Tuesday, 26 February 2008

William Morris in the Novel

Morris has appeared in novels occasionally over the years. The earliest examples include Hubert and Edith Bland's Something Wrong (1886), which contains a depiction of Morris as a socialist leader, and George Gissing’s Demos (1886), where the writer and socialist Westlake (‘long-haired, full-bearded, he had the forehead of an idealist and eyes whose natural expression was an indulgent smile’) is loosely modelled on Morris, as is his sister Stella on Jane.

Morris then features very briefly, as an ‘enthusiastic angler’, towards the end of Theodore Watts-Dunton’s Aylwin (1899), when the heroine Winifred recovers from her dementia at Hurstcote Manor (Kelmscott) under the benign care of Mr D’Arcy (Rossetti). Morris would certainly not have been amused by the little piscatorial vignette in which he appears, since it shows him as out-fished on his very own Kelmscott waters by a girl in a trance! Linda Miller, in her excellent series of articles in the UK Morris Society Newsletter, has recently drawn our attention to William Cameron’s novel The Day is Coming (1944), which depicts a meeting between Morris and C.R. Ashbee at Kelmscott in December 1894, and in which Morris is a lifetime inspirational presence to the working-class hero, Arthur Cullen (based on Cameron’s own father). The American modernist poet H.D. has an unpublished novel about Morris, Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, and no doubt there are other examples to which learned colleagues could draw our attention.

But it may be that we stand on the brink of a whole new manifestation of William Morris in the novel. For a new genre of the “historical-figure-turned-detective” is emerging all around us. As straws in the wind, we might take Michael Gregorio’s Critique of Criminal Reason (2006), in which the ageing philosopher Immanuel Kant comes out of retirement to help the detective Hanno Stiffeniis in Königsberg in 1804; Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder (2006), in which Sigmund Freud is drafted into a criminal investigation on his trip to New York; and Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders (2007), in which both Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle turn detective in fin-de-siècle London and Paris. The more intelligent works in this genre naturally try to tell us something interesting about the historical figure-cum-detective’s thought-system in the process of generating a gripping detective narrative – all the more readily where that thought-system itself, as with psychoanalysis, is from the start a mode of decoding tiny clues and signs and parapraxes.

Is it not time, then, that William Morris himself emerged into this new fictional sphere of writers and philosophers turned detective, in a criminal plot that would both be revealing about his own thinking and, conceivably, about the fate of socialism more widely? Morris himself, as I have suggested elsewhere, was a keen reader of the detective novels of Emile Gaboriau, so he might well relish such an early twenty-first century fictional reincarnation.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Umberto Eco asks ...

In a fine essay on 'Dreaming of the Middle Ages', Umberto Eco asks (in his husky, sexy Italian accent): 'What would Ruskin, Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites have said if they had been told that the rediscovery of the Middle Ages would be the work of the twentieth-century mass media?'

Has anyone ever answered that challenging question?

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Hours of Work in 'Nowhere'

In The Great Society: A Psychological Analysis (1914), Graham Wallas remarks that ‘once, while I listened to him [William Morris] lecturing, I made a rough calculation that the citizens of his commonwealth, in order to produce by the methods he advocated the quantity of beautiful and delicious things which they were to enjoy, would have to work about two hundred hours a week’ (p.326). And since News from Nowhere is the fleshing out of the economic, social and political principles of Morris’s lectures, we must assume that Wallas’s calculation of hours of work applies to it too.

200 hours a week – in a week of only 168 hours (=7x24)?! Good grief, it’s almost enough to send you scuttling back, with William Guest, to nineteenth-century capitalism as some sort of escape from this overwhelming utopian work schedule. Or we might exclaim: come back Looking Backward, all is forgiven, since there at least one retires from the utopian work-force at the age of forty-five. It’s true that work in Morris’s utopia is indistinguishable from art, creativity and pleasure; but even so, two hundred hours of it seems rather too much of a good thing. Whatever happened to the high ideals of the Socialist League manifesto, which argued that when labour was distributed fairly two to three hours work per person per day would be enough to produce the necessaries of life?

Graham Wallas had been a Fabian, and May Morris in her Artist, Writer, Socialist mocks the Fabians’ habit of taking their slide rules to her father’s utopia: ‘The materialist frame of mind was amusingly shown by the Fabian criticism that the economic process by which the inhabitants of News from Nowhere got wine from France was never known: people didn’t seem in that happy country to be producing for exchange, and some active young minds were anxious about it. My Father often laughed over this’ (II, 334).

Well, it’s difficult to defend Wallas’s point against William Morris’s own robust laughter, and nowadays we often invoke Miguel Abensour’s notion that Nowhere is a heuristic ‘education of desire’ which is not subject to a Wallasian hours-and-minutes critique that might indeed be apt enough for the more detailed blueprints of the classical utopian tradition. But even so, I find myself intrigued by Graham Wallas’s calculation of two hundred hours: is there any way, I wonder, in which we could retrace the steps by which he arrived at that figure, or even boldly venture an independent, new calculation of our own (Bob the Yorkshire weaver, with his passion for mathematics, would be the character in Nowhere most likely to help us with this)? For if Morris’s utopia, with its radical simplification of life, does indeed require more work to sustain it than there are hours in the week, then its ‘dream’ is likely to remain just that, and never arrive at the status of a shared ‘vision’ after all.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Things That Go Bump On Your Head

In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) the provincial doctor, Charles Bovary, receives a memorable birthday present: ‘Il reçut pour sa fête une belle tête phrénologique, toute marquetée de chiffres jusqu’au thorax et peinte en bleu’. Thirty pages later, disturbed by his wife’s mysterious ailments, Charles takes refuge in his office, ‘et il pleura, les deux coudes sur la table, assis dans son fauteuil de bureau, sous la tête phrénologique’. And towards the close of the novel, as the bailiffs arrive to seize Charles’s goods to settle Emma’s massive debts, his birthday present has a lucky escape. The bailiffs ‘n’inscrivirent point la tête phrénologique, qui fut considérée comme instrument de sa profession’.

Charles Bovary’s phrenological head can thus serve as a reminder to us of just how pervasive the pseudo-science of phrenology was in the nineteenth century, and it often had a distinctly radical edge to it. Phrenological lectures were popular with working-class audiences; the Owenites of New Lanark welded phrenology and utopian socialism together for a time; and even Karl Marx cheerily announced in a letter to a friend: ‘So you see, phrenology is not the useless art which Hegel imagined!’ This radical phrenological tradition came through to William Morris and his circle in the person of E.T. Craig, elderly Chartist and Co-operator, who used to offer readings in the garden of Kelmscott House. As May Morris recalls: ‘one time when we were having our characters described by the bumps on our heads, Shaw, who was one of the company and also undergoing examination, naughtily asked if he had a bump of veneration. “A bump?” shrieked the old gentleman, “why it’s a ‘ole there!” and stuck his stick into the ground to emphasise the answer’.

Did Morris ever have his own head read by Craig or anyone else? Not as far as I know; or if he did, we seem to have no record of it. Is, then, the chance of a phrenological analysis of William Morris gone for good? Not necessarily. The Phrenological Magazine published in June 1880 a four-page ‘Phrenological Description of Mr. John Ruskin’ by L.N. Fowler. It is an impressively detailed piece of work: ‘His brain is of full size and of peculiar shape, being long, high, and narrow … Form is very large …He is equally large in the organ of Size, giving fullness to the corner of the eye, next to the nose … the largest of these [faculties] is Benevolence, as seen by the extreme height of his head above the forehead’, etc. Yet far from running his fingers and calipers patiently all over the Sage of Brantwood’s face and skull, Fowler has concocted his analysis, as he himself admits in a footnote to his article, ‘from photographs’. So all is not, after all, lost in the case of Morris. A trained phrenologist, or even just a keen amateur, should be able to sit down with his or her copy of Fiona MacCarthy’s well-illustrated biography and write out a detailed phrenological study from the assorted Morrisian photographs collected there. We await results with interest!

Friday, 1 February 2008

Questions in 'Pickwick'

May Morris narrates an entertaining battle of wits between her father and a Birmingham acquaintance. The latter 'prided himself on his knowledge of Dickens, and was rather given to displaying it. This he did by putting (as his own) the questions he got from Calverley's Examination Papers. "He put them," says a friend, "to your father, who had no difficulty in answering all of them. He doubtless knew all about Calverley's questions, and having disposed of them, he proceeded to test M's knowledge of the book [Pickwick] and he put to him question after question which M could not answer. The questions seemed to show that your father knew Pickwick pretty well by heart"'.

The Pickwick examination, thirty questions long, was set in 1857 by the eccentric Cambridge don, Charles Stewart Calverley. It was first held, as a mock-formal exam, in his rooms at Cambridge where the undergraduate Walter Besant won first prize for his answers and refreshed himself after his Dickensian labours with a supper of oysters, beer and milk-punch. This gruellingly detailed test on the novel subsequently achieved considerable notoriety, though by 1889 Andrew Lang was writing mournfully in his Lost Leaders that 'The number of people who could take a good pass in Mr Calverley's Pickwick Examination Paper is said to be diminishing'.

We are fortunate today that Calverley's Pickwick questions are readily available in an online edition of his Fly Leaves at: http://infomotions.com/etexts/gutenberg/dirs/etext03/fllv10.htm, so that Morris fans who share their hero's passion for Dickens can now test themselves out on the book. Immediately following the thirty questions is the set of authorised answers to them, so take care how you scroll down into the site.