Introduction to News From Nowhere

  1. A Definition of Utopia in Literature
  2. Introduction to News From Nowhere
  3. Utopia: A Socialist Epoch of Rest

Utopia did not inspire William Morris as no references exist. he might have read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1871), whose title is an inversion or reversal of “nowhere”. In this book, the world is enslaved by machines that become so powerful and intelligent.

Morris’s utopia is suspicious about machines. It is hard to make a clear distinction between political manifestos and utopias. Socialist books can sound like utopias. Owen, Fourié anticipated Karl Marx. Is News From Nowhere a manifesto or a deliberate romance? If you read the subtitle you get the answer though it is not clear-cut.

William Morris: Life and Works

In the article “How I Became a Socialist”, published in 1819, Morris said, “Apart from a desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life is hatred of modern civilisation”.  The central concept of beauty is opposed to the notion of hatred: this is Morris’s struggle for socialism. Gradually, we discover some anticipations of our world.

In 1834, Morris was born in the countryside. His dad was a businessman in the city (“well-to-do”). There were lots of personal contradictions. He was from a family of nine children, number three and the eldest son. His father died in 1847. They had moved to a place called Woodford Hall, in a beautiful villa.

In his case, the autobiography is essential. News From Nowhere is packed with different elements of his biography: personal background and architecture. It is always a beautiful house with green and beautiful natural surroundings. His childhood was connected with beauty and nature. He had a passion with his dad for the Middle Ages; they visited churches and mediaeval architecture. A critic called this “childhood medievalism”.

Walter Scott was instrumental in shaping memories of the past. After the death of his dad, he went to Marlborough College. he did not like it and called it “a really rough school”. Fascinated by the past, he visited many monuments (“monumenta” in Latin). He had a fascination for history. “I don’t remember having been taught to read”;  in News From Nowhere, children learn by themselves.

In 1853, Morris went to Oxford, the ideal place for its gothic architecture and literary productions. There, he met John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle and he met his best friend Edward Burne-Jones (later to become a famous painter). They became close friends till the end.

Morris went to the continent, to Belgium and Northern France where he visited cathedrals (Amiens, Beauvais and Chartres). At Oxford, he started mediaeval history. He was an intellectual and active at the same time – this is the greatest originality about Morris. They visited Le Louvre. He and his friends were mystical and had a taste for religious commitment.

This was the time when Morris and Jones decided to become artists: an architect and a painter. Maurice didn’t have to work as he was getting an income from his father. There was a gothic revival at the time, with a new taste for mediaeval architecture. It was trendy to be into mediaeval ideals and chivalry. There was a general aspiration to the simple life of the mediaeval monasteries.

Carlyle and Ruskin were very influential at the time. Nostalgia was very trendy. These people were progressive (involved in social movements) and at the same time regressive (with mediaeval ideals): it was a strange conciliation between progress and regress. What was meant by art was a resolve to defend a new sort of art coming from the past and to be defended in the future. You must go backwards to progress. Novelty lies only in the past.

There was a double encounter: first with Rossetti, the leader of the pre-raphaelites brotherhood. It was a sort of secret society, very brief in history. Rossetti became Morris’s mentor, he was charismatic. Rossetti so influenced Morris that he took up painting.

In 1857, Rossetti formed a group which included Morris, Jones and himself. They moved into a studio in Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury and started decorating walls and roofs with scenes from La Morte d’Arthur by Malory, the favourite book of the group. They drew mediaeval frescoes.

It was Morris’s first attempt at designing and creating something new. It made him realise his aspirations and write his first volume of poetry, The Defense of Guinevere.

Rossetti persuaded Jane to sit for his painting. Jane typified the pre-Raphaelites’ ideal of feminine beauty. She was 17 and Morris fell madly in love with her and they married in 1859. She came from the working class. Morris was like a knight helping out Jane from her low condition.

The Arts and Crafts movement was the central concept in Morris’s life. He created a firm: “Morris, Marshal, Faulkner Company Decorators”. This corporate firm with partners opened in April 1861. It was interior design with the importance of stained glass (in huge demand because of the number of churches at the time). Morris also began to design wallpapers: this explains why he put so much emphasis on mediaeval patterns. He was also a textile designer, working in tapestry and embroidery.

Morris was a businessman and he moved to London because of the importance of the work – he was incredibly successful. It is hard to understand how he managed to write poetry simultaneously. In 1867, he wrote the poem The Life and Death of Jason and The Earthly Paradise in 1868-1870, for the present and the future. He wanted to rebuild and redesign. The originality springs from discovering the originality.

The incidence of William Morris’s biography on his work

Morris was interested in art, and designing, and gradually became involved in socialism and politics. He was a designer:

  • Design, designer, designing: prospective future
  • Design: artist

He was an artist and a militant: the defence of the environment, preservation of past architecture, education, social life and feminism. He was an activist: a personal commitment, and an artist and a revolutionist. 

There are contradictions in Morris, and strange features in his character. He was from a bourgeois background, well off: “I am a son of a boor”. He was a bourgeois and a countryman. He was a manager with a hatred for contemporary civilisation and advocating the return of mediaeval values. He was a romantic and revolutionist – this is a paradox.

His biographers are confused. Most critics think he was both of them at the same time: a revolutionist with a passion for Icelandic exoticism and a committed artist who thought that art was the instrument of happiness. It was a political commitment since politics aimed at individual and collective happiness. He was a painter and a poet and has since been compared to Edison. He was viewed as a paradoxical man, even by his contemporary fellows. These contradictions can also be analysed as coherent, as different facets of his character. The interesting aspect of his work is the constant struggle for coherence.

In 1861 he ventured with the ambition to create decorated art inspired by the mediaeval guilds. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, Jones, Rossetti and all the female artists who lived with them. The company gradually received private and national commissions. It was a profitable business, which tried to connect beauty and utility but Morris became disappointed about his friends and Rossetti was mentally unstable. The rest became apathetic.

In 1865, Morris created the Morris Company with Jones and Web. They moved to Kelmscott House, an 18th-century brick house overlooking the Thames in Hammersmith. They had discovered that house seven years before. They were delighted by the garden and the setting. This place appears in News From Nowhere, in Chapter 31: “An old house among new folks”, with Helen and the narrator. He even used the drawing of Kelmscott House for the cover of the book. The house helped him overcome his love affair: it was escapism into social issues and the past. 

In 1868, he met the Icelandic Magnuson and studied sagas. He became deeply attached to Icelandic culture and translated a series of books. He admired Icelandic people, their way of life, and their notion of community.

In 1871, Morris visited Iceland with his friend Magnuson. It was a journey between regression and progression.

In 1876, Morris took an interest in social issues. It started with Turkey as he opposed the English support for Turkey, with the Eastern Question Association. He wrote a manifesto titled “To The Working Man of England”, in which he tried to warn people not to drift into chauvinism. He was always suspicious of chauvinism and nationalism. He thought this mood would start a war with Russia. It was Morris’s first beginning in politics. He addressed the working man first, not middle-class people. Then he gave a series of lectures about art and the conservation of ancient buildings.

In 1877, “Decorative Arts, Lesser Arts” was the necessary reading between his conception of art and his utopia. The title of the lecture accounts for the quality of life of the people. Make the best of it. It was a prospect of architecture and civilisation. Industrialism debates people and art according to Morris. It was a struggle for the quality of life of the working man. The tone of the lecture is gloomy, the industry is not good.

In 1883 he joined a small party, the Democratic Federation. It soon became the Social Democratic Federation. It was the only self-proclaimed socialist group in England. The leader was Hyndman, a Marxist. The Social Democratic Federation published a paper called “Justice” in which Morris wrote. 

In December 1884, Morris broke with Hyndman following Engels and participated in the founding of the Socialist League. The motto was “educate, agitate, organise”. It had a naive aim: to help prepare the working class for its role in shaping the new society after the revolution which was to overthrow capitalism. They published a paper, “Commonweal”, the paper where News From Nowhere was published.

Morris first published The Pilgrims of Hope, then A Dream of John Ball, a foretaste of News From Nowhere. This work of fiction deals with a peasant revolt in England. It mixes social and mediaeval history plus a dream. 

The 1890s were a period of unrest. William Morris participated in many political demonstrations against government policy. The most serious took place in November 1887 in Trafalgar Square. It was repressed so violently by the police that it was called “Bloody Sunday”. Part of the book deals with this event. Bloody Sunday influenced Morris to such an extent that he chose it as a central point in his political dream. 

Bloody Sunday was a turning point. A revolution could be possible but would be very bloody. William Morris became sceptical about the chances of the revolution. News from Nowhere was a way to advance the day of the Revolution, to make it more likely. 

In 1888, Signs of Change was a collection of lectures. The most important was “Useful work versus useless toys”, which was inspired by art and Marxism. The group became disunited. The most serious confrontation was between parliamentary and anarchist approaches. Morris was against parliament and anarchy, in the purest Marxist position. It was the time when he started to publish his utopia, in 1890. Morris was forced to resign from his position by the anarchists. These conditions are interesting, as there are nuances between extreme left and centre left.

The Middle Ages and the Victorian Era

There is an influence of mediaevalism on Morris’s notion of socialism, as well as Thomas More’s Utopia and 19th-century Victorian medievalists like Pugin, Carlyle and Ruskin. It was a regressive period, not prospective, a melting pot of contradictions. There is a strange connection between regression and prospection. Mediaeval trends are typically Victorian, as are Morris’s views – he is within Victorianism. The conceptions differ: the Middle Ages are for historians, whereas Mediaeval times are conceived by Victorians. 

There is a reappropriation of the Middle Ages. The beginning of the 19th century was about Arthurian times, mediaeval traditions and revival throughout the 19th century in terms of culture, religion, and politics. It was a backward framework for a new ideology. 

The Middle Ages were a vehicle for social analysis. It was the two with which to attack the present Victorian, the gap between the Middle Ages and Victorian times is the word “contrast”. 

The three main influences on Morris were More’s Utopia, Marx, and medievalists (Pugin, Carlyle, Ruskin). 

Augustus Pugin

Pugin defended neo-gothicism in Examples of Gothic Architecture (1928). Antiquarian societies were mediaeval societies attacking Victorianism. 

In 1836, Contrast drew a parallel between yesteryears and the present. It compared mediaeval and present architecture. Pugin was part of the movement giving new views to the Middle Ages in terms of architecture and catholicism. Gothicism is linked to faith and worship and is seen as a motivating force. Beauty was seen as the result of worship. For instance, mediaeval cathedrals were products of devotion; without such devotion, there would be no creation. 

People associate art with society, viewing it as a religious, architectural, and political process that often opposes the establishment. The state of architecture reflects the state of society, serving as a sign of decadence. There is an organic link between art and society, a vital link to understanding history. News from Nowhere is therefore the gigantic synthesis of Carlyle, Ruskin and Marx. The craftsman is essential, always seen positively compared to the present-day worker. 

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle had a deep influence on Morris. He wrote Past and Present (1843) which contrasted past and present in terms of architecture: monasteries vs workhouses. These people had the same attitude towards Victorianism: the attack on capitalism, utilitarianism, and the ‘laissez-faire’ economy. 

To attack the present economic situation, Carlyle looked into the past to offer some ideas: 

  • the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the ruling classes
  • the rupture of the social link 
  • the cash nexus: the obsession with money 

This view of The Middle Ages is idealistic. In the Middle Ages, people worshipped heroes whereas in Victorian times, there were no heroes to worship any longer. Carlyle was pessimistic, unlike Morris, and nostalgic about the faith of the Middle Ages. 

Carlisle thought this faith enabled society to have a social structure. How can we save the present society? We need to adapt the mediaeval structure to modern circumstances. Shall we go back or go forward? For Carlisle, we should not come back to a rural past. He thinks the captains of industries should take responsibility. Industrialists could become a new aristocracy: the chivalry of work (as opposed to the chivalry of combat). 

Humans were irrational for Carlyly whereas Morris trusted people. Carlyle was seen as a kind of aristocrat, he was against money because it distorted human relationships, and to him work was important: “All work, even cotton spinning, is noble. All work is noble.” (Carlyle). 

Cash payments hindered relations between humans. All these people are Prophets. Carlyle keeps emphasising the dignity of labour as it is the dignity of man.

John Ruskin

John Ruskin had a main influence on Morris. 

In Stones of Venice (1851),  the most important chapter is the nature of Gothic which summarises Ruskin’s views: Art is the expression of man’s pleasure in labour. Ruskin connected politics and aesthetics with a new approach. Again, there is an organic link between art and society: if you want to change society, you need to change art. It is a relationship between man and art and nature, especially through the concept of pleasure. 

Art under Plutocracy (1883) depicted a government of the rich by the rich. It ended up in a scandal. It was a sort of historical outline of the growing influence of commerce and the fading of the romance of art. Art is man’s expression of joy in labour. 

There was a gradual decay of mediaeval arts and freedom under the pressure of business, and a loss of beauty too. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the same process was at work. The 19th century saw the victory of machines’ systems according to Morris. His lecture in Oxford caused a scandal among the audience. 

There is a moral interrelation between art and society. For Ruskin, good art is necessarily moral (collective morality). Ruskin sees the artistic decay of Victorian England as a sign of its moral decay. There is a continual passage from life to art and from art to life. For him, the solution lies in the past: the Golden Age is the Middle Ages Where Art is superior. 

Ruskin emphasised the savageness of crudeness of Gothicism, which for him was synonymous with liberty, energy and enthusiasm. Even excesses of former systems are preferable to modern factories. People should reconsider their ways of life, and become radical. 

When labour is divided, workers become alienated. Morris keeps denouncing this division. He follows that Marxist direction: class struggles, the process of self-definition for the working man. Medievalism turns into revolutionary socialism. It is the communist side of socialist propaganda, exactly what Morris does in News From Nowhere. The main aspects of News From Nowhere are the common enumeration of mediaeval architecture and way of life: “They were all pretty” (p.61), ” he was a handsome young man” (p.47), “one felt in it that” (p.53). 

It seems linked between how people address and how they feel “as to the women themselves…”, ” I looked over my shoulder”. It is Morris’s typical way of reviving mediaeval knighthood, here with a dustman (irony). 

Utopia is linked to the notion of reversal, which is part of the socialist strategy. It means the working class must be rewarded, and beauty must not be the monopoly of aristocracy only.

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