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.