Reader: Why should I be expected to read a description of an ideal society dating from the 1890s? What can that possibly have to do with us today in the early twenty-first century?
TP: Well, do you think you already live in an ideal society, then, so that you don’t need any help or ideas from the past? With a global economic crisis battering us all from 2008 onwards, with proliferating nuclear weaponry and dangerous international tensions, with the democratic hopefulness of the Arab Spring running into the sands, with international terrorism and the ‘war on terror’ mutually reinforcing each other, and with the environmental problems of climate change, energy depletion, habitat destruction and species extinction accelerating rather than slowing down, I’m inclined to think we need all the help we can get from the models of an ideal society that we inherit from the past! We don’t have to swallow them hook, line and sinker, but there might be helpful suggestions and inspiration towards improvement there.
R: Well alright, things aren’t so good at the moment, I’ll concede that. But if, like Morris in News from Nowhere, you have got a scheme for a good or even perfect society, why not set it out as a series of clear-cut propositions that we can debate straightforwardly? Why present it in literary form instead? Why turn it into a story?
TP: As it happens, Morris did set out clear-cut propositions for change in his political lectures of the 1880s. When you’ve got time, take a look at ‘The Society of the Future’, which he first delivered in November 1887. If you put your scheme into a story, though, you give greater concreteness to your abstract system; you can give a firsthand feel for how it works, you put flesh on its bare bones. Instead of saying, as a sociology textbook might, the economy is organised in such and such a fashion, you can actually show people working together under the new social relations, show them in the very process of learning how to become new kinds of people (cooperative rather than competitive, say). We as readers experientially participate in such new relationships, we feel them on our pulses, rather than just learning about them intellectually, as theoretical possibilities.
R: That sounds encouraging, perhaps I will read News from Nowhere after all, then. Are there any downsides to setting out your ideal society in narrative form?
TP: There might be. The more concrete and detailed you make the objects, people, customs and landscapes of your perfect society, the more likely it is that they might acquire a life of their own which could point in directions other than the one you, the author, were wanting to go in. Literary works sometimes have a mind of their own and do things their authors didn’t plan; we’ll have to consider later whether Morris’s utopia has that problem.
R: Ah, you’ve used that word ‘utopia’ at last. It’s a genre I’m not very familiar with. How does it work? All I know is that Thomas More kicked it off in 1516 and that he used the title Utopia as a pun, meaning both ‘good place’ and ‘no place’ in Greek.
TP: Yes, that’s right. Utopia since More is a tricky genre, since it straddles both literature and politics. Readers of a literary bent tend to find its characterisation and plot lines rather thin and bloodless, while readers whose interests are predominantly political will have precisely the opposite objection: why do I have to wade through all this characterisation and plot to get to the bare bones of how a good society might work? Please cut the crap and gave me the sociology! We can sketch out the literary conventions of the genre very quickly: a visitor from the bad old world arrives in a new society and finds him or herself baffled by its social customs and institutions. After touring around for a bit in a mood of wonderment the visitor at last finds a learned member of the new culture – the Old Man Who Knows Everything, in H.G. Wells’s colourful phrase – who explains how it operates and how it historically came into being. Once the visitor has got the hang of things he or she tours around a bit more, with a more knowledgeable appreciation of what is being seen, and often falls in love with a utopian whom he or she meets with on his travels. The visitor may then settle in the utopia or return to the bad old world to spread the good news. Geography gives way to chronology in the Victorian period: More’s Raphael Hythloday travels across the world to the island of Utopia; Morris’s William Guest travels forward in time, in a dream, to mid-twenty-second-century England.
R: Tell me more about the overall political orientation of Morris’s book. Can we sum it up in a single term?
TP: Hum, that’s not easy. News from Nowhere was serialised in Commonweal, the newspaper of the Socialist League, across 1890. So its very first readers were the activists of the League, in which Morris had been very active since founding it with a group of close comrades in December 1884. So the first term we might want to apply to the book is ‘socialist’. However, when you arrive at the chapters set in the British Museum, where old Hammond expounds the new society to William Guest, the words Hammond himself prefers for his post-revolutionary present are ‘communist’ and ‘communism’; and he, obviously, is a very authoritative figure in the text. To emphasise communism, as Hammond does, is to put the stress on the economic equality of Morris’s post-revolutionary world, on its abolition of private property, its communal ownership of the means of production. It also serves to remind us of Morris’s crucial political debt to Karl Marx, to The Communist Manifesto but above all to Das Kapital, which he read in French in 1883 and once described as ‘that great book’.
However, if we look at the Socialist League meeting depicted on the very first page of News from Nowhere, we find that four of the six people present are described as Anarchists. What should we make of that fact? Are they being satirised for peskily preventing the League from being properly socialist, or are they a more positive presence than that? Guest and old Hammond may laugh derisively at the idea of anarchism at one point in the book, but should the attractive libertarianism of so many aspects of Nowherian life not make us think of this book as being in some positive sense as anarchist – as well as socialist or communist - utopia?
We should also note that when William Guest first looks around the new world, its buildings, bridges and costumes remind him intensely of the medieval period; he even says at one point that ‘I fairly felt as if I was alive in the fourteenth century’ (ch.IV). This is a reference to the local English tradition of social criticism from which Morris emerges: the medievalism of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, which criticises the brutalities of Victorian capitalism in the name of the lost ‘organic’ values of the Middle Ages. Our own term for that contrast of the medieval Gothic period with utilitarian modernity is ‘romantic anti-capitalist’, so should this then be the overall political term we apply to Morris’s utopia? And finally, any tradition of critique deriving from Romanticism is likely to pay a lot of attention to Nature, and News from Nowhere, with the river Thames at its narrative centre, certainly does that; and this has led to some recent critics seeing it as a strongly ecological critique of capitalism, indeed as the first ‘ecotopia’. This has been a popular emphasis recently, but we should remember that at one point old Hammond robustly informs Guest that the Nowherians ‘won’t stand any nonsense from Nature in their dealings with her’ (ch.X), and that rather high-handed attitude doesn’t sound remotely ecological.
So we now have no less than five political terms which can all apply, more or less persuasively, to Morris’s utopia: socialist, communist, anarchist, romantic anti-capitalist and ecological. And all of these are slippery, controversial terms in their own right, so there is no readymade answer here. It is surely a sign of the rich suggestiveness of the book’s vision that so many terms can apply to it, singly or in combination.
R: Alright, so the politics are complex, but we have already decided that at least the genre of the book is straightforward, haven’t we? It is just a utopia, is it not?
TP: Hum yes, that may not prove so easy either. One of the best things ever said about News from Nowhere was by the Communist historian A.L Morton when he remarked that it was ‘the first Utopia which is not utopian’, so clearly utopia is a tricky term too, and Morton is playing different senses of it off against each other in that remark. We should note that on the title page Morris describes his book as a ‘utopian romance’, so that already gives us two generic terms rather than one. And in fact we must add another genre into the mix too. The narrative frame of the book, the opening and closing chapters set in Victorian London, take the form of the dream-vision familiar from medieval literature, from Chaucer, Langland and the Gawain-poet. William Guest falls asleep in dingy Hammersmith and apparently wakes up to the good society of the twenty-second century only to truly wake up from his dream of it at the end of the text. So we now have three generic terms: dream-vision, utopia and romance, all of which correspond to different narrative sections of the book. The dream-vision gives us the frame, the utopia covers the systematic exposition of the principles and history of the new society by old Hammond in the British Museum chapters, while the romance comes fully to life in the last third of the book, when Guest embarks on the journey up the Thames which is a kind of quest for both lady (Ellen) and castle (Kelmscott manor).
R: So three genres instead of one, that will keep me on my toes while reading. I’ve heard that there are also three versions of the text, is that right?
TP: Yes, and they each raise some interesting issues. First, as I’ve already said, there is the version serialised weekly in Commonweal across 1890. Some critics regard such publication by instalments as encouraging narrative clumsiness and inconsistency of detail, but others see it a welcomely ‘dialogical’ form of communication, as enabling creative interaction with actual readers week by week, and also as allowing the debates in News from Nowhere itself to resonate with and against the other contents of each issue. Then Morris reworks the text for commercial book publication with Reeves & Turner in 1891. He pushes back some of the political dates in the text, which may be an index of a growing pessimism, and adds some important new material (the Obstinate Refusers chapter, for example). And finally, he issued a luxury edition of the book from his own Kelmscott Press in 1893. Textually, this is basically the same as the 1891 book, but it does feature the famous engraved image of Kelmscott manor by C.M. Gere as a frontispiece. That creates a kind of textual ‘sandwich’, with Kelmscott then being in effect both the alpha and omega of the book, the place where it starts (textually) and ends (geographically), with everything else contained between those two points; and I find myself wondering whether that doesn’t make the manor too prominent in News from Nowhere. I like to toy with the idea of a frontispiece based on the new utopian architecture of Nowhere, an image of the Hammersmith Guest House, say – what effect do you feel that change might have in initially orienting us towards the book?
R: Hum, so we have five political terms, three genres and three versions of the text – if you multiply all those together, you get 45 permutations already! Are these various factors interconnected? Is there, for example, a linkage between the generic complexity of the book and its political complexity, the fact that we can’t pin a single label on to it?
TP: Ah, now that’s an interesting question. But I’m getting rather tired of answering questions, I feel that I should by now have a turn at asking them. After all, you’re the Reader, surely you should be reading the book by now and then I can question you on that? So settle yourself down in that heavy oak chair by the window and get ready for a scientific disquisition. We’ve split the book up into three genres and three narrative sections, so let’s take them one at a time. Morris tells us on the title page that this is an ‘Epoch of Rest’, so we should take the reading very slowly, at the kind of pace at which the characters travel in the narrative itself (horse and cart or rowing boat rather than Victorian railways).
Section One: Dream-Vision, Narrative Frame.
TP: There’s been a lot of discussion of the tone of the treatment of the League meeting on the first page of the book. What is your judgment here: is this friendly satire of a rather turbulent but basically comradely meeting, or is the League presented as politically split down the middle between socialists and anarchists, as utterly dysfunctional, to the point where William Guest may be in real despair about its prospects? There might be a distinction between our response to the League discussion and the book’s own. We may be inclined to see six different views of the future as a welcome sign of political diversity and openness, but from the book’s viewpoint, faced as it is with a still powerful Victorian capitalism, if the revolutionary party can’t muster some sort of effective unity of vision, how will it ever successfully fight the status quo and bring the good world into being in the first place? We should note that William Guest is a middle-class rather than working-class socialist, an Oxford University-educated bourgeois convert to the cause rather than a proletarian pure and simple (which is why he goes back after the meeting to his house in a ‘western suburb’). Do you feel this class difference might account for his behaviour at the League meeting: too silent at the beginning and too aggressive at the end (‘damning all the rest for fools’)?
If you yourself were lucky enough to wake up in utopia, what is the very first thing you would do under those happy circumstances? The first thing William Guest does is to go for a swim in the Thames – why? What symbolic purpose does that brief dip in the river serve and, more generally, what does the book gain by putting the river so centrally at the heart of its utopian vision? There are important rivers in earlier utopias: the river Anyder in More’s Utopia or the river Charles in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (set in Boston), but in neither case does the visitor to utopia feel inclined either to go for an initial dip or to make a long journey upriver later in the text. So why should Morris choose to give us such a riparian and watery utopia?
Just as there were six members of the League present on the book’s first page, so there are six utopians present in the Hammersmith Guest House: Dick Hammond, Bob the weaver, Boffin the Golden Dustman, Annie and two other women. One of the traditional critiques of the genre of utopia is that it tends to make all its characters look alike, dress alike and – most importantly of all – think alike; and this is seen as a problem that is simultaneously literary (it makes utopias boring to read) and political (an authoritarian system seems to have enforced intellectual conformity, to have erased individual difference). Do you feel that Morris has successfully addressed this issue in the Guest House section? We shouldn’t expect to find the detailed individuation of character that we would expect in a George Eliot or Henry James novel, but, that accepted, has Morris at least made his figures lively and colourful, and their differences with each other (over how to treat Guest, over history and books) genuine and open-ended? Some critics have argued that Morris’s utopians exhibit a Dickensian eccentricity – Boffin the Golden Dustman, with his Dickensian name from Our Mutual Friend, being a possible example of that; do you feel that Morris has achieved a satisfying level of interest in his characters here?
Dick Hammond establishes a certain authority for himself in these early chapters: he is the most physically robust of all the Nowherians and we already know that he will serve as Guest’s guide in the new world. But should we just accept his judgements here or does he, as his friend Bob suggests, over-emphasise physicality and downplay the intellect? Boffin writes ‘reactionary novels’, but that adjective is Dick’s and we don’t necessarily have to accept it. We should certainly note, though, how often the book’s debates seem to turn around the issue of books and novels, culminating in Ellen’s great speech against novels at Runnymede (ch.XXII). This is an important issue to keep an eye on; News from Nowhere spends a lot of energy distinguishing itself from the nineteenth-century realist novel – why?
I have been referring to William Guest as if this were unproblematically his surname, but it is worth noticing that this is only a name he chooses to apply to himself – ‘so suppose you call me Guest’ (ch.III). There is much discussion across News from Nowhere about names – should you rename old places in a new social order; if you don’t, mightn’t the old names have bad effects? – so we should linger on this. Calling himself Guest naturally evokes the hospitality of his utopian hosts, so that he quickly becomes one of the ‘neighbours’, but guests always go home again in the end after their visit (that’s what makes them a guest rather than an immigrant), so does the visitor’s choice of this surname in effect hedge his bets here? Does he want to belong but only up to a point? Does he want to keep one foot inside and the other outside the socialist culture he has now entered? Perhaps his eventual return to the nineteenth century is not just a tragic fatality that befalls him from outside (as it seems to in ch.XXXII), but rather something for which he has already secretly prepared the ground by his choice of surname early in the book. (Another question which is worth pondering is: why doesn’t Guest simply come clean about being a visitor from the nineteenth century? Why is he so determined to keep this a secret until much later in the book? What might he gain by this?).
You probably won’t have been too impressed by the treatment of the female characters in the Guest House chapters, since they seem to do little more than serve the men (and that patronising pat on the head that Bob gives one of them certainly sticks in the reader’s throat). So you’ll see why, when we talked earlier about the different political terms which might apply to the book, I did not suggest ‘feminist’. However, I’m going to ask you to reserve your final judgement of the treatment of women across the text until we’ve met the more interesting figures of Ellen and Phillippa the carver in its later sections. So, no questions on this just yet!
Dick and Guest soon set out by horse and cart to make their way from Hammersmith to Bloomsbury to meet old Hammond. This gives Guest a first opportunity to experience the garden-city that London has become and to make a whole series of both environmental and political contrasts with Victorian London. But as you, the reader, travel with them are you more struck by the sensuous ecological delectations of the new London – the cool shade and the bracken scents of the new Middlesex forest, for example – or by the extraordinary technological regression which this future society has undergone? Trains and underground have gone completely, to be replaced not even by the bicycles of our own recent ecotopias, but by horse and cart! Though we learn later on that Nowhere has developed an important new energy-source – the ‘force’ - and has developed ‘immensely improved machinery’ (ch.XV) we don’t actually experience any of this in operation; Dick, Guest and Clara don’t go up the Thames in one of the ‘force-barges’ of which we hear but rather by rowing boat. And this is one of the issues that has aroused much debate about News from Nowhere: has Morris too radically sacrificed science, technology, research, intellect generally, for the sake of the immediate sensuous or ecological pleasures of his created world? Each reader will ultimately have to make his or her own judgements here. I’d certainly like to have more sense of how my son, with his PhD in bio-physics, might find a place in Morris’s ideal world.
Section Two: Old Hammond and Exposition.
Once we arrive at the British Museum and meet Dick’s great-grandfather old Hammond, we have, generically speaking, entered the systematic utopia proper, the developed exposition of the new social system. This is a dangerous moment for the text. Of the three genres that constitute News from Nowhere – dream-vision, utopia, romance – it is the second which is arguably both most important (since it maps out for us the principles and history of the new culture) and most risky (since if the exposition bores us as readers, we may also tend to feel that the society which it expounds is inadequate or even authoritarian in a political sense). Morris has immediately behind him here the worrying precedent of Edward Bellamy’s utopia Looking Backward, a book whose centralised, top-down State socialism is paralleled by an excruciatingly dull and monological manner of exposition as its Old Man Who Knows Everything, Dr Leete, endlessly lectures the visitor, Julian West, about the new Boston of the year 2000. Morris wrote a very hostile review of Bellamy’s book in Commonweal, but now he will need to find ways of expounding his own decentralised Nowherian communism in a fittingly decentralised and entertaining manner. Does he in your view achieve this in the old Hammond chapters?
I’ve already posed the question: if you arrived in utopia, what is the first thing you would do there? So let us now try this gambit in slightly different form: if you bumped into the Old Man Who Knows Everything, what is the first question you would be minded to ask him? Traditionally in utopias, the first question asked by the visitor is: how do you run your economy, or how do you organise your political system? So we might feel it is to the great credit of News from Nowhere that the first question William Guest asks old Hammond is, in effect, how do you organise your sex lives? I’m exaggerating slightly, of course: what Guest actually asks for is clarity about the relationship between Dick and Clara, who are about to become reconciled after a year-long separation, but this issue certainly soon broadens out into general issues of love and sexuality, as the chapter title ‘Concerning Love’ suggests. This early focus alerts us to what a very bodily utopia News from Nowhere will be, for both good and (possibly) ill. Morris’s utopians are impressively fit, active and attractive, and the kinds of non-industrial work we see in the book – road-mending, hay-making, house-building – clearly contribute to this. They are warmly physical in their immediate social relations, as with all the hand-holding (including between men) and occasional friendly kissing that we see, and are frank and straightforward in their sexual relations; Clara looks longingly at Dick’s body as he rows up the Thames, in a scene of overt female desire you won’t find paralleled in many other Victorian novels. Even language is becoming more bodily in Nowhere, with earthy Anglo-Saxon monosyllables – carle, sele, mote – starting to oust more abstract, polysyllabic ‘long-tailed words’ (ch.XII). This healthy physicality to some extent transfers itself to William Guest in the course of the book, since he begins to feel both fitter and younger on the journey upriver. On the other hand, there may be some worrying aspects to this physicality of the book too. Do you, for example, find yourself disturbed by the fact that the 56-year-old Guest is forever ogling much younger utopian women across the entire text?
The fact that utopian exposition in News from Nowhere opens with sexuality rather than economics certainly contributes to the relative liveliness of old Hammond’s exegesis. So too, I think, do the elements of friction and tension that are constantly breaking out between teacher and taught in these scenes. In Looking Backward Dr Leete’s long lectures to Julian West proceed equably but also tediously as the two of them genially smoke their cigars together, but there seems to be a good deal of mutual needling going on between old Hammond and his pupil; it would be worth you making a checklist of how often such words as ‘nettled’, ‘crustily’, ‘peevishly’ and so on occur between them. Where do such curious emotional undercurrents come from? Did you register the first strange disturbance Guest feels as he meets Hammond, whose face ‘seemed strangely familiar to me; as if I had seen it before – in a looking-glass it might be’ (ch.IX)? And Hammond’s later remarks about his grandfather who had been an artist and a revolutionary in the late-Victorian period lead us to believe that the Old Man Who Knows Everything is in fact the grandson of the visitor to utopia in this text. So they both genetically share the irascibility we saw in Guest right at the start of the book (‘damning all the rest for fools’) and this sharpness of temper livens up the expository exchanges between them.
However, this curious fact of Guest and Hammond being related has more substantial and perhaps troubling implications for the book too. It also means that Dick Hammond is Guest’s great-great-great-grandson, and if old Henry Morsom up the Thames is no more than ‘another edition of old Hammond’ (ch.XXVII), then he almost seems to become a distant relative too. Morris, we might say, keeps utopia very much in the family, he travels two hundred years into the future to meet an ideal society whose key figures (expositor and guide) are his own progeny. Is there not a danger of a certain narcissism here, which we might have sensed elsewhere when Guest discovers visual images and lines of verse with which he is ‘very particularly familiar’ decorating the Hammersmith Guest House (ch.III)? What that means, presumably, is that the building is festooned with images and quotations from William Morris’s own works, so Guest is not only the biological progenitor but also the historical culture hero of this utopia! Is it the case, then, that Guest-Morris dreams into being a future which is too narcissistic, excessively shaped in his own image? Morris remarked in his review of Looking Backward that the only way of reading a utopia is to see it as a reflection of the author’s personality, and this may then also be true of his own text, in which all his own personal likes (damascened belt-buckles, ornate pipes, river holidays) and dislikes (iron bridges, railways) are writ large. This is a big judgement that News from Nowhere ultimately requires every reader to make: is the future presented here a generally attractive one, or is it perhaps a little too closely tied in to Morris’s own art-and-crafts enthusiasms? Is it at all possible, we might wonder speculatively, to write a utopia that is non-narcissistic, that is open to genuine elements of difference and unpredictability? As we shall see later, News from Nowhere is at least aware of this issue.
One further element of the liveliness of utopian exposition in this book is the fact that it is the first utopia to contain a detailed and plausible history of ‘How the Change Came’, of the events leading up to the English revolution and civil war of 1952-54 and the early building of a new society in its wake. I think any reader is likely to thrill to the narrative dynamism and sheer political verve of these sections of News from Nowhere as they evoke ‘the eager, restless heroism of a declared revolutionary period’ (ch.XVII); into them Morris puts everything he has learnt, and much he imaginatively projects, from his own firsthand experiences as a militant Socialist in the 1880s. As Hammond begins to narrate details of the post-revolutionary reconstruction, we are taken back to the very first sentence of the book, which alerted us that two different political time-frames come into play in Morris’s utopia: the immediate Morrow of the Revolution and the longer-term future in which the new communist society is fully developed. Had you been bearing this distinction in mind in all the details of Nowherian history that you had been picking up earlier in the book (from Dick Hammond, for example)? In the first phase, which is an exuberant period of reconstruction for which old Hammond at moments seems quite nostalgic, Nowhere has to make up the wealth which was destroyed during the civil war and a measure of compulsion has to be used against recalcitrant elements of the old capitalist society. Economic production only changes fundamentally as we move towards the second stage, and the desire to get pleasure, art, creativity into the labour process – to change the very nature of work itself - leads to the full communism which the younger Nowherians enjoy in the twenty-second century of the book itself (this is where Morris’s intellectual debts to John Ruskin and Karl Marx most fruitfully intersect). Every so often News from Nowhere also fleetingly speculates as to what might come next, and you should certainly stay attuned to such glimpses even further into futurity in your reading.
I have tried to make a case for the relative liveliness of utopian exposition in News from Nowhere, at least in contrast to the exchanges between Dr Leete and Julian West in Looking Backward (try them if you don’t believe me!). Even so, you might feel that these chapters do drag on a bit and that there is a certain physical claustrophobia about being confined in the British Museum for so long. But it remains the case, none the less, that old Hammond does not cover every aspect of the new society in his exposition to Guest: there are important gaps – social topics that do not appear at all, here or elsewhere – and there are significant ‘thinnesses’, topics which we are told about but which we do not actually see firsthand, in real utopian practice. Do you have your own sense of missing features from the utopian exposition of the book? An example of the former might be the coordination of economic production across the society as a whole. Road-mending, bridge-building, fruit and vegetable growing, timber production and hay-making are all going on, but what institutions are there to coordinate all these local efforts, to make sure that timber is not being over-produced or hay under-produced? How are the local communes federated, both politically and economically? Examples of the latter, of expository thinness, are local democracy and technology. We hear at secondhand about debates over bridge-building, but we surely want to experience a Nowherian council-meeting or Mote in actual operation; we hear from Dick about ‘force-barges’ on the Thames, but we would like William Guest to clamber into one, master the controls and put it through its paces on the river. Showing is always better than mere telling, to borrow Wayne Booth’s important distinction between novelistic techniques. Would it be adequate to defend Morris’s reticence about technology as a simple matter of shrewd literary tactics, because if he had specified clever Nowherian gadgets they might soon have come to look embarrassingly dated, as the pneumatic tubes and musical telephone of Edward Bellamy’s utopian Boston do to us today?
This issue of major expository gaps and vaguenesses in News from Nowhere’s vision of communism has split Morris’s critics down the middle. For some, the lack of institutional detail in the book is so severe that it disqualifies News from Nowhere from counting as a utopia at all (Darko Suvin); it shows the egregious limits with which Morris, as poet, artist and craftsman, grasps the more abstract, sociological side of his future vision. For others, however, these institutional absences are evidence that Morris is writing a radically new kind of utopia, one that rejects the turgid ‘juridico-political model-building’ of the classical utopias in favour of a freer, more exploratory and ‘felt’ approach to the new human relationships and values that will be enacted in everyday communist society (Miguel Abensour has argued this eloquently). Again, this is one of the big judgements on the book that every reader will ultimately have to make. We could put it as a rather blunt readerly choice: would you be willing to sacrifice three chapters of the upriver trip on the Thames for three more chapters of old Hammond spelling out the mechanisms of national and international economic coordination under communism? I have always tended to the Abensourian side of this argument myself, while also feeling that there is none the less something immensely impressive about Edward Bellamy’s attempt to formulate every last detail of how his centralised state socialism would work in Looking Backward. We shouldn’t reject that kind of encyclopaedism too easily, perhaps – not if we want to be convinced, and to convince others, that socialism is a genuinely workable social model for our shared future.
Section Three: Romance – Upriver Journey
As William Guest changes geographical location, leaving Hammersmith behind as he travels up the river Thames with Dick and Clara, so we as readers change our generic location, shifting from utopia to romance. Having mastered the new society intellectually, with old Hammond, Guest can now enjoy it physically and emotionally, on the leisurely upriver journey towards the Kelmscott hay harvest. Guest shifts from passivity under Hammond’s tutelage to relative activity, as he begins to become the hero of his own quest-romance. As it makes this generic shift, News from Nowhere joins the much larger group of romances which Morris wrote in his later years, from The House of the Wolfings (1888) to The Water of the Wondrous Isles (published posthumously in 1897), so Morris is eminently in his narrative element here; and as that 1897 title suggests, this element is often enough a watery one.
The upriver journey in News from Nowhere has had both admirers and critics over the years. There is certainly much beautiful Nature writing here, and ecological critics have always been very friendly to this section of the book. But others have wondered, as with Guest’s horse and cart journey across the new London, whether the text hasn’t again become rather too pastoral and placid. After the ambitious exposition of an entire new social system in the British Museum chapters, we might also be inclined to ask whether the book isn’t now focusing too narrowly on William Guest. Yes, to some extent he is still learning about the new world – Henry Morsom expounding the history of post-revolutionary crafts in the Wallingford Museum is, as we have seen, another edition of old Hammond – but the quest-romance that we have now generically entered makes Guest very much an individual hero; and this is a far cry indeed from the collective heroism that was movingly celebrated in ‘How the Change Came’. Is News from Nowhere itself, we may wonder, infatuated with the Oxfordshire landscape and with Kelmscott manor, Morris’s own country hideaway, as a regressive ‘heart of Englishness’ close to the source of the Thames? It is not always easy to distinguish between admirable environmentalism and nostalgic Englishness in these upriver chapters, and some hardline critics have felt that Morris has fallen away from his own Marxism here and offered us nothing more than a kind of ‘bourgeois holiday’. I suggested earlier that literary works sometimes have minds of their own, that they don’t always do what their authors want, so it may be that the very concretion and loving detail with which Morris has evoked the upriver landscapes has pulled these scenes too far away from the radical politics of the London sections of the book. And yet, even so, as we shall see, this is far from the whole story; on closer inspection there is in fact plenty of politics, though of a rather different sort, in these chapters.
Sensuously seductive though the river journey is, we should note that Guest encounters upon it a series of robust challenges to the placidity of the utopian world. At Runnymede he meets an elderly ‘grumbler’ who disparages Nowherian communism in favour of the supposedly brisker competition of Victorian capitalism; at Maple-Durham he hears a story of sexual jealousy which has led to violence and manslaughter, blighting the happiness of the local community; just before Streatley he meets the Obstinate Refusers who, as their name suggests, refuse to participate in the communal haymaking festivities, so obsessed are they with their own immediate building project; and the young woman Ellen, who rejoins Guest at Wallingford, later tells him that she has ‘often troubled men’s minds disastrously’ (ch.XVIII) – which is a very strong adverb indeed for utopia! Each of these four instances poses tricky questions for the reader. How much weight should we give to each of them, and what overall effect do they have on our grasp of Morris’s utopia? Do they show that this is an open, pluralistic, libertarian communism which can incorporate certain kinds of dissent and disturbance without at once shipping the trouble-makers off to a Stalinist Gulag? Is this where the anarchists we saw on the first page of the book finally do have a benign influence on its social content? Or do such episodes show that there is real unease under the surface in this society, that it has its explicit enemies as well as its rather pervasive and unfocused anxieties (as with that oft-expressed worry about work running out, which we never quite know whether to believe or not)? Is all well with the Morrisian utopia after all?
For you will discover that Ellen herself, who is certainly the most vivid character in this section of the book, has her own worries about the future of Nowhere: 'people are too careless of the history of the past – too apt to leave it in the hands of learned old men like Hammond. Who knows? Happy as we are, times may alter; we may be bitten with some impulse towards change, and many things may seem too wonderful for us to resist, too exciting not to catch at, if we do not know that they are but phases of what has been before; and withal ruinous, deceitful, and sordid' (ch.XXIX). This seems to me possibly the most important statement in the entire book, although some critical accounts of News from Nowhere ignore it entirely. Can it really be the case that the weak grasp of history in this society, which both Dick Hammond and his great-grandfather had themselves remarked on early in the book, might lead to a backsliding towards capitalism? Is there really a possibility that, among the genial neighbours of the Thames valley, counter-revolution (a term that is actually used twice in the text) could set in?
If so, then is Ellen herself some kind of solution to the worries she has opened? If some Nowherians are alert to these disturbing issues, to lack of historical awareness and the possible political recidivism it may ultimately entail, then does not this in itself prove that it may have generated the intellectual resources to deal with them – ‘those of us who look into these things’, as Ellen puts it (ch.XXIX)? William Guest certainly believes that Ellen herself is a utopian of a new kind: ‘of all the persons I had seen in that world renewed, she was the most unfamiliar to me, the most unlike what I could have thought of’ (ch.XXVII). So it would seem that she might be capable of mapping out a new, challenging, unpredictable future for it. The question is: can we entirely trust Guest’s assessment of Ellen here? He has already referred to her ‘strange wild beauty’ and soon begins to become emotionally entangled with her. Keep an eye on the age difference that the book specifies between the two figures: Guest is 56 years old and Ellen is merely 20. So we should go back to the earlier chapter ‘Concerning Love’ and ask ourselves whether old Hammond hasn’t already diagnosed this situation: the middle-aged man becoming hopelessly infatuated. For Hammond speaks of ‘the inexplicable desire that comes on a man of riper years to be the all-in-all to some one woman, whose ordinary human kindness and human beauty he has idealised into superhuman perfection ... the older man caught in a trap’ (ch.IX). We seem to be left in an interpretive bind here. Guest may be right about Ellen being a new, more complex kind of Nowherian who could deal with any political problems the grumblers and the Obstinate Refusers may throw up, but alternatively, his taking so high a view of her may be evidence of obsession, of the fact that she has now ‘troubled his mind disastrously’ too. Is Ellen the genuine opening up of the book to a future beyond Morris’s own tastes and imaginings – ‘the most unlike what I could have thought of’ – or is she the most narcissistic of all of his creations? Or, paradoxically, is she both? Where do you come down in this debate?
If there are elements of nostalgia in the upper Thames chapters, both Guest and the text, to their eternal credit, do snap back out of the upper Thames mode. Guest cannot cross the threshold at Kelmscott church and very soon, after meeting a doppelgänger of his own grimy, middle-aged self, he plunges back into the capitalist past and wakes to continued, painful political struggle in the late-Victorian present. It hurts to lose Ellen and utopia, no doubt at all about that; but perhaps in the end utopia is a process rather than a product, something that you glimpse in the struggles of the present rather than a finished object or vision that you can confidently close your fist around as you might a damascened belt buckle or an elaborate Japanese-style pipe. How shocked were you on your first reading by Guest’s return to the 1890s? Had you seen that coming – perhaps in the occasional ‘threats’ he feels when the Nowherians make remarks which imply that he is invisible or tangential to their present? We talked about tone in the opening chapter, so how do you judge the tone of the book’s final sentence: ‘Yes surely ...’? Will Guest be a more effective fighter for socialism now than he was on page one (‘damning all the rest for fools’, we remember), or will he remain the same middle-class misfit in a working-class cause?
Perhaps we can now, retrospectively, come to some overall assessment of William Guest’s role in Nowhere. His first function there is simply the one assigned to him by the genre of utopia itself: first, gawp in wonderment; second, learn how it all works; and third, take the message of hope back to your own people. So far, so good; but is there more to it than that? Did you have a sense that he might be playing a more specific, more active role among the Thames valley neighbours than his basic generic function allows for? What about his age, for example? Why should William Guest be 56 years old? One kind of answer is: because this is the age of the author when he wrote the book. Indeed it is, but we should be asking a textual, not biographical, question: what function does Guest’s being 56 (rather than 26 or 86, say) have within the book itself? Does his middle age not make him the figure of potential synthesis: still active enough to be in touch with the sensuous pleasures of the younger Nowherians (which is why he gets on so well with Dick, Clara and Guest on the Thames), but also old enough to appreciate the intellectual pursuits of the 105-year-old Hammond or Henry Morsom or the 90-year-old who joins the journey with Dick across London? So already we get a sense that Guest may have some significant and more-than-just-generic role to play in Nowhere.
You will probably notice that he begins teaching Ellen about history after she rejoins the upper Thames party, so he starts to be an expositor, not just listen to one as in the British Museum. But can we construe Guest as having an altogether more substantive function in relation to Ellen, one which definitively belongs to the genre of quest-romance rather than to utopia itself? Is it his role, as questing hero, to release her from a kind of imprisonment at Runnymede by defeating the old grumbler in argument and then, ultimately, to reintegrate her among the younger Nowherians at the Kelmscott church feast, even if he himself cannot partake in this? After all, if Ellen does in some sense represent a more vigorous utopian future in the book, then she needs to be part of society, rather than being effectively sent to Coventry in the Runnymede cottage, and it is indeed Guest who makes this eventual reintegration come to pass for her. So the visitor to utopia has, in effect, given it back its most vigorous and impressive member, and that seems quite a notable achievement to chalk up to William Guest’s credit.
On the other hand, as with pretty well everything in News from Nowhere, there have been deep critical disagreements here. There are unsettling moments in the book where the Nowherians themselves seem to agree that Guest has an active function, but that it may be a negative one. Most striking of all is that occasion where, after their swim together at Kelmscott, Dick finds himself talking about the ‘coming of the dark days’, about the bleakness of winter rather than the summer abundance that actually surrounds them: ‘If it hadn’t happened to me before, I should have thought it was your doing, guest; that you had thrown a kind of evil charm over me’ (ch.XXXII). Well, should we or shouldn’t we as readers take the notion of Guest casting an ‘evil charm’ over Nowhere seriously? Is Guest also a ghost, arriving from the deep past to prey upon the living? Does the bafflement that he causes among the Nowherians, as he tries to pay for his brief cast on the Thames or for the Japanese-style pipe, risk reactivating long-lost commercial habits of thought among them? Is it Guest himself who, in the imagery of Ellen’s great warning, might vampirically bite Nowhere with a desire for change that could ultimately lead it back to capitalism? Moreover, if Ellen troubles his mind disastrously, does he not do the same for her in reverse, causing her to fixate upon a figure from the capitalist past and follow him obsessively up the Thames? May it be, as some critics have suggested, that Guest will contaminate Nowhere, and that his disappearance on the threshold of Kelmscott church is actually some kind of expulsion or exorcism of this troubling revenant? Again, these are issues on which you, as reader, will have to make up your own mind. You’ll certainly have to read News from Nowhere more than once to come to a decision on them.
Reader: You’ve certainly asked me a lot of questions – it’ll take me some time to think all those issues through. Perhaps after all that we should now adjourn for lunch and wine as Guest and old Hammond do in the British Museum? But first I want to turn the tables again and ask you a question back – and I warn you that it’s a big question. How does my processing of all the particular local points you’ve raised finally turn into some overall literary and/or political interpretation and valuing of News from Nowhere?
TP: Or is it perhaps the other way round? Will your overall assessment of Morris’s utopia condition the way you respond to the local details and issues? Probably there will always be an interpretive to-ing and fro-ing between both, but since we’ve been stressing the local for some time, we should bend the stick the other way and, by way of conclusion to this discussion, think about how in a more global way we orientate ourselves towards this book. No reading is purely personal because we ourselves, as readers, are the products of history, indeed not of just one history but of several. If utopia is a genre that straddles politics and literature, then changes in all of these areas will affect the way that we, who are caught up in those changes, will read and value Morris’s utopia. Take politics first. The great collapse of Soviet-style Communism in 1989 and the emergence of lively forms of Green politics around the same time certainly affected what we asked of and needed from News from Nowhere in that period; but more recently, with the global capitalist crisis of 2008 onwards and some important thinkers on the Left arguing for the reassertion of the ‘idea of Communism’, this may be a moment when our relation to this book is changing again. We may want to devote less attention to the ecology of the text – its garden-city London and sensuous upper Thames-scapes – and pay rather more attention to what old Hammond and the book have to say about communism.
Take literature next. The biggest change in the field of literary studies in recent decades has been the ‘literary theory revolution’ of the 1980s. Earlier readings emanating from traditional literary criticism tended to take News from Nowhere very much at face value, as a genial, neighbourly, positive social vision. Literary theory, however, tends to be much more suspicious in the way it approaches texts, to look for their darker sides, the ways in which they release meanings the author may not fully understand. In my view, this has led to deeper and richer readings of Morris’s utopia, and this emphasis on the unsettling dark side of literary works has clearly been coming through in our exchanges above.
Finally, let us take the genre of utopia itself. Changes in utopian literary production will always deeply affect the ways in which we read the utopias of the past, so when utopian writing mutated startlingly in the 1970s with writers like Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy and Samuel Delany, it soon became possible to take the new utopian mindset they had given us back to their great predecessors and read those earlier utopias through the new grid. The critic Tom Moylan has given us the very useful generic label ‘critical utopia’ for that new 1970s utopianism; it denotes utopias in which utopia is under great political strain and may even be degenerating alarmingly, yet is not altogether beyond salvage; and which are also very formally self-conscious of themselves as writing projects. Again, some of this emphasis does come through in the exchanges above, in the notion that Nowhere may be politically under threat in some way as Ellen suggests (and that she herself might be able to salvage it).
All readings of News from Nowhere are situated, then: not just in terms of the histories of politics, the genre of utopia and literary studies, but in terms of generation too. At which point I must own up to being (at the time of writing) 56 years old, like William Guest himself, and as with him, that surely has both positive and negative sides. Perhaps I too can in some ways be a point of synthesis: I have a foot in the camps of traditional working-class community and socialist politics but also in the newer ecological concerns (I was a Green Party city councillor for four years, for example); and I’m old enough to appreciate traditional literary criticism while also being young enough to have responded very positively to literary theory when it first emerged and changed the ways we read forever. But being 56 years old (and male) also means that I am very definitely not Ellen, not 20 years old: which is to say that younger generations of readers of News from Nowhere are emerging day by day, with their own distinctive political, utopian and literary concerns which I cannot possibly share at first hand. So, to younger readers of this introduction and of Morris’s great work, I look forward to hearing your thoughts, your questions, your probings of this endlessly suggestive vision of a communist future. To adapt two fine lines from T.S. Eliot’s marvellous poem ‘Mariana’, let me resign my readings for your readings, ‘my speech for that unspoken,/The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships’.