Thursday, 1 October 2015

Return of the Native

When I gave my paper on ‘William Morris and the Return of Communism’ at the recent Birmingham symposium I described it in the opening remarks as an exercise in political philology. Audience questions afterwards focused, understandably enough, on my exploration of the history and complexities of the word ‘communism’, in Morris and subsequently. But the same philological attention should probably also be paid to the other central term of my title: ‘return’. This too isn’t an easy word or notion by any means, since as Bob Dylan so memorably sings in ‘Mississippi’, ‘You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way’.


We know that Morris had read Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878), the most searching exploration of what it means to return – or at least, try to - in English literature, so he presumably thought deeply about these matters as he did so, even if he didn’t have the benefit of Raymond Williams’s stunningly insightful discussion of that book in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970). And of course many characters in Morris’s own fictional writings also return to their geographical starting points after variously transformational journeys.


The Morrisian return I ponder most is that of William Guest, as he time-travels back to Kelmscott House in late-Victorian capitalist England at the end of his utopian experiences in News from Nowhere. The critics have been mulling this over for years: Norman Talbot declared in strongly upbeat tones that ‘Guest is back among us, more resolute than ever’, while Barbara Gribble sceptically remarked that ‘one expects him to take up again his former and ineffectual habits’. So how should we think about Guest’s return here? Will he be as formidable as Ralph and Ursula when they finally get back to Upmeads in The Well at the World’s End or, rather, as radically disturbed as H.G. Wells’s Prendick at the end of The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and Conrad’s Marlow at the close of Heart of Darkness (1899)? We would need some lively sequel-writing to Morris’s own text to fully explore the possibilities here.

5 comments:

Kotick said...

If we want words for William Guest after his return to the 1890s, Tony, perhaps we couldn't do better than borrow Samuel Beckett's, from 'The Calmative': "I wasn't returning empty-handed, not quite, I was taking back with me the virtual certainty that I was of this world, of that world too, in a way. But I was paying the price".

Jay said...

I cannot see how the intellectual challenge of lively sequel-writing to Morris’s own text can happen now that Jackie Collins has died

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for the intriguing Beckett "return" quote - I'll have to look that story up. For an excellent academic study on all matters to do with literary sequels, see 'Part Two: Reflections on the Sequel', edited by Paul Budra and Betty Schellenberg (University of Toronto Press, 1999). Can't remember offhand whether it mentions Jackie Collins, though!

Tony Pinkney said...

After-thought: I suspect that, when Morris is at his most interesting, one "returns" in his work either as a ghost or as a monster (see my post for 19 August 2015 on the latter notion in WM's writings).

Paul Leduc Browne said...

Ursula Le Guin writes in The Dispossessed: "You can go home again (...) so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.”