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William Morris and the Idea of Community

 Romance, History and Propaganda, 1880-1914


 Anna Vaninskaya


 Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture

Edinburgh: University Press, 2010.

 Hardback. viii-232 pp. £65.00. ISBN 9780748641499


Reviewed by Peter Faulkner

University of Exeter


Anna Vaninskaya has chosen to focus on a central topic in Morris’s writings, the idea of community, and to place it in its context in impressive detail. In doing so, she shows a convincing knowledge of many aspects of late-Victorian culture, and she presents her findings with admirable clarity. Her overall view is that Morris paradoxically depended on modern institutions to provide the foundations for his anti-modern ideal of community.

Her account is divided into three sections, as the subtitle indicates. The first deals with Romance, and relates Morris’s prose romances to contemporary developments in late-Victorian fiction, an approach which, although suggested by George Saintsbury in 1907, has not been carried through systematically before. The 1880s saw a revival of interest in romance as a reaction to the advance of the realist mode in fiction at the time; writers like Rider Haggard (whose stories Morris enjoyed) were happy to declare their allegiance to it. There was to be an emphasis on action and adventure, as opposed to the more introverted and domestic mode of contemporary realism. I was surprised that Vaninskaya did not discuss Martin Greene’s illuminating book Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire, in which he argues for a gendered view of the two approaches, suggesting that in romance ‘the brothers’ attempted to regain the central ground of fiction from ‘the sisters’ who had taken it over in the mid-century. It would be interesting to discuss the gender roles in Morris’s romances in this context. The main-stream writers of romance were mostly right-wing in their politics, often offering what we may term the romance of imperialism, and so at odds with the resolutely anti-imperialist Morris. Nevertheless, Vaninkaya asserts, Morris’s anti-imperialism ‘did not prevent him from succumbing to the spell of the heroic nationalist (even racialist) rhetoric that is usually associated with the adventure writers of imperialism’ [38]. This is a serious charge, and it is surprising that no evidence is given for it. In my view, it is relevant to that disturbingly violent story, The Roots of the Mountains, but hardly anywhere else. For all the resemblances between some aspects of Morris’s romances and those of his contemporary romancers, there was one vitally important difference: Morris’s work is inspired by the communal ethic, contrasting with the individualism of the heroes of Henty, Haggard and Kipling. For Morris, in Vaninskaya’s words, ‘individual tragedy’ could be ‘transcended in the affirmation of the communal spirit’ [42].

Other aspects of the publishing business are also investigated. Vaninskaya argues that Morris was for much of the time curiously uninterested in the realities of book production, and ‘blind to the fact’ that it was his commercially-produced romances which proved the most powerful instruments to spread his idea of community. Since she admits that ‘comparatively speaking, they never sold well’ [42], one wonders about the use of the word ‘powerful’. It was surely earlier and more popular works like Jason and The Earthly Paradise that profited from the development of marketing practices in these years—what Vaninskaya calls, perhaps extravagantly, ‘the moral evils of mass-market publishing’ [47]. Later Vaninskaya makes the interesting claim that Morris was well disposed towards naturalism, believing that it could take up ‘the burden of portraying reality’ which ‘its more genteel cousin’, realism, ‘refused to carry’ [67]. When he read Germinal, we are told, Morris did not find it harmful, because the ‘grossness’ in it was ‘part of a true picture of the life which our civilisation forces on labouring men’. Nevertheless, Morris was not the man to ‘tell the true tale’ [68], preferring to root his stories in romance and folklore. It is perhaps surprising that Vaninskaya seems here to imply that truth was less likely to be found in such tales.

In the second section, ‘History’, Vaninskaya argues that Morris’s ‘vision of community once gain depended for its realisation upon modern institutions’, in this case ‘the professional historical disciplines’ as they had developed in the Victorian period [75]. This is a more familiar argument than that concerning the romances, and one that no-one is likely to dispute. Whether we should consider this to constitute a paradox, as Vaninskaya does, seems to me more questionable, though perhaps the issue of small significance. With her characteristic thoroughness, Vaninskaya draws attention to the full range of historical material based on by Morris, from the ‘sagas, histories and codes of law’ surviving from the past, to the works of historical scholarship drawing on these sources that were so prominent in the later Victorian period and including the work of Green, Freeman and Stubbs. Where she departs from some previous scholarship is in attributing more significance to Belfort Bax’s contributions to the co-authored articles ‘Socialism from the Root Up’ in Commonweal, which was revised to become Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome in 1893. Vaninskaya evidently values this book more highly than other critics, finding in it ‘a recapitulation of the entire range of academic interests... that shaped Morris’s historical understanding of community’ and claiming that it ‘brought again before the general public (in literal rather than parable form) the socialist communal ethic of Thiodolf and John Ball’ [134].

Morris’s historical knowledge is emphasised in both Chapter 3, dealing with ‘The Dark Ages’, and Chapter 4, dealing with ‘The Middle Ages’, but it is notable that Vaninskaya, concentrating on the romances, devotes a good deal more attention to the former rather than to the latter. The Middle Ages are discussed in terms of the Guilds, the Peasants’ Revolt—with an illuminating account of A Dream of John Ball—and finally the Church. On this point, Vaninskaya affirms that ‘Morris was an atheist, but if there was any strand of Christianity that garnered his political approval in his own time it was Catholicism’, quoting his appreciation of Cardinal Manning’s contribution to a conference on the prevailing distress in London held in December 1887 [130]—though this is rather slim evidence on which to build a generalisation, and the passage about Manning quoted ends with the statement that ‘we must not reckon on real help from the Catholic clergy’. But the more important point made is that in A Dream of John Ball Morris did not follow historians like Green and Stubbs in associating Ball with Wyclif and the Lollards, but made him ‘in favour of a very Catholic and catholic devotion to the ‘Fellowship’ of the ‘Holy Church’ [131]. In this Morris would share with Hyndman the view that medieval Catholicism had been ‘for the people and against the dominant class’, while the emerging Protestant ethic would be individualistic and proto-capitalist [132]—a view strangely reminiscent of Disraeli’s Tory Young England novel Sybil of 1845.

The final and most adventurous section of the book is entitled ‘Propaganda’, and deals with the place of the idea of community in the politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Again, Vaninskaya invokes the idea of paradox: late-Victorian socialists were part of a modern culture in being ‘freestanding, atomised individuals’ lacking the ‘natural, spontaneous communality of barbarism’, but often viewed themselves as belonging to ‘self-fulfilling fellowships based on common mores (and even ‘religion’ of a sort) and familial-style co-operation’ [137]. Propaganda was what was needed to bring about the new collectivity, with ‘many features of the small-scale organic community, but having the global reach (via federalism) and self-consciousness only afforded by modern civil society’ [138]. This propaganda had to be conducted in the difficult conditions of a society in which ‘the growing mass leisure industry’ was undermining ‘the associational culture of the working class’—an interesting idea that I would like to have seen clarified—while the hostility of the parliamentary parties and the development of ‘statist modernity’ based on bureaucracy and professionalism challenged the socialist ethic [138]. In this context, Vaninskaya writes that ‘the ultimate failure of socialist culture was due to the very self-sufficiency—now political rather than kinship-based—implied in the concept of a traditional community’ [139]. But the idea of ‘ultimate failure’ seems to be questioned when she finds evidence of the continuity of the concern with community in ‘the ethical or romantic strains of early socialism’ [139]. She brings out convincingly the complexity or ‘hybridity’ of the socialism of the period, in doing which she extends the period under consideration to 1914. This enables her to discuss two important early twentieth-century novels, H.G.Wells’s controversial Anna Veronica of 1909, and Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, published in a reduced form in 1914 and hardly noticed at the time—the full version was not published until 1955. Vaninskaya gives thoughtful critical accounts of both novels, noting the ‘tone of disillusioned mockery’ in Wells’s account of contemporary left-wing middle-class society [149] and the hybridity of discourse in Tressell’s novel, embodying ‘in its own rhetoric the different strains of left-wing discourse on offer in the period’ [151]. She notes the difference between the intended audiences: Wells was addressing the Fabians, whom he wanted to re-educate; Tressell was a founder of the Hastings branch of the Social Democratic Federation, and belonged to a working-class culture that Wells tended to dismiss. Morris’s influence on Tressell’s novel is shown in ‘the presentation of the ideal of craftsmanship in the figure of Frank Owen’ [153] and in the emphasis on education in socialism, although Tressells’ orientation is towards enlightenment rather than revolution. The discussion here leads to a stress on the importance to Tressell of Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England, described as ‘the most successful and influential piece of propaganda produced by the British socialist movement’ [155]. Vaninskaya also discusses the early emergence of the idea that idealism gave way to bureaucracy in the development of socialism, which she sees as based on a prevalent myth of ‘the life-writing genre’ rather than on historical truth [157].

The final chapter is entitled ‘Education and Association’ and ends with a section called ‘The Conscious Community’ in which Vaninskaya emphasises what she regards as a final paradox: the belief in the necessity for ‘a synthesis arising from a combination of opposites’ [202], in this case human agency and economic evolution. The anarchist Kropotkin may have believed that the commune would emerge naturally from the human capacity for co-operation, but for the Marxists, including Morris, the communist future must be rationally constructed. The final sentence runs:

Only with the whole might of the capitalist publishing industry, the research output of the professional academic establishment, and the political organisational experience of modern civil society at their backs, could the small band of believers in the conscious community hope to achieve their quest. [203]

I am not sure what to make of this; is it proposing an alternative history of possible socialist success at the time, or summarising the reasons for failure? This is one of the few points in the book when the lucidity of the writing falters. But by this time the reader has become grateful to Vaninskaya for her stimulating, scholarly and wide-ranging study.






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