News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance (1890) by William Morris
News from Nowhere is an iconic ‘fantasy’ novel from the Arts and Crafts visionary and polymath William Morris. Although it is an important work for its lucid dramatisation of Morris’ Socialist ideals, on the surface it appears to be a work of the Fantastic (a timeslip narrative with a loose science fictional device): a man called William ‘Guest’ (a thinly-veiled alter ego of the author) goes for a swim in the river Thames in the late 19th Century and emerges in the early 21st Century, to see a vision of England transformed into a place of restored beauty, craftsmanship, and co-operation. Guest explores this land, with the Thames providing the common link, as he slowly wends his way upriver. The novel’s extent is demarcate by two of his homes: in Hammersmith and Kelmscott, and focuses on a stretch of the river that Morris knew well. In this sense the novel is geographically unambitious, but in many other ways, it was thinking big – certainly beyond the consensus reality of his day. Morris reimagines reality according to his principles, providing a blueprint to aspire to, for some at least.
Morris’ utopia is vividly imagined and alluring on the surface, as pleasant to dip into a wild swim in a glittering river on a summer’s day: an aesthetic and harmonious Arts and Crafts utopia, with an emphasis on ‘work for pleasure’, common ownership, co-operation, and liberty to choose where one lives, one’s profession, and one’s morality. The self-governing anarchists live in beautiful houses, wear beautiful clothes, and make beautiful things. It is perhaps all too good to be true, and in most fictional utopias this is when the protagonist discovers the ugly truth, the mask slips, and they find themselves trapped in some nightmare.
Well, for some, Morris’ utopia undoubtedly would be. It is perhaps a bit like living in a Tolkienesque Shire – a bucolic aesthetic that belies some worrying subtexts. For a start, it is completely Anglocentric – Morris depicts a very English utopia: what has happened to the rest of the world is not discussed, except for a brief, disparaging reference to America being reduced to a ‘wasteland’. There is a worrying emphasis on women being pretty – every female Guest meets is assessed in this way. The novel is clearly written from a male gaze. There is nothing ‘wrong’ about appreciating female beauty – but when it becomes the chief characteristic, the defining trait, that is problematic; in addition, the women are on the whole portrayed as being content in domestic roles, or being a bit empty-headed (except for the stonemason and the free-spirited Ellen, who is inquisitive and seems to know more than she lets on – a portrait of Jane Morris, similarly ‘snatched’ from the working classes; in the way Guest is clearly Morris himself?). Also, New from Nowhere is very white, cis-gendered, and straight, but Morris was writing from his time (late 19th C) even though he was imagining the early 21st Century. His imagine didn’t stretch far enough to imagine alterity. His vision seems impossibly idealistic, and relies upon the common decency and common sense of the masses – everyone being nice and abiding by agreed values – which, as we can see at the moment, is very unlikely, even when laws are enforced…There is the odd crime of passion, but these are forgiven by society as the perpetrator is left to come to terms with their actions. Yet human nature doesn’t tend to be that enlightened. Even if one society achieves this level, there will always be other groups wishing either to seize its resources or simply destroy it (as Aldous Huxley imagines in his heartbreaking utopia, Island).
Yet, Morris’s ‘utopian romance’ is a hopeful act of positive visualisation – a thought experiment for the world the Socialist Morris wish to see manifest. For him it was a vision much-longed for; and one he tried to implement with his restless energy and huge output. He perhaps achieved in at Kelmscott and the other centres of Arts and Crafts activity.
Now there is an appreciation of artisan skills, of the hand-made, the hand-crafted, the home-grown – farmers markets and craft markets are very popular; and Transition Town schemes are skilling people up for the ‘power down’… Alternative currencies such as LETS and Timeshare have been trialled, but the lack of money seems the least convincing of Morris’ notions – though with the devastation caused by Neoliberalism, perhaps the one that needs addressing as urgently as the environmental one. We need the replace the false economy of venture capitalism, of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ (based upon finite, dwindling resources and catastrophically damaged biosphere) with the more sustainable one of Deep Ecology.
Morris’ vision is a message in a bottle cast in time’s stream, and although it has many alluring qualities, perhaps it is not radical enough, as it clings to some medieval paradise that never was, yet these thought experiments are worth undertaking. Morris throws down the gauntlet for us all to imagine the world we would like to live in.
Kevan Manwaring 17 June 2018