New Voices in Morris Studies: Sheryl Medlicott, Bath Spa University

[Image 1] Frontispiece of News from Nowhere,
Kelmscott Press Edition

William Morris & the Environment

When William Guest awakes in the future utopian London envisaged by Morris in News from Nowhere, the ‘smoke-vomiting chimneys’ are gone, there are salmon nets catching salmon in the Thames, and he is taken out on the river by a boatman who is utterly confounded by attempts to pay him for the boat trip, the exchange of labour for money being a completely alien concept.[1]  Evidently society has fundamentally transformed, and with it the environment. 

News from Nowhere is in many ways Morris’ response to man-made (or specifically capitalist-made) environmental degradation.  This blog post focuses on Morris’ environmentalism and the insight his utopia offers for twenty-first century responses to environmental crisis, in particular with regards to a common concern about the scale on which humans are acting as agents for environmental change.

[Image 2]  1871 Ordnance Survey Map

Morris wrote Nowhere in the context of environmental change that he perceived as crisis, and which was precursor to the environmental crises we currently face.  In the late nineteenth century London was expanding and industrialising at great pace.  As observed by Ruth Levitas in her 2000 Kelmscott Lecture, one need only look at the area surrounding Morris’ London home Kelmscott House to witness the transformation of farmland and gardens into city sprawl.  The Ordnance Survey map of 1871 shows the house set in relatively open space.  This was all built upon by the time the map was redrawn in 1894.[2]  Morris wrote News from Nowhere in 1890, in the midst of this development. 

[Image 3]  1894 Ordnance Survey Map

Nowhere is also a reaction against Edward Bellamy’s 1888 socialist utopia Looking Backward.  Bellamy’s utopia is urban, with goods delivered to the home almost instantaneously by pneumatic tube, short working lives for citizens and abundant leisure time spent taking dinner at the dining halls or listening to piped music at home.  Nowhereby contrast is decidedly rural and all about work, which is pleasurable and connects the inhabitants of Nowhere to their environment.

In Morris’ utopia, humanity is not the only beneficiary of the demise of capitalism; non-human nature is also flourishing.  Wandering by the Thames in early morning, William Guest sees ‘the bleak speckling the water under the willow boughs, whence the tiny flies they fed on were falling in myriads; heard the great chubs splashing here and there at some belated moth or other’ – a picture of biodiversity.[3]  Given the oppositional nature of News from Nowhere, this suggests that for Morris, the nineteenth century capitalist construction of place did not support an environment that was mutually beneficial for both human society and non-human nature.  Elizabeth Miller goes further and argues that Morris was ‘an early adopter of the position that capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with Earth’s ecological balance’.  She notes Morris shared the Marxist view that ‘the idea of free exchange obscured the market’s remainders of profit and surplus value’ and suggests Morris translates this imbalance in capitalist exchange across to the environment where he perceives the environmental remainders of capitalist practice – waste, dirt, filth – accumulating in ‘a vision of steady ecological destruction under capitalism’.[4]
It is certainly the case that in the absence of capitalist exchange pollution is as good as eradicated in Nowhere.  However, it is hard to see ecologism as Morris’s primary motivator for societal reform.  While the environment is an obvious beneficiary of the changes depicted, Nowhere still foregrounds human experience of, and influence on, place.  Morris’ imagined future England is described as ‘a nature bettered and not worsened by contact with mankind’, which still presumes place is mostly defined by human interaction.[5]
Morris’s privileging of the human position within the ecology is problematic to attempts to define his environmentalism in terms of modern ecological thinking.  Florence Boos has sought to align Morris’s ideals with late-twentieth century environmentalism, suggesting he anticipated what she calls ‘“spiritual” ecologists, ecofeminists, social ecologists and advocates of environmental justice’.[6]  However, key to these movements is not simply place-consciousness and love of place, which is present in News from Nowhere, but also flattening the hierarchy between humans and nature where in Western society humans have historically assumed authority over the rest of the natural world.  In News from Nowhere the human control of nature is not challenged.  When Guest enquires about the ‘wastes and forests’ he has seen, and why they are kept now England is ‘a garden’, he receives the response:

“We like these pieces of wild nature, and can afford them, so we have them; let alone as to the forests, we need a great deal of timber, and suppose that our sons and sons’ sons will do the like.”[7]

This is not an argument for the retention of ‘wild nature’ for its own sake.  Rather, these environments have been conserved for the pleasure and utility of the human population. 
Elsewhere, Morris employs nineteenth century rhetoric of man’s ‘victory over Nature’ to argue for his ideas of labour reform.  In his lecture ‘Useful Work Versus Useless Toil’ he argues:

Men urged by their necessities and desires have laboured for many thousands of years at the task of subjugating the forces of Nature and of making the natural material useful to them… that struggle with Nature seems nearly over, and the victory of the human race nearly complete… Surely we ought, one and all of us, to be wealthy, to be well furnished with the good things which our victory over Nature has won for us.

He concludes ‘Nature will not be finally conquered till our work becomes a part of the pleasure of our lives’.[8]  By this measure, the future depicted in News from Nowhere represents the conquest of nature, an idea that would be deeply troubling to the like of ecofeminists.
This is not to say that Morris’s ideas were not progressive, but they necessarily did not transcend all the ideological assumptions of his time and this makes attempts to align his position with twentieth century environmentalism problematic.  For Morris, the natural world is “our” environment, something outside us that we interact with and is defined by us.  This is typical of nineteenth century environmental thinking, even that of radical thinkers.  As Boos points out, ‘Marx was hardly an ecologist, and tended to accept the dominant economic view of nature and the environment as resources for human appropriation’.[9]
Morris likewise does not question the authority of humans in place-making or the idea that they should be agents for change within the environment.  While this is problematic in the context of twentieth century environmentalism that aims for humanity to relinquish its control over the rest of the natural world, there is a current movement to recognise that human activity has altered Earth systems to such a degree to have irreversibly changed the course of Earth’s geological history.  Our growing consciousness of the scale on which humans are acting as agents for environmental change returns us to the original nineteenth century crisis: through our human endeavours we have made place strange, made the natural abnatural, how do we deal with this?[10]

[Image 4]
Stone plaque of William Morris by George Jack,
Kelmscott Village, Oxfordshire

The ‘Morris response’, as Raymond Williams terms it, was to envisage a ‘positive movement of social change’.[11]  Morris’ response to the transformation of London in the late nineteenth century was not to doubt that humans should have such agency but to keep alive the possibility of further change.  News from Nowhere suggests there is a reciprocal relationship between the organisation of society and the condition of the physical environment.  It depicts a return to nature, but not in a retrogressive sense; rather, Morris’ imagined future England is a post-industrial environment where ecological balance is attained through the establishment of an equitable society.  Re-reading News from Nowhere in the context of twenty-first century environmental crises was to me a reminder that traces of human activity within an environment need not always be signs of its destruction, depending upon how we organise ourselves.

Sheryl M. Medlicott has recently completed her Master’s degree in Literature, Landscape and Environment at Bath Spa University.  Her research interests are in utopian literature and ecocriticism – the branch of literary criticism concerned with the relationship between humans and the rest of nature, particularly in the context of environmental crisis.  She is a member of the William Morris Society in the UK and finds great inspiration in Morris’s writings. 

[1] William Morris, ‘News from Nowhere’ in News from Nowhere and Other Writings, ed. by Clive Wilmer (London: Penguin, 1998), p.48
[2] Ruth Levitas, Morris, Hammersmith and Utopia (London: The William Morris Society, 2005)
[3] Nowhere, p.178
[4] Elizabeth C. Miller, ‘William Morris, Extraction Capitalism, and the Aesthetics of Surface’, Victorian Studies, 57 (2015), 395-404, pp.395-96
[5] Nowhere, p.159
[6] Florence Boos, An Aesthetic Ecocommunist: Morris the Red and Morris the Green’ in William Morris: Centenary Essays, ed. by Peter Faulkner and Peter Preston (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999), pp. 21-46, p.40
[7] Nowhere, p.106
[8] William Morris, ‘Useful Work Versus Useless Toil’ in News from Nowhere and Other Writings, ed. by Clive Wilmer (London: Penguin, 1998), pp.293, 295
[9] Boos, p.25
[10] Abnatural is a term coined by Jesse Oak Taylor to mean both derived from and away from nature.  See Jesse Oak Taylor, The Sky of our Manufacture: The London Fog and British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), p. 5
[11]Raymond Williams, The Country and the City(London: The Hogarth Press, 1993), p.274

Image Sources
[1] from Pamela Todd, Pre-Raphaelites at Home, New York: Watson-Guptill, 2001
[2] Ruth Levitas, Morris, Hammersmith and Utopia (London: The William Morris Society, 2005), p.54
[3] Ruth Levitas, Morris, Hammersmith and Utopia (London: The William Morris Society, 2005), p.58

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