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William Morris in the Twenty-First Century


Edited by Phillippa Bennett and Rosie Miles


Bern: Peter Lang, 2010

Paperback. xix + 287 p. 19 illustrations. ISBN 978-3-0343-0106-0. £40 / 47,50€


Reviewed by Gilbert Bonifas

Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis.


Rouen, in the not too distant future. Owing to pollution and global warming the normal temperature is 42°C. The local proletarians, probably 99% of the population, are rioting and preparing to occupy the segregated districts where the capitalist hyperclass lives. The leaders are one Eric Blair and one William Morris. From vision to action. At last the liberation of mankind seems within reach. The authors of William Morris in the Twenty-First Century would love Jérôme Leroy’s novella.(1) It goes beyond their wildest ambitions for Morris—till the last page, that is.

This book is a collection of thirteen essays adapted from papers read at a conference held at Royal Holloway College in 2005. They are distributed over five parts of unequal length and flanked by a preface by Regenia Gagnier, an introduction by the two editors and an afterword by Peter Preston. In the middle there is an “interlude” by the artist David Mabb. In his conclusion, Peter Preston, who in 1999 co-edited with Peter Faulkner William Morris: Centenary Essays, writes that the contents of the chapters signal a decided shift in the nature of Morris studies over less than a decade. The differences between the Centenary Essays and William Morris in the Twenty-First Century, he says, reflect “a reordering of priorities in public affairs at home and throughout the world” [275]. This is tactfully put. It provides a plausible explanation for the quasi-absence of reflections on Morris’s literary and artistic achievements and at the same time contrives to remain non-committal about those “ideas and themes” and “different emphases” by which “the papers were driven” [276].

Yet all these parts on “Morris, Architecture and Utopia”,“Morris, Politics and Utopia”, “Morris and the Literature of Revolution” or even “Virtual Morris” are not mere exercises in intellectual history if one accepts that in the latter the historian’s remit is to establish how “people in the past made sense of their world”(2) (our italics). For in William Morris in the Twenty-First Century most of the contributors have a socialistic / ecologist / Marxist axe to grind in the present, and insist that Morris is our contemporary, just as it was once claimed that Shakespeare was “our contemporary” because through him we could understand the horrors of life and politics beyond the Iron Curtain. In their view, because Morris undoubtedly “knew that the social and economic relations fostered by capitalism would have to be transformed” [223] more than a century ago, it necessarily follows that he “still has much to tell us about how we live and how we might live” [4], can still contribute to “bring a socialist message to a broad audience” [262] and be part of the “wider project of human emancipation” [140] by which is meant the “restructuring of society along socialist principles” [224].

This will be no startling revelation to the French students of Morris who had been informed by Peter Faulkner in 2004 that although Morris’s political legacy seemed “to have disappeared from mainstream British politics /…/ it would seem that Morris is increasingly being seen as an inspiration for the Green movement”(3)—more exactly, if one goes by the contents of this book, the Green movement and beyond. Nevertheless one may be surprised by the extent of the axe-flourishing done here. “Leftist scholars”, as many of the contributors to this volume like to define themselves [147], have always taken a special interest in Morris, acknowledging him as one of their own, but there is a not inconsiderable difference between using and interpreting primary texts and contextual evidence to “locate [an author] accurately in the museum of the history of ideas” as José Harris once put it(4)—in that particular instance proving the existence of a Marxist Morris—and going at times well beyond what the text warrants to turn that same nineteenth-century Marxist Morris, by a process of extrapolation, into part clairvoyant and part guru for our century.

To the authors of Morris in the Twenty-First Century, confining oneself to setting Morris in context would be “of no more than antiquarian interest” [48], intellectually irresponsible since the evils of capitalism are still with us, indeed have become strikingly similar in certain parts of the world to those Morris himself denounced [149 ], so that there is no reason not to find inspiration and guidance in such essays as “Misery and the Way Out”, “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” or “How we Live and How We Might Live”, and “to give up on the relevance of Morris’s utopia to our own time” [126]. In these hard times there is certainly much resonance in these titles, but is this sufficient to turn Morris not simply into a figurehead, but also into a fellow-militant? One is reminded of the remark once made about George Orwell that somehow it was not easy, though he was a left-winger, to imagine him marching with the long-haired CND or Vietnam War protesters of the 1950s and 1960s. More importantly perhaps, analogies are not proofs as Anna Vaninskaya wisely cautions [183] in a chapter which methodologically tears apart most(5) of the other contributions to the book, even though the object of Vaninskaya’s flak must originally have been recent critical writings on Morris rather than her fellow speakers at the 2005 conference.  

In “William Morris’s Germania: The Roots of Socialism” [169-192], Anna Vaninskaya surveys the varied representations of the semi-mythical Teutonic village community and its institutions by diverse late-Victorian intellectuals, together with the political and economic uses the latter made of them in relation to English history and society. She shows that these widely divergent interpretations, from liberal democratic to communistic (Morris, of course, finding in the Germanic “Mark”, whatever it may exactly have been, the inspiration for an alternative socialist vision to nineteenth-century England), were in fact based on the same set of anthropological, textual and philological data, and could only be accounted for by “the ideological and political allegiance” of each historian [170, 191], Morris’s version (and Engels’s, and Bax’s) being neither more nor less selective or true than all the others. Her analysis allows Vaninskaya to weave a number of methodological precepts and strictures into her reflections. Focusing on Morris, she emphasises that although many of Morris’s concerns are still with us it is hermeneutically hazardous to “adapt the past to the ends of the present” and to use Morris’s ideas “as tools in contemporary debates”: “What does it mean to take a set of writings almost a century and a half old […] and interpret them in line with a modern agenda?” [169].To her who painstakingly seeks out the sources of Morris’s socialism within the intellectual context of his time, it is clear that it means nothing short of an epistemological catastrophe. Her bugbear, “the twenty-first-century Morris critic” [192] is a sinner by omission and commission. In his/her eagerness to appropriate Morris’s political legacy he/she will practise “deliberate suppression”, “omit important counterexamples” [192], or will conveniently sift through the available primary evidence so as to be able to “invoke the Morrisian ideal in contemporary causes” [170].

Besides, what is the Morrisian ideal? “Who is to say that the ‘Marxist’ Morris is more representative than the ‘Romantic’ one if what he wrote in 1865 is as authentic as what he wrote in 1885?” [192]. Harsh words that do not necessarily all apply here; none the less the authors of this book should have paid more attention. The end product would have been less one-dimensional, intellectually less perplexing. Its contributors would not have felt the need to cast capitalism as the villain of the piece at every opportunity and at all costs, nor would they have consistently presented Morris’s views as compatible with a type of social, aesthetic and environmental criticism that largely accepts modernity (often camouflaged as “post-industrial” civilisation), thus blocking out any interpretation making use of Morris’s medievalism and romanticism. Eventually some readers of Morris in the Twenty-First Century may feel entitled to conclude that to contemporise, politicise, and co-opt him into the camp of those who are “seeking solutions to current social, economic and environmental problems” [3] is an arduous exercise necessitating at times an excessive amount of illogicality and simplification, intellectual contortions, and some ideological tunnel vision or, as Anna Vaninskaya has it more poetically, a good dose of “romance” [192].(6)

That to be “an activist on behalf of the future” [xix], as Morris was, requires being constantly alive to the abominations of capitalism, Regenia Gagnier’s Preface can leave no one in doubt. Abhorrence of the system one lives in, however well-founded, should not, however, result in a loss of discernment and the indiscriminate use of Morris—witness, for instance, “Hijack: Morris Dialectically” by David Mabb [153-166]. In this essay Mabb analyses montages he made and exhibited over the last ten years. They combine decorative designs by Morris with avant-garde artworks, mostly by Soviet painters, and photographs of the late-industrial age, in particular a fine example of brutalist architecture in Liverpool. Colour-wise there is much to commend in these pictures, but their meaning will be a puzzle to many readers. The guiding idea, however, seems to have been to conflate, with a good dose of sorrow and regret for what might have been, manifestations of failed “utopian aspirations” [159], whether Morrisian, Russian communist or urbanist.

In the case of Morris, Mabb is aware of the contradiction between Morris’ socialistic wishes to reintroduce art into the everyday life of the common people and the fact that the production of his firm could only be afforded by the better-off classes, so that it became a decorative attribute of conservative England before spawning kitschy copies of his designs for the mass-market. The techniques and economics of Morris & Co, and later the emergence of the consumer society probably made it inevitable that it should be so, but Mabb typically prefers to anthropomorphise an economic process and see only a conspiracy: “Hijack /…/ by capitalism, which shamelessly ‘holds up’ and abuses Morris designs for purposes which Morris never intended” [166]. Hence his own exhibition of 2008, Morris Kitsch Archive, intended to be a pastiche of the current Morris-inspired merchandise, the original ‘Morris Kitsch’ so to speak, in order to “appropriate” it and so to rescue Morris’s legacy from the clutches of consumerism (“such an approach opens up a space that allows Morris’s designs to work critically within a world dominated by consumerism” [166]), the supposition being probably that the vision of a sofa, a tea-pot or a handbag [figure 19 between pages 166 and 167] covered in a Morris-like flowery pattern by Mabb himself would be enough to make people realise that these and similar products are perfect representations of what Morris called “the shoddy”.  

This does not appear to be a very effective strategy. As two anecdotes about Mabb’s exhibition (one in his own essay, the other reported by John Purkis in the Journal of William Morris Studies, summer 2011, p. 66) illustrate, it sometimes results in quite comical situations showing the disconnection between the indignant authors of this book and the people they want to save, whose sense of beauty has been corrupted by capitalism. Mabb’s understanding of Morris’s “essentially political motivation” [154] as a designer and a craftsman, cannot be faulted, nor can his analysis of how his designs were easily incorporated into and debased by the bourgeois culture he hated so much, but why, in these circumstances, Mabb believes that in the 21st century Morris remains an indispensable ally in his personal aesthetic struggle against capitalism is not easy to understand.

In another chapter by Ruth Levitas (“After Morris: Warwick Herbert Draper and the Pursuit of Utopia”, 29-51) Morris is again dubiously pressed (he who hated being “brigaded”) into the service of the contemporary anti-capitalist cause, even though the subject of the essay is a man who died in 1926. For three quarters of its length it is an original piece of research on little-known Warwick Herbert Draper, who lived in Kelmscott House from 1910 to 1915 and was a Hammersmith resident for a substantial part of his life. Draper was a Labour man and a gradualist who thought Morris’s political views too radical; on the other hand he seems to have found his social and environmental opinions inspiring. There are echoes of Morris and often direct references in two utopias he published in 1909 (1955) and 1919 (The New Britain, “essentially a utopia based on a mix of guild socialism and garden cities” [43]) and in two books of local history, Hammersmith (1913) and Chiswick (1923). Above all, it was in Morrisian fashion that Draper entered on an Anti-Scrape campaign of his own, first to stop a new road being driven along the riverside through the Georgian houses, gardens and public spaces of old Hammersmith, and a few years later to prevent the sale and private development of Chiswick Meadows between Chiswick House and the Thames. Resistance to a new thoroughfare in Hammersmith continued long after Draper’s death but in the 1950s the road was finally built and the Kelmscott House garden buried beneath the tarmacadam of a six-lane dual carriageway.

Up to this point Levitas’s essay is a minor but valuable addition to the corpus of Morris studies. Unfortunately she carries on for four more pages tenuously connected with what precedes them, apparently to demonstrate that just as Morris was “a resource” [51] to Draper, he could still be one in the twenty first century in a very similar context. And so one is treated to figures and percentages about the widening gap between the very rich and very poor in Britain and hears about how old houses long owned or tenanted by public institutions are again passing into private hands, often to serve as location for “nauseating” television series or the entertainment of the new plutocrats [50]. Whether the public has increasingly been excluded from certain spaces since the beginning of the “Thatcher era” [49] is debatable, but one can hardly reproach Levitas for enlisting Morris as ally. She may have remembered that in News from Nowhere “a great many people” now live comfortably in Windsor Castle, and that at the time of the revolution, “the damned flunkies” were ejected from “the big and fine houses” around it, so that “everybody can live comfortably and happily, and not a few damned thieves only, who were centres of vulgarity and corruption”.(7) Certainly Morris placed “the moral claim of the public good over private ownership” [51], but as Levitas is aware, the only way he saw to achieve this was to abolish private property and thus capitalism. Very tempting, but she is not inclined to risk it. She is engaged in a “more limited and local struggle” [51], and if a gazillionaire turned up with a donation of £20 million towards the purchase of one of those mansions the National Trust can no longer afford to buy, she would not mind too much, so long as he was disguised as a “collector” [50]. Seemingly, no one can do without a philanthropist à la Bill Gates or George Soros these days, and after all just wars have sometimes to end in a compromise peace. But Morris is unlikely to have approved,(8) so why bring him in?

The main answer to this question is probably that having chosen to talk about William Morris now, the authors of this book are hoist with their own petard, compelled to unceasingly look for and point out the “continuing relevance” of Morris’s writings and views for our century. The match is often contrived and forced, and can carry conviction only if one considers it axiomatic that there is but one Morris, and he is a Marxist. At times, however, it seems very plausible, as in David Latham’s complex chapter, “Between Hell and England: Finding Ourselves in the Present Text” [193-207]. As in most of the other essays in the book, Latham’s takes several pot shots at the System. Independently of whether they are justified or not, they seem out of place. Morris certainly did battle with “an elite group of citizens” monopolising “the values and benefits of society”, but isn’t it somewhat anachronistic to compare these people and their methods to much more recent “political and economic movements that have built up the assimilating global centres championed by the Bushes and Blairs of this world” [198-199]? Equally isn’t it overdoing sarcasm to declare that since Victorian times the weather has improved much faster than “the social conditions of labourers” [200]?

Latham is on firmer ground when he claims that Morris’s goal is to do away with “the mass movements that lead to global assimilation” and “the values of the globalised state” [199], even though the vocabulary is contemporary to the point of being misleading. When one reads chapter XV of News from Nowhere in which old Hammond, condemns the “world-market” in very modern terms, or the earlier “How we Live and How we Might Live”, there is no doubt that Morris was waging war on a “global assimilation” that wrought havoc on native cultures, and in which decisions taken in Manchester affected the lives of people living thousands of miles away, but it is unlikely that he envisioned the “globalised state” as we do today. From what he writes, it is clear that his take on the imperialist phenomenon was that of his left-wing contemporaries: a few big capitalist states were scrambling for the markets and material resources of the world, a state of affairs that would only bring misery and war. Once again in the book an analogy is being carried too far on too little textual evidence, Latham only relying on Morris’ campaign for “a decentralising Arts and Crafts movement” and the “communal neighbourhood” [199] organisation of Nowhere, in which the State has withered away.

What is more interesting in Latham’s essay, and certainly more apposite in a discussion of Morris’s contemporaneity, is the manner he brings a new, more mythical dimension to remarks already made in particular by Morris’ Marxist critics, namely that the interplay between present and future in News from Nowhere makes not only for a utopian vision of society under “pure communism”, but also for a continual questioning of his own time. Studying simultaneously News from Nowhere and A Dream of John Ball, Latham shows how Morris through his artistry and subtle use of “the ornament of romance” [207] manages to overturn “the semblance of what is inevitable” [200], in other words the prison of a supposedly inescapable present. His two romances combine aesthetic forces to transmute the historic present into an “incredible nightmare” [204] and to proffer their readers the “reality of a wide-awake world” [204] resting on the “social order of fellowship” [205] and which remains to be built. The function of Morris’s two novels in the twenty-first century is thus to encourage us to bring his vision of “one new world our descendants might inherit” [202] “towards completion” [198] in order to “overturn the seemingly irreversible forces of our social order” [200]. If we follow Latham, then, the timeless relevance of A Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere is that they operate as social myths did according to Sorel, by mobilising and energising masses of people into action not because they were necessarily close to historic truth but because they could move human beings to achieve emancipation.(9)

The approach to Morris’s relevance for the twenty-first century is very similar in “Rejuvenating Our Sense of Wonder: The Last Romances of William Morris” [209-228] in which Phillippa Bennett studies the very last, and probably the least-studied of Morris’s romances, from The Wood Beyond the World to The Story of the Sundering Flood, in a way that is often new and original. Bennett defines those works as “narratives of wonder” [209]. Their protagonists either experience wonder (at encountering morally or physically beautiful human beings, at the sight of “fair lands” or at the beauties of architecture) or wonder why “wonderment” [221] has gone from their land. They then fight the usual villains to establish or restore good fellowship, peacefulness and harmony. Thus “questioning translates into questing not only by challenging what is but by considering what might be” [225] and Bennett has no trouble demonstrating that far from being apolitical fantasies, “a final resurgence of literary Pre-Raphaelitism” [210], these stories set in a remote and misty past were written by Morris to criticise his own age and awaken his fellow-Victorians to the possibility of a more humane, greener, more beautiful world. But in addition it seems that in the eyes of Bennett, our world is still the world of the Victorians. Her syntax, her use of pronouns in the first person and of the present tense telescope the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries into one(10) and create in the mind of the reader that sense of “continuing relevance” [211] that Bennett and her fellow-contributors are constantly hunting after, and the belief that Morris’s socialist aesthetics are still of more than historical interest today.

It is not altogether impossible, therefore, that anyone reading these tales might start wondering why they are no longer living in a wondrous world like their implausible Germanic characters, and engage, like Morris, in “a radical rethinking and restructuring of society along socialist principles” [224], thus demonstrating that the last romances “continue to offer a powerful inspiration for our own visions of a more wonder-filled future” [227-228]. So far so good, but if the contemporaneousness of Morris’s work is to be explored in full, why be content with his influence on progressive thought? In that instance, in particular, and although Bennett does not mention two other final romances in which it is probably more explicit, The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, why not wonder also about the current progeny of what José Harris in the TLS review cited above calls “Morris’s passion for northernness”? It is possible to explain away all those blond generous Germanic barbarians who fight against rapacious Romans of an extreme Mediterranean type trying to extend their commercial empire by saying that in Morris’s mind the two groups are the historical analogues of the proletarians and bourgeois of the Victorian Age engaged in a class war. It remains that in Morris’s idealisation of the “spontaneous communalism of free men”,(11) in his delight at finding that the Icelanders he visited in 1871 and 1873 were “perfect replicas of the hypothetical Goths”, poor but equal, standing shoulder to shoulder in their fight against a harsh nature and a cruel climate, in his belief that the sagas should be seen as “the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks”, there are most of the ingredients of a form of völkisch socialism. They did not coalesce into an ideology because eventually they were eclipsed in Morris’s minds by other preoccupations,(12) but somehow they filtered into the intellectual corpus of the British radical right. In the last decade, Identity, the cultural journal of the British National Party made sporadic references to Morris. In these uncertain times of emergent populism this was an aspect of Morris’s contemporaneousness that deserved at least a footnote.

But the stance adopted by the authors of this book unavoidably requires that certain facets of Morris’ thought should be left in the dark and others go through a process reminiscent of customisation. The treatment of News from Nowhere by Tony Pinkney in his “Versions of Ecotopia in News from Nowhere” [93-106] is a case in point. Pinkney is worried that even Marxist critics writing after Morton, E.P. Thompson or Meier (he mentions Raymond Williams and Perry Anderson) have not been exactly enamoured with Nowhere. It has become a green and pleasant land no doubt, but most probably it has also become a pre-industrial backwater; the inhabitants are bursting with health, but are obviously more brawn than brains: “Science, research, book learning, mobility, foreign travel, technology—all have vanished from the green utopian Morris world” [98]. The “epoch of rest” in which the utopians live threatens to turn into a period of stagnation, soon to be followed by decay and degeneracy.

Whether Nowhere will eventually decline into a country of Eloi without Morlocks is a matter for conjecture which has seldom seriously bothered Morris students;(13) on the other hand many could make out a good case for an interpretation of Nowhere as an Arcadia which has thrown out “the baby of scientific and technological advance with the bathwater of the capitalist theory” [97] and enjoys the slower pace of life which has ensued. In either case “lethargy” is bound to “engulf” [103] this ideal world which has effectively turned its back on “the values of modernity” [98, 103]. For Pinkney this will never do. One cannot expect Morris to remain an intellectual mentor in this century with a utopia modelled “so completely on a fourteenth-century Gothic paradigm” [98]. Ecotopias, like News from Nowhere, can be post-industrial, but may not revert to a pre-industrial “Hobbitland” [106]. Considering the success of Lord of the Rings, the interest in degrowth, the belief that a few wind farms can replace several nuclear power stations, Pinkney may be mistaken about who is most likely to follow Morris these days, but bent on infusing the “fire” of modernity [94] into Nowhere and on “regalvanising” [103] its initial “ecological revolution” [101], he starts ferreting around for some evidence that all is not lost. All he finds is the word “disappointed”, which occurs twice in the whole book (uttered once by old Hammond) and the charismatic character of Ellen, but it is enough for him to infer that one day old Hammond will step out of the British Museum to tell his fellow utopians some home truths and join forces with Ellen and other young indignados to occupy Nowhere.

But nothing in the text suggests that old Hammond feels like starting a second revolution; as to Ellen, neither her élan and liveliness nor her discourse point to a certain degree of dissatisfaction with her world. Indeed, as Pinkney himself notes, the only future she contemplates is motherhood: “I shall have children: perhaps before the end a good many”, she says at the end of chapter XXIX. Why he should think that this amounts to declaring: “I shall have political adventures; perhaps before the end a good many” [102] is too say the least surprising, all the more so as Ellen has just revealed that she is afraid of change.(14) One is hard put to believe that Morris, through old Hammond and Ellen, “has created narrative resources that may be capable of dealing with this situation” [105] of creeping inertia, and it is even more impossible to follow Pinkney when he claims, after performing a singular form of intertextuality, that the scenario he suggests as a sequel to News from Nowhere is vindicated by the plots of three late twentieth-century utopian novels in which regression is eventually stopped and dynamism restored. The demonstration is carried out with much ingenuity, but Pinkney takes so many textual liberties that it seems far-fetched from beginning to end. One feels entitled to prefer that of Richard Somerset, firmly rooted in the text of Morris’s novel. Like Pinkney, Somerset is convinced that Morris was conscious that there was “one potential weakness” in Nowhere, namely that “the contented glow of the socialist utopia goes hand in hand with a slowing down of society’s vital élan”. According to Somerset, written in the Darwinian age Morris’s utopia “is haunted by the threat of degeneration” but Morris did not try to face the problem, probably out of fear of giving capitalism which he hated a second chance.(15)

But such an analysis in Morris in the Twenty-First Century is inadmissible evidence because what is wanted is a version of Morris likely to help the emergence of “an environmental utopia which achieves its goals not simply by regressing backwards behind modern science, but rather also by going forwards and deploying all the complex resources of technology in its quest for a sustainable steady-state economy” [106]. Thus when the time comes of examining Morris’s ambiguous relationship with the machine the “leftwing scholars” in this book are almost unanimous in praising Morris for “accepting the liberating potential of the machine” as Peter Smith puts it in “Attractive Labour and Social Change: William Morris Now” [136].(16)

In the last two chapters, which deal with the creation of a Morris Online Edition that eventually should offer a complete annotated edition of all of Morris’s literary works, chronically out of print but for News from Nowhere (Rosie Miles, “Virtual Paradise: Editing Morris for the Twenty-First Century, 231-253), and with the expansion of the William Morris Society’s website (Thomas J. Tobin, “William Morris 2.0: Spreading Socialist Ideals via the Internet”, 255-274), the authors feel compelled to vindicate these excellent developments by pointing out that Morris was no technophobe and would have approved. As proof, in addition to the usual remark that the Kelmscott Press produced medieval books but had no qualms about using photography [232], there is the no less habitual reminder that Morris was favourable to the use of machines to lighten and shorten unattractive labour [231-232, 255] and that Nowhere, Arcadian though it is, has “the force”[257-258]. This is amply sufficient to demonstrate that Morris was no Luddite and perhaps would have accommodated himself to the World Wide Web. But to establish that in this respect as in others he would be our contemporary it is necessary to leave part of the text aside or even tweak it a little. Morris may at times see the good points of the machine but as soon as he can, however, he tries to replace it with the hand. The materials and methods of the Kelmscott Press often went back to pre-modern times and Morris regarded Gutenberg as the terminator of real craftsmanship in bookmaking.(17) He granted that machines could alleviate manual labour but hoped that in the new conditions of a communist society they would be less and less needed and handiwork would again gain ground.(18) Nowhere “is not an age of inventions”, many old ones are found “troublesome”(19) and discarded (locks on the Thames are again totally operated by hand and machine-printing is dying out). As to the force-powered barges of which all socialist students of Morris have made so much but that Guest passes only “every now and then”,(20) they and their joke-swapping crews are above all reminiscent of Three Men in a Boat. There must be few people who, like Tobin, “can recognise these force-powered barges as the same kind of engine-powered craft that move heavy loads on our waterways even today” [258].

It is clearly only if one side of the textual reality is considered that it becomes possible to defend the thesis of an oeuvre umbilically linked with our times and socialist aspirations. Another illustration is Maria Isabel Donas Botto’s essay “On (Re) Building the City: William Morris and the Regeneration of the British City” [15-27] devoted to “sprawling urbanisation” [18] and to the necessary “greening” of towns [26]. The essay intermingles the views of town-planners and architects campaigning in favour of a sustainable city, against “the horrors of urbanisation” [16], with references to Morris’s essays and News from Nowhere which Donas Botto cites not only to remind her readers that Morris was an opponent of the industrial town, one of the earliest advocates of the green city, and as such a probable influence on the Edwardian garden-city movement, but also to show that what he said should be a source of inspiration today “in rethinking our urban condition” [17], “an incentive to take action on behalf of the modern city” [16]. To do so she has to adopt a line of argument already perceptible in Paul Meier’s book, La pensée utopique de William Morris: Morris was a hater of suburbs, but liked city centres.

Although aware of Morris’s fight to save England’s green and pleasant land, Donas Botto, for the sake of her demonstration, skirts around his vision of “a semi-rural London in News from Nowhere” [25] and focuses on a few essays which offer support for her argument—though in them Morris appears in reality more concerned with promoting greenery than with town-planning and urban regeneration proper. There is in particular a reference [25] to “The Housing of the Poor” in which Morris appears to favour (but he is speaking with the London slums in mind) high-rise buildings so long as each “tall block” is comfortable and surrounded by vast public gardens. Regrettably Donas Botto has nothing to say about the first sentence of her long quote in which Morris writes that tower blocks might not be a bad thing “granting the existence of huge towns for the present” (our italics). Evidently he was not considering large towns, even sustainable ones, as compatible with the final stage of his ideal communist society for which, after all, we have only one picture, that of News from Nowhere, in which the country has penetrated London and everywhere “the difference between town and country [has grown] less and less”.(21) It is no longer tenable to speak of Morris’s “rural socialism” but the fact is that his was a very-small-town socialism in which there was no place for “existence in a great city”, even “Boston beautified”, as “such aggregations of people afford the worst possible form of dwelling-place”.(22)

Admittedly a number of Morris’s architectural criteria and town-planning precepts, not least his insistence that the built environment should always be dotted with parks and gardens, could be helpful contributions to the regeneration of the modern town. But why Donas Botto believes that Morris’s principles could “play an active role in ongoing processes of urban regeneration” [17] is puzzling, Morris being the last person one should turn to “to revive or renew” [16] “modern metropolises” [27], unless flattening them out is regarded as a distinct possibility. She quotes a passage in which he does not seem hostile to high-density building given certain conditions, but forgets the pages of Socialism, its growth and outcome in which of all possible futures for the town, the one he likes least is preserving the existing big cities even after they have been fully rehabilitated.(23) It is in fact because “in many of his lectures and speeches he denounced capitalistic-led urban growth” [20] that Donas Botto chooses him as patron saint and frame of reference in order to fight a variety of ills supposedly generated by capitalist greed. But because, as she admits, there are “very few texts where Morris directly addresses the issue of the city of the future” [16], she is too often forced to extrapolate perilously (can the spirit of Morris preside over a diatribe against huge shopping malls? [18-19]) or to fire broadsides at plausibly Morrisian bugbears unfortunately off-target and off-subject here, such as the rash of country houses currently being built for a class of new filthy rich. An “ecological reading” [17] of Morris and the city is certainly appropriate, but is necessarily constrained by corpus and context: Donas Botto rather relishes the idea of “promoting urban agriculture” [27] in large European cities; most probably Morris would have gone along with her; it is a pity, though, that the only hard evidence she can supply is Morris’ preferring to gaze at olive-trees rather than at paintings while in Italy [27]!

Thus there comes a moment when the stock of plausible analogies and suitable parallelisms across time on which the construction of a contemporary Morris must necessarily be based runs out. Facts are then totally replaced by abstract reasoning with a decidedly ideological slant, as can be seen in Piers J. Hale’s “William Morris, Human Nature and the Biology of Utopia” [107-127]. The bulk of Hale’s essay (up to the last two pages) is a meticulous piece of research on the nature and role of Morris’ “neo-Lamarckism” in News from Nowhere. After showing the predominance of Lamarck’s theories in late-Victorian socialist circles and their concomitant rejection of Darwinian natural selection, which they linked with Malthusianism and capitalism, Hale moves on to what he defines as “a detailed exploration of the mechanism by which Morris hoped to bring about the evolution of a socialist humanity” [117], the men (and women) like Gods, to borrow Wells’ title, who grace the pages of his novel. The crucial point made by Hale is that Lamarckism was essential to Morris as it alone, through the inheritability of acquired characteristics, allowed him to believe and to claim that if the physical and cultural environment was radically changed, within a few generations (witness News from Nowhere) human nature would become altogether different and a new man be born.

Unfortunately, almost immediately after the publication of Nowhere, Weismann’s experiments spelt the death of Lamarckism as a scientific theory and the triumph of Darwinism. English socialists took note. Their distant successors too, since Hale ends the main part of his article with a reference to Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left which warns all progressives that nurture will never fundamentally change nature, and that consequently “hopes of a new humanity remain fantastic” [126] and should make way for a less ambitious neo-Fabianism. Hale becomes then painfully aware that the victory of Darwinism logically relegates Morris to José Harris’ museum of ideas, his “erroneous biology” [125] implying that “those of us who care about socialism” [126] should give up “on the possibilities for humanity that he imagined in Nowhere” [125] and “on the relevance of Morris’s utopia to our own time” [126]. This, to him, is intolerable, and so he confusedly writes two more pages which sound like an expression of wishful thinking because Morris’ text can no longer be of any support: our lives and destiny are not determined by biological laws but by our ability to affect the course of events, the interpretation of these laws depends on the prevailing socio-economic conditions, men and cultures change. Viewed from this angle News from Nowhere assumes the mythical function already noted about Latham’s chapter. It can no longer be an illustration of revolution through environmentalism and social engineering, but at least it “awakens us to the fact that things have been and therefore can be different” [127]. A modest conclusion perhaps, but it allows Hale to assert that Morris’s romance “remains as important today as when it was first written” [127], and so feeds the hope of those who seek “an alternative way of living to that of liberal capitalism” [126].

It is the quest which seems to be behind most of the chapters in this book. There is not a lot in the latter which is really new, and it must be clear by now that in spite of what Bennett and Miles write, it does not “offer a comprehensive introduction to William Morris” [10]. On the other hand, it undeniably presents “a series of fresh perspectives” [10] although these are a continuation of a trend which is perceptible as early as 1990 in William Morris and News from Nowhere: A Vision for Our Time edited by Stephen Coleman and Paddy O’Sullivan, and which could be called the Gramscian use of Morris. His study leaves the domain of cultural history to become part of “cultural politics” [138] as Peter Smith puts it in his politically very revealing essay. There is, Smith tells us, a “struggle” going on “for the intellectual ownership of Morris” [138], who cannot be left in the care of academics who only produce “depoliticised versions” of his works [132, 139] for Morris’ ideas are still “crucial for those seeking solutions to current /…/ problems” [3]. Morris, it seems, is nowadays the ideal icon of resistance, “cosmopolitan, anti-war, a nativist lover of the land and a socialist internationalist, reconciling the local and the global” [xvi]. This may appear fanciful to those who think that nowadays Morris is only well-known for certain decorative patterns that are hardly likely to adorn the bedrooms of enemies of the system but is easy to understand if one thinks of the inner history of the Left since it realised that the god of Soviet communism had failed.(24)

Most of the authors of Morris in the Twenty-First Century appear to be veterans, sympathisers, children of what used to be called the New Left. When they or their predecessors had done with centralised, authoritarian Marxism they turned to the young Marx, his theory of the alienation of the labourer who has ceased to be a free being, his indignation over wage-slavery, his humanist philosophy onto which it was easy, later on, to graft feminist and ecological concerns. Passing references to E.P. Thompson, Perry Anderson, Ernst Bloch, Rudolf Bahro, Henri Lefebvre, the Situationists and André Gorz suffice to establish the intellectual influences at work on the contributors to this book, and why they have enthusiastically enlisted Morris into their phalanx. So long as one is a little selective and can forget Morris’ ever-intruding fascination for the Middle Ages, there is no doubt that much of what he says from the 1880s partakes of what is known as Marxist humanism. There seems to be little difference between it and what Smith calls “Morrissian Marxism” [137]. If that is true what remains to be done now is to go backwards a few decades into the twentieth century, do a little disinterested intellectual history and determine the exact degree of permeation of the former by the latter.



(1) Jérôme Leroy, Le Cadavre du jeune homme dans les fleurs rouges, Monaco : Éditions du Rocher, 2004.

(2) Annabel Brett, “What is Intellectual History Now?” in David Cannadine ed., What is History Now?, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004 : 127.

(3) “Conclusion: Morris’s Legacy”, in Isabelle Gadoin ed., News from Nowhere, Paris : Ellipses, 2004 : 223-224.

(4) “Rebels against capitalism", TLS (31 August 1984) : 963.

(5) What follows does not apply to two straightforwardly academic essays. That of Hilary Laucks Walter on “May Morris’s Designs and Writings on Embroidery” is the only essay in the book dealing with Morris and the arts and crafts, more precisely with the items Morris’s daughter exhibited and wrote about in the Arts and Crafts exhibitions held between 1888 and 1928. It is not uninteresting, is certainly concerned to add “another stitch to the legacy of William Morris” (its title), but rather bizarrely ends in 1928. In “Red House: Past and Future” Jan Marsh goes over the architectural history of the house Morris built, and more appositely still describes in detail its ongoing restoration (or perhaps, not to affront Morris, one should say upkeep) and the discoveries sometimes this throws up: fragments of the original paintwork and decoration, even an informative 1864 letter that had lain hidden under the floorboards for almost 150 years.

(6) Vaninskaya’s argument is that, as is the case with most authors, Morris’ corpus is finite and is not likely to be enlarged by unexpected new findings. As a result Morris studies have essentially become “a game of interpretation”, and “to engage in any act of interpretation is to become in a certain sense a romancer”. Which does not mean that all interpretations are equal: “Literary critics who deduce the existence of a worldview on the basis of selected quotations are behaving just like the Victorian historians who drew sweeping conclusions from the existence of three morphemes, a saga, and two books of law”.

(7) News from Nowhere, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974 : 134-135, 139. And of course Guest had already noted with satisfaction that “ ’the sacred rights of property’, as we used to think of them, were now no more” [47].

(8) Although at the end of his life Morris was grudgingly conceding that palliative social measures might be temporarily of some use, in October 1895 he was still admonishing Sidney Webb, the quintessential Fabian: “The world is going your way at present Webb, but it is not the right way in the end”.

(9) One could also apply to Morris’s two romances Michel Remy’s felicitous phrase in an article on Morris’s pre-raphaelite paintings, that they are “une remémoration de l’à-venir” (“La perspective prélapsarienne de William Morris”, Revue française de civilisation britannique, XIII-1 (2004) : 126).

(10) Thus: “[Morris] understood that our sense of wonder at each other and at the world in which we live is inevitably suppressed and dissipated in conditions of social exploitation and environmental degradation” (Gadoin 2004 : 223-224).

(11) This phrase is by the Victorian historian Frederic Seebohm; it is quoted by Anna Vaninskaya in her “William Morris’s Germania”, p.180. The next two quotations are also to be found in Vaninskaya’s essay, p.185.

(12) Anna Vaninskaya reminds us however that, significantly, Belfort Bax, Morris’s friend and collaborator “became the most vocal English proponent of the ‘Aryan’ element in socialism” (185).

(13) Although it did bother Wells, as Piers J. Hale points out, p.122. See also Richard Somerset, “Homer and Huxley, or How a Romantic Radical Deals with Science”, in Gadoin 2004 : 109-122.

(14) “We may be bitten with some impulse towards change”, and this eventually would prove “ruinous, deceitful, and sordid” (News from Nowhere : 167-168).

(15) Somerset, “Homer and Huxley”, particularly pp.118-122.

(16) The only exception is Pinkney, seriously worried about the low level of technology in News from Nowhere, but we have just seen how he finds a way out of this embarrassing situation.

(17) See for instance Antoine Capet, “William Morris et les arts du livre”, Revue française de civilisation britannique, XIII-1 (2004) : 135-156.

(18) See his “Useful work versus useless toil” in A.L. Morton ed., Political Writings of William Morris, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1979 : 105-106.

(19) News from Nowhere : 146.

(20) News from Nowhere : 140

(21) News from Nowhere :  61.

(22) As he wrote in his review of Bellamy’s Looking Backward in Commonweal (22 June 1889).

(23) See Meier, La pensée utopique de William Morris, Paris : Éditions sociales, 1972 : 604-605.

(24) The God that Failed : Six Studies in Communism by Arthur Koestler et al., with an introduction by Richard Crossman, was published in 1949.




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