Before I make some notes on William Morris’s communist utopia News from Nowhere (1890), I want to ask if anyone has a strong opinion or two on Morris’s fantasy novels of the 1890s, The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End and so on. Maybe I’ll read one. I quite liked his much earlier fantasy short stories.
News from Nowhere is the sweetest, most generous utopia I have ever encountered, certainly for a utopia meant sincerely. Morris time travels to a future England where a communist revolution led to the abolition of private property and thus the restoration of proper medieval craftsmanship. This is the novel where England is the Shire, properly Scoured of factories, pollution, and iron bridges, and the English have becomes hobbits, spending their time making elaborate tobacco pipes to give to each other.
The novel is much less ridiculous than I just made it sound.
As a utopia, it does some of what utopian fiction generally does. The narrator asks if the Houses of Parliament are still in use, given that the state has withered away:
“Use them! Well, yes, they are used for a sort of subsidiary market, and a storage place for manure, and they are handy for that, being on the water-side.” (Ch. 5, 34)
Ho ho. Money is gone, marriage is gone, property is gone, and thus (Morris’s “thus,” not mine) so is poverty, disease, religion, most crime, most conflicts, and history, in the sense that it seems to have reached a steady-state. One of the more historically-minded women of the future expresses some doubts that her perfect society can be permanently static – “’Who knows? happy as we are, times may alter; we may be bitten with some impulse towards change…” (Ch. 29, 202)
Here we see an example of Morris’s generosity. He was publishing the novel in a socialist journal, and he meant it polemically (“’You are very bitter about that unlucky nineteenth century,’ said I,” Ch. 15, 99), as part of an argument about actual possibilities. Thus he allows doubts, differences, even complaining. There is some crime, some political conflict. Morris allows some diversity of human temperament and belief. My experience with utopians both fictional and all too real is that they are too quick to file down the essential rough edges of humanity. By “file down,” I mean shoot and throw in a mass grave, murder in a deliberate famine, imprison in a terror camp, etc. Morris allows people to be imperfect.
The charm of the novel is that it is also a highly personal fantasy about Morris’s own ideal world. After designing Nowhere, Morris spends the last third of the novel living in it, giving his character a holiday trip with a beautiful, sympathetic lady hobbit up the Thames, which has now been freed from the tacky mansions, poisonous mills, and iron bridges that Morris hates so. The water is clean and the ecosystem has recovered.
H. G. Wells puts a Year Zero in his utopian novel In the Days of the Comet (1906) in which the space gas-befuddled Earthlings spend a year tearing down every building on the planet, a passage that I now suspect is a parody of News from Nowhere, which is obsessed with architecture but allows some buildings – the good ones – to survive. The climax of the novel is the narrator’s visit to the lovingly preserved Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s own beloved house! Of course, they kept that.
Some readers might roll their eyes at Morris’s self-indulgence. I thought it was adorable. We keep it, too.
Morris added several chapters to the book after its first publication. That’s the version I read, in the 1995 Cambridge University Press edition.