Against The Age
An Introduction to William Morris
London: Routledge, 1980; reprinted 2011.
Hardcover. xi+196 pp. ISBN 978-0415676014. £70.00
Reviewed by Ingrid Hanson
University of Sheffield
This Routledge Revivals re-issue of Peter Faulkner’s 1980 introduction to William Morris comes in the wake of several new books on Morris’s work—literary, artistic and political—in recent years, and rightly signals a renewed recognition of his importance for Victorian Studies.(1) Indeed, in some respects the project of this monograph might be seen to have been achieved in that Faulkner notes in the Preface that his hope is ‘that this introduction will lead readers to want to develop their knowledge of a great Victorian who has much of value to say to us today’ [xi]. The proliferation of books and articles on Morris since its original publication, the former noted in Faulkner’s new appendix, ‘Important Publications since 1980’, suggests that later scholars have followed up his concerns in just the way he suggests. Many more recent works take on issues that Faulkner raises in passing in this book: the politics and aesthetics of form, gender relations, violence, work and the environment.
The publication of more narrowly focused studies does nothing to diminish the value of Faulkner’s book, however. It remains a relevant and succinct introduction to Morris’s work. While it has none of the close examination of Morris’s politics that characterises E.P. Thompson’s seminal William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (Merlin, 1976) nor of the breadth of biographical detail that runs through Fiona MacCarthy’s more recent William Morris: A Life for our Time (Faber, 1994), it draws effectively on biographical and contextual detail in its overview of Morris’s work. Faulkner’s lucid style, coupled with the chronological structure of the book, makes it easily accessible as an introductory reader. All but the last of the book’s six chapters begin with an extract from Morris’s 1883 letter to the Austrian socialist, Andreas Scheu, outlining his own biography and transition from earnest High Church student to socialist activist, via Pre-Raphaelite romanticism and Nordic ‘worship of courage’. This offers a coherent route into analysis of his work, and demonstrates the interweaving of text and context that is key to Faulkner’s approach.
In just under two hundred pages the book ranges effortlessly across the breadth of Morris’s work. Faulkner introduces the Firm (Morris’s design company), discussing techniques and materials used in the production of stained glass windows and furnishings, as well as addressing broader questions of usefulness and aesthetics. He discusses almost all of the literary works, from the earliest tales to the late romances, summarising and making brief but apt comments on many of them, with particular attention to prosody, form and diction. Especially noteworthy is his careful attention to some of the minor literary works that are still largely critically neglected, such as The Life and Death of Jason, Love is Enough and Poems by the Way. He analyses Morris’s lectures on art and socialism and situates his writing in the literary world of his time with a wide range of allusions to other Victorian literature. One of the book’s strengths is its combination of close reading and contextual detail, including frequent quotation from contemporaries on Morris’s work. There is much here for an initial reader to follow up—although a slight irritation is the book’s strangely patchy referencing.
If Faulkner’s analysis of Morris’s later, socialist works lays the groundwork for subsequent studies of Morris in its emphasis on his environmental concerns, his presentation of gender relations and the enduring value of his opposition to capitalism and commercialism, it also raises questions about how such concerns might be critically addressed. He sets out to show not only that Morris is central to Victorian Studies but also that ‘as long as our industrial society continues to perplex us with such problems as pollution, delinquency, commercial acquisitiveness and violence, so long will we stand in need of Morris’s vision of a society of equals in which every man and woman finds proper fulfilment’ [Preface, ix]. This sense of Morris as urgently relevant to the political and social concerns of a later period runs through the book and continues to be a prominent theme in Morris studies today, but it sometimes sits rather uneasily with a critical appraisal of his work. The assumption, for instance, that every woman finds ‘proper fulfilment’ in Morris’s works is certainly disputable, as is the implication that he offers a political alternative to the problem of violence.
The claim for Morris’s political relevance to later ages is a counterpart to the repeated declaration of his opposition to the prevailing style, tastes and politics of his own time. The title phrase crops up again and again as a structuring device, so that the contents of each chapter are offered as evidence of how Morris stood ‘against the age’. This gives focus and a strong sense of committed argument to what is essentially an overview, asserting Morrisian exceptionalism while avoiding hagiography. Morris clearly did deliberately stand against much that characterised his culture in terms of art, politics and society, and this argument therefore effectively introduces his work on its own terms, with some careful analysis of his literary and political context. However, there are moments where the simplicity of Faulkner’s formulation is slightly strained in its insistence on a monolithic consensus against which Morris is working. He ignores the complexity and heterogeneity of late-Victorian engagements with sexuality by observing of Morris’s late poem, ‘Goldilocks and Goldilocks’, in which a man sees his lover’s body as ‘sweet and good’, that ‘Morris is again un-Victorianly outspoken’ in his ‘rendering of the love’ . In arguing that Morris’s aim in his lectures was ‘to make himself intelligible to ordinary listeners and readers’, Faulkner claims that this ‘set him to some extent against the age’. He suggests, rather implausibly, that other Victorian intellectuals such as Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold and Mill ‘favoured the idea of a wide readership’ but ‘only Morris worked at a prose style which might gain it’ . In his use of the romance form, Faulkner argues, ‘Morris showed himself against the age in his use of a form of fiction antithetical to the fashionable naturalism of the 1890s’ , an observation that brushes aside—as did the majority of critics in the 1980s—the romance revival of the fin-de-siècle which offers an important context for reading Morris’s romances.
At the same time, the book takes on actual or potential critics of Morris’s work or politics with an awareness of his necessary relationship with his own time: in discussing the vexed question of the tension between Morris’s role as an employer and his beliefs as a socialist, Faulkner notes that, ‘no man can avoid the historical limits of the time in which he lives, so that it is unfair to blame Morris for not having done so’ . Of his lecture ‘The Beauty of Life’, Faulkner argues pre-emptively that ‘it may be felt that Morris resorts here to a quasi-religious tone which works against the common sense of what he is saying, but the lecture as a whole is an impressive attempt to bring his ideals into action in the real world’ . The hint of moral defensiveness or justification in these comments is rare in what is, for the most part, an openly partisan yet critically acute introduction to Morris’s work.
Minor objections notwithstanding, then, Against the Age is an accessible, richly informative and broadly allusive work, as valuable for readers new to Morris today as when it was first published. It includes eight plates showing key artistic works, including the frontispiece to the Kelmscott Press News from Nowhere, a sample of ‘Bachelor’s Button’ wallpaper and a (rather poorly reproduced) photograph of a stained glass ‘Annunciation’ from All Saints’ Church, Middleton Cheney. Set alongside Faulkner’s useful William Morris: The Critical Heritage (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), this book should be included on any undergraduate module dealing with Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian socialism or the early Arts and Crafts movement.
(1) See, for instance, Ruth Kinna, William Morris: The Art of Socialism (University of Wales Press, 2000); Marcus Waithe, William Morris’s Utopia of Strangers: Victorian Medievalism and the Ideal of Hospitality (Brewer, 2006); Caroline Arscott, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris: Interlacings (Yale University Press, 2008); Anna Vaninskaya, William Morris and the Idea of Community: Romance, History and Propaganda, 1880-1914 (Edinburgh University Press, 2010).
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