Saturday, 3 January 2015

Is William Morris Enough?

Love is Enough, Morris confidently tells us in his over-elaborate poem of that title in 1872; but is William Morris himself enough, I wonder? Enough for what or for whom, you ask. Well, for culturally-minded socialists in the early twenty-first century, let us say. Much as I love Morris and his works, I feel that he is, alas, not enough, not quite; and I therefore need to complement him with Raymond Williams and his work.

It was indeed a ‘river of fire’ that Morris had to cross in 1883 from Victorian middle-class comfort to revolutionary socialism; and that undoubtedly required a degree of courage which it is hard for us to gauge accurately now. Doggedly though he laboured for the working-class cause, however, Morris didn’t thereby simply cease to be a Victorian gentleman and, as Fiona MacCarthy has suggested, in his last days he was ‘more or less reclaimed by his class’ (p.669).

Morris went to Oxford University in 1853 as a matter of course, given his family and class background. But for those of us from working-class families who got to the elite middle-class educational institutions, there was a ‘river of fire’ of a rather different nature to cross; and it is Raymond Williams, son of a railway signalman in a Welsh village who went to Cambridge in 1939, who helped us make sense of that. Morris’s river of fire is Williams’s ‘border country’ (the title of his first and finest novel), less something you cross definitively than a difficult liminal space you have to inhabit, strung out between the working-class neighbourhood to which you remain loyal and the expanded intellectual horizons that have been opened to you.

I remember the shock of recognition when I first read Williams’s chapter on Thomas Hardy in his book on The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence when I was twenty-one years old; for so many of Hardy’s own characters inhabit just such a border country between class identities, none more so than Clym Yeobright, the returning native. Nothing in Morris’s work, formative though it too has been, has ever moved me quite as deeply as that Williams chapter– though Morris makes a brave stab at ventriloquising something like working-class experience in Pilgrims of Hope. So there it is, then: William Morris is very nearly enough – but not quite.


Joanna said...

The difficulties of relating to family when you’ve attained a higher level of consciousness through education have been a theme in my life. How to relate when your education bears upon everything -in contrast to their opinions formed through knee jerk tabloid emotion. Just talking about the news can be fraught. Their mockery at your voice, the language you now use- the result of jealousy or fear? The accusation that ‘you have changed’- the condemnation of my evolution. I am not trying to be pretentious but that once bookish child has grown intellectually. And perhaps some resentment on my part- how much does it cost to open up a book?
Maybe the cultural adage about the thickness of blood is mistaken. Perhaps some hurtful ties are better severed.

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for that moving and painful comment. I think, then, that I was relatively lucky because my family did value my learning. They may have thought some of the particular opinions it led to were odd, but they were never hostile to learning itself. But it may well be much tougher for girls than for boys. Raymond Williams used to recommend Carolyn Steedman's 'Landscape for a Good Woman' on this, though I'm afraid I haven't yet got round to reading it.

Owlfarmer said...

As a product of a "working middle" pioneer family in California, I grew up among folk who valued education, even though few attained much of it. Even my grandmother (born in 1897) went to college before she left it for marriage. But I was the first to graduate from university--and an Ivy League one at that. It took me eight years, and I worked for the Graduate School (which paid much of my tuition), thus getting it all through the back door. Perhaps the American affection for bootstrap advancement (as hypocritical as it can be) does make for a less class-bound experience.

Tony Pinkney said...

Good to see that a Raymond Williams talk on 'Ecology and theLabour MOvement' has just been posted on You Tube. See:

Tony Pinkney said...

And for another affirmation of Williams's continuing importance, see