they pick up a laughing young woman Ellen, who falls in love with Guest. Then he wakes up and it was all a dream.

Psychological power

The journey up the Thames represents a journey through an idyllic, prelapsarian world to Home, which is also a journey back to Morris’s boyhood memories of a happier, simpler world and a journey towards the mutual, loving fulfilment he so miserably failed to have with his wife, Jane.

As I stood there Ellen detached herself from our happy friends who still stood on the little strand and came up to me. She took me by the hand, and said softly, ‘Take me on to the house at once; we need not wait for the others: I had rather not.’ (Ch XXXI)

It is a basket of deeply personal wishes expressed as a fable and I think what power it has comes from these psychological sources. It is an adult’s powerful dream of returning to the golden summers of his boyhood.

…the garden between the wall and the house was redolent of the June flowers, and the roses were rolling over one another with that delicious superabundance of small well-tended gardens which at first sight takes away all thought from the beholder save that of beauty. The blackbirds were singing their loudest, the doves were cooing on the roof-ridge, the rooks in the high elm-trees beyond were garrulous among the young leaves, and the swifts wheeled whining about the gables. And the house itself was a fit guardian for all the beauty of this heart of summer. (XXXI)

Issues

For the serious-minded, News from Nowhere also contains a shopping list of the usual issues which crop up in utopias and, presumably, it was the touching on these hot topics which helped the book become a classic not only here but among socialists and communists across Europe. In Morris’s post-revolutionary, communist paradise:

  • work – is Art because it is free and unforced, done for its own joy and benefit
  • economics – there aren’t any because there is no money, no buying and selling, no capitalism
  • education – is not compulsory, children are left to find their own way to express themselves, not force fed in ‘boy-farms’
  • women – are free equals of men, not given or ‘owned’ in marriage
  • government – there is none – the Houses of Parliament have been converted into a large communal Dung store 🙂
  • Nature – has been liberated from factories, steam engines and all the dirt and stink of industralism, reverting to pristine beauty – ‘As we went, the folk on the bank talked indeed, mingling their kind voices with the cuckoo’s song, the sweet strong whistle of the blackbirds, and the ceaseless note of the corn-crake as he crept through the long grass of the mowing-field; whence came waves of fragrance from the flowering clover amidst of the ripe grass.’ (Ch XXXI)
  • technology – there doesn’t seem to be any at all, no steam engines or factories, let alone electric lights or telephones or motor cars, ‘so that the most obviously useful works looked beautiful and natural also.’ (Ch XXX)
  • communism – is the name given to this ideal unspoilt world of equality and freedom

…almost none of which seem worthy of serious consideration. No-one would disagree that work for many is a grinding drudgery, that soul-less economics is the ruling ideology of our time, that education has become more regimented than ever and yet still seems to fail millions of children, that woman are still not equal or free, that the government is inept and political parties are just different flavours of yes-men fronting for banks and big business, that Nature has been ruined and despoiled, that a lot of technology is poisonous and destructive – and that it would be lovely if all this could be swept away and replaced by an eternal summer of beautiful men and women living lives of leisure.

By framing the issues in such a strong vision of a world born again, Morris certainly in his own day, and maybe still in ours, can give raise awareness of these issues and the way they are all connected in one bad ‘system’. But this awareness won’t find any solutions in the book because Morris has no solutions except a sweeping change of human nature.

Style

Beguiling as this vision may be, and long into the night though the arguments about any of these perennial topics of conversation could last, a novel is made out of words and Morris, although he has the fluency and confidence of a man of his age and class (Marlborough public school, Oxford) seems to be incapable of writing an interesting sentence. Bland and energyless and utterly predictable is every sentence in this long book.

So on we went, Dick rowing in an easy tireless way, and Clara sitting by my side admiring his manly beauty and heartily good-natured face, and thinking, I fancy, of nothing else. As we went higher up the river, there was less difference between the Thames of that day and Thames as I remembered it; for setting aside the hideous vulgarity of the cockney villas of the well-to-do, stockbrokers and other such, which in older time marred the beauty of the bough-hung banks, even this beginning of the country Thames was always beautiful; and as we slipped between the lovely summer greenery, I almost felt my youth come back to me, and as if I were on one of those water excursions which I used to enjoy so much in days when I was too happy to think that there could be much amiss anywhere. (Chapter XXII)

Old-fashioned diction

Morris thought returning to the decorative motifs and subjects of medieval tapestries would result in better design and this may well be true of his famous and successful wallpapers, curtains, furniture coverings and so on. However, it was not a successful strategy for his prose. Merely putting in ‘quoth’ and ‘said I’ and ‘methinks’ and a few archaisms like ‘sele’ and ‘mamelon’ does not medievalise or beautify his style. It simply becomes standard Victorian with some anachronistic phraseology and vocabulary.

Around the time of the Great War English prose underwent a revolution which had many streams, many authors and styles, but nearly all of them led towards a Modernist rejection of all old-fashioned diction and an emphasis on modern words assembled in shorter, stripped-down sentences, reflecting, say, the move towards Art Deco in the decorative arts or neo-classicism in music. In one short generation, by, say, the mid-twenties, Morris’s entire style and the endeavours of everyone like him who hoped to recapture and restore something of medieval beauty by using medieval words, looked ludicrous. In the 1900s Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy had created a kind of suburban English style; by the end of the War Aldous Huxley or Evelyn Waugh were creating a slick, spiffy style to reflect the Roaring Twenties. And then, of course, there were the Americans.

A short generation after his death, Morris’s prose, like his dark fussy wallpapers and fabrics, looked unbearably stuffy, a relic from a prehistoric age, tired faded books from an era become completely irrelevant to the permanent crises of the twentieth century. Why dream about lazy boating trips down the Thames when the Bolshevik army was invading Poland, or the Italian fascists were marching on Rome?

Today, a hundred and twenty-four years later, in a society and a world completely dominated by the triumph of Finance Capitalism, throwaway consumerism and environmental destruction, it is hard to read News from Nowhere because its vision seems too naive and personal, because all the causes Morris fought for have been comprehensively defeated, and because it is written in a prose which offers almost no rewards, apart from the lulling, drowsy soporific of a lazy summer afternoon.

We came just here on a gang of men road-mending which delayed us a little; but I was not sorry for it; for all I had seen hitherto seemed a mere part of a summer holiday; and I wanted to see how this folk would set to on a piece of real necessary work. They had been resting, and had only just begun work again as we came up; so that the rattle of the picks was what woke me from my musing. There were about a dozen of them, strong young men, looking much like a boating party at Oxford would have looked in the days I remembered, and not more troubled with their work: their outer raiment lay on the road-side in an orderly pile under the guardianship of a six-year-old boy, who had his arm thrown over the neck of a big mastiff, who was as happily lazy as if the summer-day had been made for him alone. (Chapter VII)

The whole book is like the lapping of small waves against the sides of a punt on his beloved river Thames, pleasant, relaxing, utterly without impact.

History

News from Nowhere was published in book form in 1891. One hundred years later, in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed. For that hundred years the book was part of the continuum of socialist or communist texts which helped to support and justify communist regimes around the world. Now it has lived on into the ideological vacuum of the post-communist era. Much of what it says about the misery and exploitation of the capitalist system, about the importance of fulfilling work and well-designed surroundings and the despoliation of nature, remain true today. The difference is no-one believes anything can be done. Most people have abandoned any engagement with politics and live as atomised units connected by their smartphones and Facebook.

Seems to me what impact News from Nowhere possesses comes from two sources:

  • the psychological or imaginative power of its sustained dream of the long lazy summers of childhood
  • and a nostalgia for a time when people gave a damn about politics and believed they really could change the world

These two strands, I think, overlap and combine to give the book a sad nostalgic feeling.

Related links

News from Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece

News from Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece

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