‘Grim tatty cities full of spivs, snobs and vandals’: that is a visitor’s verdict on England, a century after William Morris (1834–96). Obviously, he would have been disappointed, having hoped that an ideal society would begin to take shape some time in the 1950s. Obviously, too, people are better fed and housed and have more leisure than in the England Morris knew. Yet we plainly have not achieved what he hoped for, and not just because it was an impossible dream.footnote＊
Fiona MacCarthy’s excellent biography is subtitled A Life for Our Time because, after all these years, Morris still seems relevant. ‘He is one of those men whom history will never overtake,’ as E.P. Thompson said. To see just how relevant he is, we must separate the Victorian part of him from that which is prophetic and universal.
He is known as 1) a poet; 2) a designer of fabrics and wallpapers which were the ultimate chic in his day and are still being used; 3) a Socialist. This last was and is controversial. ‘What the devil is such a man doing in that galley?’ asked Gissing; ‘why cannot he write poetry in the shade?’ And ever since his death, there has been ‘a whole tradition of supercilious belittlement of Morris’, a suggestion that anything he may have achieved was unconnected with his Socialism.
The last outstanding biography was Thompson’s, published in 1955, and that went much more deeply into the politics of the then British Left than Fiona MacCarthy has done. On the other hand, her book pays much closer attention to the detail of Morris’s life. It is the first to make full use of his private papers, along with those of Rossetti and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and it probably gets as close as anyone ever can to establishing what went wrong between Morris and his wife Janey. It explores his whole achievement, as poet, interior designer, businessman and prophet, with skill and thoroughness. Thompson’s book had the passion and bite of a Socialist writing in hard times who wished to reaffirm the enormous importance of his subject. MacCarthy’s is massive, scholarly, perhaps a bit lacking in passion.
The son of a businessman, Morris received a conventional education at Marlborough and Oxford. Having arrived just too late to be sucked up in the Tractarian movement, he and his friend Burne-Jones directed all their emotional energy towards art. The firm he founded, Morris and Co., became ‘a byword for good taste amongst the intellectual classes’. He believed that all the minor arts were in a state of ‘complete degradation’, ‘and accordingly in 1861 with the conceited courage of a young man I set myself to reforming all that’. Of course he was only able to do this because he had capital to start with, and he could not have stayed afloat if he had not understood the market. He seems to have had no religion after his Oxford days, but the firm willingly manufactured stained-glass windows for the many new Victorian churches. (A soulful ‘Annunciation’ is on the back cover of this book.) Furniture, fabrics, wallpapers and book-bindings, all of high quality, followed. He also worried about the wider environment and was a founder member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
He came into politics via the Eastern Question Association, a pressure group opposed to Disraeli’s alliance with Turkey. The eqa insisted that massacres in Bulgaria must not be condoned, merely because they were ‘nothing to do with us’; in other words Morris instinctively lined up with those who believe that foreign policy should be based on moral principles rather than something called the national interest. He ‘also thoroughly dreaded the outburst of Chauvinism which swept over the country, and feared that once we were amusing ourselves with European war no one in this country would listen to anything of social questions’. For while the eqa was a respectable organization, supported by ‘Bishops, Parsons, Peers, Literati’ and the Liberal-voting middle classes, Morris was becoming more and more interested in the excluded majority which as yet had no party of its own. He had noticed that the rich men whom he met socially could not speak of working people ‘without a sneer or an insult’. Yet he himself believed from experience that work, including manual work, was necessary to life.
There followed years of agitation and propaganda in the infant Socialist movement. The comfortably-off, who bought Morris products for their drawing-rooms, found this very strange, and he was sometimes accused of hypocrisy. (He was able to defend his position as an employer of labour, but was worried that working people could not afford the beautiful and expensive things he produced.) Then as now, the Left turned most of its aggression on itself. ‘He did them absolutely no good,’ Burne-Jones complained, ‘all the nice men that went into it were never listened to, only noisy, rancorous ones got the ear of the movement’. Morris found himself particularly at odds with the rather sinister figure of H.M. Hyndman, who, like some future Labour leaders, was a jingo abroad and an autocrat within his party. Bitter rows drove him temporarily out of politics, as he could support neither the Anarchists, with their casual attitude to violence, nor the Fabians. What he wanted was not a ‘perpetual widening of the middle classes’, not an ‘improved smoothly-working form’ of the same system, but an ‘essentially changed position’ for the workers. In his last years he was identified with no group but was respected by the entire movement, and when he died, probably from overwork, all sections of the British Left were eager to claim him.