Posts filed under ‘William Morris’

News From Nowhere

Okay, time to catch up on the books I’ve been reading while my life has been in chaos. There’s always time for reading. In the end, News From Nowhere (1890) by William Morris is really quite enchanting. It’s utopian fiction, which I assumed predestined it to be fairly boring. Bad news is more exciting than good news, after all, especially where fiction is concerned. And there are boring passages, and places where it drags. But its vision of a future England as a heightened, perfected, communist style Fourteenth Century is actually very charming. Of course Morris is best known for his designs and soft furnishings, and there is plenty of emphasis in this novel on the value of handcraft and beauty. In this world, there is a surplus of wealth and time, so ordinary items like pipes can be intricately carved and encrusted with jewels, and then given away to whoever wants them. But there are sources of tension and plot-development, after all.

Firstly, there is the strangeness of this wonderful land, and the difficulty the narrator has in fitting in – he tries to pay for things, for example. And then there is the question of how the revolution took place, how England was able to regain its picturesque past. And finally, there is the fear that dogs the narrator that he will not be able to stay there, that the beautiful world will fade away, becoming no more than a dream.

I’ve been thinking lately about portrayals of the Middle Ages as childlike, and actually this is one of them. The characters of this neo-fourteenth-century utopian England have a childlike simplicity and delight in the natural world which the nineteenth-century narrator finds strange. The children are not locked in schools or any systems of formal education, but are allowed to develop naturally, according to their interests and curiosity. And the narrator is astonished to find a grand eating hall decorated by depictions of scenes from fairytales:

I smiled, and said: ‘Well, I scarcely expected to find record of the Seven Swans and the King of the Golden Mountain and Faithful Henry, and such curious pleasant imaginations as Jacob Grimm got together from the childhood of the world, barely lingering even in his time: I should have thought you would have forgotten such childishness by this time.’

The old man smiled, and said nothing; but Dick turned rather red, and broke out:

‘What do you mean, guest? I think them very beautiful, I mean not only the pictures, but the stories; and when we were children we used to imagine them going on in every wood-end, by the bight of every stream: every house in the fields was the Fairyland King’s house to us…’ (p. 130)

Later, the old man describes this new epoch as ‘the second childhood of the world’ (p. 162). It’s worth noting that in Morris’s vision, Leeds and Manchester have completely disappeared – no place for dark Satanic mills here!


July 15, 2007 at 9:25 am 2 comments

The Story of an Unknown Church

Last night I started reading a short story by William Morris, ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’. I didn’t get very far into it, because it was time to sleep. But a few sentences on the first page reminded me of one of my favourite places in all the world. The story is told in the voice of the master mason of a church built six hundred years ago, and destroyed two hundred years ago.

No one knows now even where it stood, only in this very autumn-tide, if you knew the place, you would see the heaps made by the earth-covered ruins heaving the yellow corn into glorious waves, so that the place where my church used to be is as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour.

The mason goes on to remember the church. He can only remember it clearly in autumn,

. . . yet it was beautiful in spring, too, when brown earth began to grow green: beautiful in summer, when the blue sky looked so much bluer, if you could hem a piece of it in between the new white carving; beautiful in the solemn starry nights, so solemn that it almost reached agony. . .

I too remember a church. The beautiful Bolton Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales. I love walking around abbey ruins. Reivaulx Abbey and Whitby Abbey are also among my favourites. I love how crumbling stone arches frame the sky, how outlines of windows once decked with stained glass now show the dazzling patterns of cloud and sun. I love the ground, where the monks have walked and slept, and I love how the wind sweeps in. The sky seems an appropriate ceiling, and the shifting weather a worthy heir to the monks’ prayers. But I always try to imagine how it would have been – the windows glassed, the arches roofed, the walls painted. There is a melancholy about such open, broken places.

I was thinking these very thoughts as I wandered the ruins of Bolton Abbey, thinking how wonderful it would be to see this place as it was then. And then I turned a corner, and found a door, opened it, and stepped inside.

The nave of Bolton Abbey is still in use. You can attend church services. There is a roof and windows, paintings on the walls. I hadn’t known this, and it seemed like an apparition come to life, a fragment of history. The wall paintings aren’t old ones, but they are lovely. Twining stems of lillies cover the back wall. This seemed right, too – nature brought inside. The abbey is set in the most wonderful grounds – there is a river with stepping-stones, and thousands of trees. You can walk along the river and then up into the dales – truly a magical place, ‘as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour’.

Cross-posted at Northern Lights.

June 14, 2007 at 7:05 am 2 comments

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