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Phillippa Bennett and Rosie Miles (ed.), William Morris in the Twenty-First Century

Florence Boos
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Bennett, Phillippa and Rosie Miles (ed.), William Morris in the Twenty-First Century, Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, Peter Lang, 2010, 287 p.

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1This collection is devoted to assessments of the work of William Morris (1834–96), Victorian poet, designer and socialist theorist of art and labor. Of thirteen articles, six are devoted to his poetry and romances. In ‘Versions of Ecotopia in News from Nowhere’ (93–106), Tony Pinkney considers the familiar problem of whether Morris’s utopia is static. He finds four of John Ruskin’s ‘elements of life’ present in Morris’s work (namely ‘Pure Air, [Pure] Water, and Earth’), but not the fifth (‘Fire’), which Pinkney construes as ‘energetic modernity’ (94), as represented in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) and Kim Staley Robinson’s ecological fantasy Pacific Edge (1990). He concludes that ‘within the largely pre-industrial ecotopia of Morris’s News from Nowhere there is a more adequate, more modernist, more fiery ecotopia struggling to get out, through the extraordinary figures of Ellen above all’ (106).

2In ‘William Morris, Human Nature and the Biology of Utopia’ (107–128), Piers J. Hale reviews Darwinian and Lamarkian views of evolution and examines traces of these doctrines in News from Nowhere. He conjectures that beliefs in the heritability of temperament convinced late nineteenth-century social reformers that social advancement might be imminent, and suggests that ‘our . . . skepticism about the possibility of a radically different future is no less culturally contingent than was Morris’s optimism’ (127).

3In ‘William Morris’s Germania: The Roots of Revolution’ (169–192), Anna Vaninskaya explicates nineteenth-century Germanic historiography as a background to Morris’s reconstructions of the medieval past. Finding features of Marxist Teutonist anthropology in The House of the Wolfings, she suggests that Morris considered the ‘Barbarian society of the Wolfings and socialist society of Nowhere . . . the beginning and end terms of a single historical sequence’ (188), and in conclusion, warns that we should ‘heed the philological lesson and keep in mind the written word’s susceptibility to ideological interpretation’ (191).

4In ‘Between Hell and England: Finding Ourselves in the Present Text’ (193–207), David Latham considers the importance of metaphor and liminal states in conveying the chiliastic hopes expressed in Morris’s Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere. He assimilates Ball’s injunction ‘that earth and heaven are not two but one’ to Ellen’s imagined injunction to ‘go on living while you may, striving with whatever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship’, and argues that both dreams require action, for true ‘art . . . [would be] the full embrace of a revolutionary commitment to the potential of each individual life’ (206).

5In ‘Rejuvenating Our Sense of Wonder: The Last Romances of William Morris’ (209–28), Phillippa Bennett traces a recurrent Morrisian motif throughout his prose romances, in which his characters act in hope that “pursuit of and receptivity to wonder” . . . in the natural world . . . [and] each other, . . . [might] regenerate our relationship to it on a social as well as personal level’ (212, 217). She finds relevant to the present Morris’s critique of a social order whose denizens are ‘more interested in novelty . . ., more attracted to the sensational than to the wondrous, and more inclined towards ameliorating what is than actively wondering how it might be made radically different’ (228).

6In ‘Virtual Paradise: Editing Morris for the Twenty-First Century’ (231–253), Rosie Miles reviews the merits of a virtual edition of Morris’s works, the idea for which she conceived several years ago. Mindful of Morris’s interest in ‘the technologies of the book’ (232) and the ‘ability of the digital medium to reinstate the visual alongside the verbal’ (242), she asserts that ‘the vision of [such an edition should be seen as] an attempt to restore awareness of the visual and material facets of Morris’s works . . . so that they might be read . . . with fresh eyes’ (248–49).

7Other articles appear in a section on ‘Morris, Architecture and Utopia’. In ‘(Re)Building the City: William Morris and the Regeneration of the British City’, Maria Isabel Donas Botto argues that Morris advocated that, along with their rural counterparts, city-dwellers should share in ‘the beauty of the earth’. She critiques contemporary forms of ‘urban renewal’ such as the building of grandiose malls and little-used public buildings, and instead praises planners such as Richard Rogers and Anne Power who, like Morris, advocate urban food production, water recycling, and the planting of urban forests.

8In ‘After Morris: Warwick Herbert Draper and the Pursuit of Utopia’, Ruth Levitas examines the history of construction in Morris’s Hammersmith in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Against the demolition of Hampshire House (a community center modeled on the settlement house Toynbee Hall), the enervating roar of the A4 flyover which bisected Morris’ personal garden, and rising income inequality in modern Britain, Levitas sets the relatively utopian proposals of Warwick Herbert Draper (1873–1925). The founder of Hampshire House, preservationist, lawyer, planner, and author of a 1919 utopian novel modeled on News from Nowhere, Draper ‘learned from Morris (and others) the importance of . . . the moral claim of . . . public good over private ownership’.

9In ‘Red House: Past and Future’, Jan Marsh traces the history of Morris’s first home, bought recently and opened to visitors by the National Trust. She provides an account of the house’s original furniture, wall paintings, and color scheme of reds, oranges and greens, and describes the panels and decorations discovered during preparations to open the house to the public, including one with the legend ‘Qui bien aime tard oublie’. She also recounts the recovery from a bedroom floorboard of a letter from Philip Webb to Morris dated 18 November 1864, written during a period when Georgiana Burne-Jones and her son Christopher were struggling with a bout of scarlet fever from which Christopher later died. In her conclusion, Marsh remarks that such traces of lost lives ‘place . . . new and poignant light on the painful decision to leave what was to have been the Morris family home and palace of art’.

10In ‘Another Stitch to the Legacy of William Morris: May Morris’s Designs and Writings on Embroidery’, Hilary Laucks Walter sets forth a detailed account of May Morris’s distinguished career as an embroidress, teacher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and exhibition participant. Commenting in detail on several of May Morris’s designs (with illustrations), Walter argues that they became more accomplished as she aged, incorporated motifs from her travels to the Near East and Asia, and found an international audience in Australia and the United States.

11In ‘Attractive Labour and Social Change: William Morris Now’, Peter Smith argues that Morris’ view of ‘useful work’ in his artistic practice and political writings belied conventional dichotomies of ‘necessity and desire’. Retracing the contrasts and affinities between Morris and Fourier, Marx and Lefebvre, Smith argues that ‘[t]he emergent craft revival was supported by Morris[,] but . . . served only to remind him of the contradictions it brought more clearly into profile’. Smith also commends efforts by Stephen Eisenman and Caroline Arscott to interpret the features of Morris’s designs in political terms; and concludes that Morris’s ‘importance for the twenty-first century is rooted in the degree to which he recognized the political problem of making socialist art in a capitalist society’.

12Appropriately for a volume on Morris, one article presents the work of an artist. In ‘Hijack: Morris Dialectically’, David Mabb displays and comments on some of his own recent designs, among them intriguing and finely-reproduced images of such works as ‘Green Engineering Object’ (in oil on ‘Honeysuckle’ fabric, 2001) and ‘Transitional Monument’ (a digital montage of an apartment block decorated in a bright Morris pattern, 2004).

13And finally, in ‘William Morris 2.0: Spreading Socialist Ideas via the Internet’, Tom Tobin, the U.S. William Morris Society’s original webmaster from 1996–2006, recalls some of the ideals which guided him in his work. In its present form (; see also the UK Morris Society site at, the site offers foreign language translations, an indexed online version of the Journal of William Morris Studies, and a gradually widening range of scholarly and educational resources.
In an afterword to the volume, the late Peter Preston reflected on changes in critical views of Morris in recent years, and characterized Morris firmly as ‘a man not only in but also of and for the twenty-first century’. William Morris in the Twenty-First Century makes a strong case for Peter Preston’s assertion.

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Florence Boos, « Phillippa Bennett and Rosie Miles (ed.), William Morris in the Twenty-First Century », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 77 Printemps | 2013, mis en ligne le 03 décembre 2013, consulté le 22 janvier 2019. URL :

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Florence Boos

University of Iowa

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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