The Last Romances of William Morris

by Phillippa Bennett (Author)
©2015 Monographs XII, 230 Pages


William Morris’s last romances are strikingly original stories written in his final years, but they remain relatively neglected in both Morris studies and nineteenth-century literary studies. This book provides a full-length critical account of these works and their essential role in promoting the continuing importance of Morris’s ideas.
Approaching these romances through the concept of wonder, this book provides a new way of understanding their relevance to his writings on art and architecture, nature and the environment, and politics and Socialism. It establishes the integral connection between the romances and Morris’s diverse cultural, social and political interests and activities, suggesting ways in which we might understand these tales as a culmination of Morris’s thought and practice. Through a comprehensive analysis of these remarkable narratives, this book makes a significant contribution to both work on William Morris and to nineteenth-century studies more generally.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: The Reclamation of Wonder
  • Chapter 1: The Embodiment of Wonder
  • Chapter 2: The Topography of Wonder
  • Chapter 3: The Architecture of Wonder
  • Chapter 4: The Politics of Wonder
  • Conclusion: The Presentation of Wonder
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix → Illustrations

Plate 1 Opening page of ‘A Note by William Morris on his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press’ (London: Kelmscott Press, 1898)

Plate 2 Opening page of The Story of the Glittering Plain (London: Kelmscott Press, 1894)

Plate 3 ‘Friends in need meet in the wildwood’ The Well at the World’s End (London: Kelmscott Press, 1896)

Plate 4 Frontispiece for The Wood Beyond the World (London: Kelmscott Press, 1894)

Plate 5 Frontispiece map for The Sundering Flood (London: Kelmscott Press, 1897)← ix | x →

← x | xi → Acknowledgements

I would like to thank everyone whose support and friendship have, in different ways, contributed to the development of this book over several years. Particular thanks go to Nicola Bown, who saw and commented on this work in its earliest stages, and to Tony Pinkney and the late Sally Ledger, who encouraged me on the next step towards publication. I am grateful to the community of Morris scholars for their wisdom and generosity, and to the William Morris Society for awarding me the Peter Floud Memorial Prize which assisted with the first stages of my research.

I owe much to the love and support of my mum and my sister, and to the continuing inspiration of my dad, Peter, who understood the importance of wondering. Sam and Bella have brought love and joy to the work. Finally, special thanks to Charles, who has listened to me talk about Morris for many years and who has always believed in this book.

Sections of earlier versions of this work have appeared in: The Journal of William Morris Studies; Æ: Canadian Aesthetics Journal; Spaces of Utopia: Utopian Studies Journal; William Morris in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Phillippa Bennett and Rosie Miles (Peter Lang, 2010); To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss: William Morris’s Radicalism and the Embodiment of Dreams, ed. by Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), and delivered as the 2006 Kelmscott Lecture for the William Morris Society.← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 → INTRODUCTION

The Reclamation of Wonder

Fairly written was that book, and there were many pictures therein, of the meaning of which Ralph knew not; but amongst them was the image of the fair woman whom he had holpen at the want-ways of the wood, and but four days ago was that, yet it seemed long and long to him. The book told not much about the Well at the World’s End, but much it told of a certain woman whom no man that saw her could forbear to love … and how she liveth yet, and is become the servant of the Well to entangle the seekers in her love and keep them from drinking thereof …1

‘I have begun another story, but do not intend to hurry it’, William Morris wrote to his wife, Jane, in October 1889: ‘I must have a story to write now as long as I live’.2 The story he was beginning to write was most probably The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), the first in a series of remarkable narratives written in the last seven years of his life.3 It was followed by The Wood Beyond the World (1894), Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (1895), The Well at the World’s End (1896), and the posthumously ← 1 | 2 → published The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897) and The Sundering Flood (1897). Usually described now as prose romances, Morris himself generally referred to these works in his letters and diaries simply as stories or tales and the writing of them was one of the dominant activities of his final years, a source of creative pleasure which came to an end only a few weeks before his death. Within them he created a variety of colourful and vibrant worlds – worlds infused with a medieval atmosphere, populated by enthusiastic young protagonists and conveyed in a narrative style that is startling at a first encounter. To read these romances is to enter what May Morris describes as ‘wonderlands’.4 Like Ralph in The Well at the World’s End, who, given the book that tells of the Lady of Abundance, is compelled to ‘read on and on till the short night waned’, these are stories that arrest our attention from the very beginning with their extraordinary language and their promise of adventure.5 They offer the reader, as Norman Talbot observes, ‘the rejuvenation of their sense of wonder’, and if we accept that offer the rewards are considerable.6

The celebration of our sense of wonder is indeed the defining feature of William Morris’s last romances and it is also fundamental to our understanding of their contribution to his vision as a leading artist, craftsman, writer and Socialist of the nineteenth century. To read Morris’s letters, lectures, poetry and fiction is to recognize the significance of wonder in his response to the world both aesthetically and politically. Whether he is talking about books or buildings, the details of a landscape or the possibilities of social reconstruction, his ability to find something worthy of wonder in even the smallest details of human existence is remarkable, and May Morris observed how her father seemed to have preserved within him ‘something of the “eternal child” that weaves his wonders with everyday ← 2 | 3 → things’.7 To be able to wonder was, for Morris, one of the fundamental needs of men and women – a primary and instinctive way of inhabiting the earth and of interacting with others – and the romances of his final years are his most compelling expression of this.

They are also stories that have struggled for credibility since they were first published and remain the most contested and misrepresented element of Morris’s literary and political legacy. Regarded alternatively by critics as a forgivably self-indulgent coda to a successful literary career, a tactical diversion from the harsh realities of Socialist propaganda, or simply a bewildering regression into an impossibly beautiful past, these narratives continue to challenge and perplex readers, raising questions as to whether they enhance or detract from Morris’s considerable reputation, both in his age and our own. Within Morris scholarship they remain a minor interest, eclipsed not only by Morris’s more widely known work in the fields of design and politics, but also by his more enduringly popular literary works such as A Dream of John Ball (1888) and, in particular, News from Nowhere (1890). Outside Morris circles they are still relatively unknown. But this continuing neglect in the wider field of nineteenth-century literary studies is undeserved, and their perceived idiosyncrasy even amongst the broad community of Morris enthusiasts is detrimental to the development of a full understanding and appreciation of Morris’s aims and achievements, for as Margaret Grennan rightly states, ‘to ignore them is to know one half or less of the man’.8

The reasons for their comparative neglect are wide-ranging. For some readers the problem resides in their perceived lack of engagement with contemporary issues and their apparent disconnection from Morris’s Socialism, criticisms summed up in Philip Henderson’s complaint that the ‘innocence and simplicity’ of the worlds of these romances ‘had nothing to do with the nineteenth century or, for that matter, with the problems that had ← 3 | 4 → agitated his whole life’.9 Others seem to object to the spirit of unrelenting optimism that pervades them, and their representation of what Paul Thompson calls ‘an utterly unreal world of natural happiness’.10 Not everyone is quite so offended by Morris’s audacity in writing stories in which human optimism and happiness are valued and celebrated, but even less caustic critics have refused to accord them the status they deserve, claiming they ‘lack the strenuous honesty and accepted pain of great work’ and have far more ‘arbitrary’ connections to reality than Morris’s earlier fiction of the 1880s.11 Fortunately, the last romances have always attracted a small but highly appreciative community of readers with an unabashed enthusiasm for these narratives. Amongst the earliest of these were Algernon Swinburne, H. G. Wells and W. B. Yeats, the latter of whom memorably declared that in The Well at the World’s End ‘there is scarcely a chapter in which there is not some moment for which one might almost give one’s soul’.12 But as if resigning themselves to the fact that the last romances continue to be something of an acquired taste, some of the enthusiastic critics of more recent years appear to have accepted that they will remain undervalued, even suggesting that their ideal readership does not yet exist. Carole Silver, for example, proposes that ‘they are tales to be depicted on the walls of the communal dining halls of Nowhere or to be told around the fireplace of a rejuvenated Kelmscott Manor’.13 The problem of defending ← 4 | 5 → them in our own age is thereby avoided altogether by projecting their relevance into a truly Socialist future in which they will finally be understood.

We are not yet citizens of Nowhere, however, and there is no reason why the last romances cannot be fully enjoyed and properly appreciated now, for as Norman Talbot emphasizes, these are works of ‘extraordinary merits’ for which ‘there is never any need of special pleading’.14 To do so, we must understand them as stories which ask us as readers to be open to the experience of wonder and to engage purposefully in the act of wondering. To reclaim the last romances thus demands simultaneously a reclamation of the value and the necessity of wonder, and a renewed understanding of its function as a social and cultural as well as an individual phenomenon. This is no easy undertaking in a world that is still all too ready to take a Gradgrindian stance on the subject. It seems that the dominant voices of our twenty-first-century world would still have us believe that it is by the unquestionably practical means of ‘addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division’, that society can begin to ‘settle everything somehow’, and certainly not by wondering.15 In such a society, as Mary Baine Campbell observes, wonder is associated with the young, the uneducated and the non-productive, for it ‘leads nowhere’ and ‘has no use value’.16 But whilst wonder most certainly resists a utilitarian application that does not mean that it has neither value nor purpose. Indeed it is precisely because the experience of wonder cannot be harnessed to serve exclusively any particular ← 5 | 6 → ideological or economic agenda that it can have a highly influential role in altering both our awareness and our behaviour.

Morris understood this potentially transformative aspect of wonder, recognizing it as an essentially active experience which incorporates what Mark Kingwell identifies as ‘a threefold structure’ comprising a ‘wonderer’, the ‘wonderful’ and a ‘wondering’.17 We can experience a sense of wonder when we encounter something admirable or unusual, we can direct our wonder at an object or a person, we can conceive other people, objects or landscapes as wondrous, and we can engage consciously in the act of wondering about ourselves, our circumstances and the world in which we live. These are essentially related elements of the same process: to find someone or something wonderful, for example, is to engage in a process of wondering about that person or that thing. To recognize this relationship is to begin to understand that the experience of wonder is neither escapist nor passive; on the contrary, it is the means by which we cultivate what Mary Midgley calls a ‘receptive and celebratory’ mind and engage more fully with the realities of our existence.18

Wonder thus moves beyond being solely a response to the world and becomes a powerful means of expressing our relationship with it. The human need to express a sense of wonder at our environment or at each other, for example, is fundamental to the process of artistic creation. In a description that aptly characterizes Morris’s own writing of his last romances, Howard Parsons observes how artists ‘express creatively their own wonder and engender it in others’, thereby defying a reductive association of wonder with insularity, self-absorption or passivity, for as Parsons emphasizes, the artist goes beyond a purely personal enjoyment of such experiences by working to perpetuate them on a shared communal level.19 As Morris was aware, the effects of this wondering interaction can lead to ← 6 | 7 → a new understanding of the importance of creative activity in human life and encourage us as a society to re-examine our relationship with the things we produce. And as with the environments we inhabit and the people with whom we interact, our sense of wonder can assist us in reconstructing this relationship on a more appreciative and respectful basis.

Wonder can therefore be understood as having an inherently political function, and for Morris the most fundamental and crucial aspect of wonder was its revolutionary potential. Martin Heidegger describes wonder as ‘the beginning of thinking’ but for Morris it was the beginning of re-thinking both our own place in the world and the manner in which, as a society, we organize and conduct our social, economic and environmental relationships.20 The willingness to question is essential to this process, for it is only by questioning that we can arrive at new answers and develop new visions. As Raymond Tallis writes, ‘to be visited by profound wonder’ is thus ‘to break ranks’, it necessitates ‘an awakening that hints that much of what is taken for granted is a collective dream’, and a willingness to confront and challenge ‘the nexus of assumptions that underpin shared life.’21 It is unsurprising therefore that the Gradgrinds and M’Choakumchilds of society are keen to ensure that the faculty of wonder is suppressed, for those with a vested interest in keeping things as they are cannot allow others to wonder how they might be different.

The unifying aim of Morris’s work as an artist, writer and Socialist was to urge us to question what we too easily take for granted, and to have the courage to consider radical alternatives. Reconsidering Morris’s last romances as narratives of wonder thus enables us both to understand better their purpose in the context of Morris’s own age and to appreciate more fully their continuing relevance in our own. His profound understanding of wonder as the foundation of personal, social and political transformation ← 7 | 8 → is articulated through the attitudes of his protagonists and the relationships they construct with each other and with the environments and the societies they inhabit. These protagonists are consistently receptive to wonder as a psychological, physiological, emotional and ultimately ethical experience, and they are inspired by that experience to change their worlds. In turn these stories ask us, as readers, to open ourselves to opportunities for wonder and to allow ourselves to be transformed by them. We are encouraged to do so in the first instance by the very act of reading them, for wonder is integral to our experience of their language as well as their content; as H. G. Wells enthused, they contain chapters ‘whose very headings are a cry of delight’.22 Not all critics have, however, been as sympathetic or appreciative of Morris’s style of writing in these last romances. Several nineteenth-century reviewers found it ripe material for ridicule, characterized by a review of The Sundering Flood in the Academy in 1898, which declared that Morris had used ‘rugged and repugnant inversions and obscurities’ of language to create the ‘wild territory of dream’ that constituted his final book, and claims that the language and style of these stories makes them ‘almost unreadable’ have continued in more recent years.23

More astute readers have always recognized, however, that the language of the romances is essential to their achievement. Norman Talbot has provided the most comprehensive and persuasive account of their linguistic heritage and stylistic features, noting that these stories employ ‘a basically Anglian and Norse vocabulary’ with relatively few Latin or French words.24 Dustin Geeraert has similarly identified their use of the kennings and alliterative phrases so common in Old Norse poetry and the ← 8 | 9 → language of the romances clearly demonstrates Morris’s profound love of the literature of Iceland and draws upon his translation work over a number of years for the extensive Saga Library (1891–1905), produced in partnership with the Icelandic scholar Eiríkr Magnússon.25 From a broader cultural perspective the language of these stories might thus be considered in the context of a growing interest in the nineteenth century in re-establishing England’s Germanic heritage and reclaiming what Geeraert describes as ‘a homegrown rather than foreign philology’.26 There is no linguistic nostalgia or conservatism however in the last romances; we might rather conceive Morris’s purpose as being to reinvigorate English literary language by infusing it with words and phrases that had a vitality and directness he found lacking in so many contemporary novels whose authors he deemed ‘mere rhetorical word spinners and hunters of introspection’.27

The result is a style that is immediately arresting, making these tales to be told and listened to as much as they are stories to be read, and indeed Morris deliberately invokes the oral tradition through the language and narrative method of his romances. We hear at the beginning of The Sundering Flood, for example, that ‘it is told that there was once a mighty river’, but who is doing the telling is of no consequence because the tale is, as Talbot notes, ‘common property’.28 The act of telling or listening to the tale thereby becomes a democratic act that continues through time and across generations, and the language and style of the romances can in this way be understood as fulfilling a political purpose for Morris, who reclaims the story as a communal experience rather than an individual pastime, and establishes it as an essential part of our cultural heritage. Just like the folk gathered at Wethermel in The Sundering Flood to hear the Old Carline, we are asked to ‘hearken’ like those before us to these stories and this demands from us ← 9 | 10 → an attentiveness that has too readily been interpreted as meaning they are difficult to read.29 Rather, they encourage the same alertness and responsiveness that are integral to the wonderful and wondering experiences of their protagonists and thus allow us to share more directly in those experiences. Perhaps, as Jerome McGann observes, we might therefore regard the way these stories are written as constituting ‘a kind of benevolent reproach’, forcing us to look again at the world in its smallest and simplest details which, for Morris, constitutes ‘its wondrousness’.30 In doing so, we will find reading the last romances far more rewarding than if we merely humour their language and style as the outcome of misguided nostalgia or as an endearing idiosyncrasy.

We will also appreciate more profoundly the crucial role of these final works in rethinking and reclaiming Morris’s legacy in the early decades of a twenty-first century in which, as Colin Franklin writes, ‘the world becomes so un-Morris that he is needed and missed in earnest’.31 To dismiss them, as some have done, as the escapist fantasies of an ageing man, or as a final resurgence of literary Pre-Raphaelitism previously held in check by Morris’s Socialism, is both to misrepresent and to devalue them. In contrast, this book proposes that by recognizing the significance of wonder in Morris’s romances we can understand them as a radical response to nineteenth-century politics, culture and society, and a constructive contribution to his aims as an artist, writer and Socialist. Each chapter thus considers particular aspects or functions of wonder explored by Morris in his final narratives and examines their broader relevance in the context both of his own aesthetic and political ideals and of the late nineteenth century. For if, as Peter Faulkner suggests, William Morris consistently defined himself and his work ‘against the age’ in which he lived, it was because it was an age ← 10 | 11 → in which he saw both the capacity and the opportunity for wonder being increasingly stifled.32


XII, 230
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
William Morris nineteenth-century English literature Socialism romance
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XII, 230 pp., 5 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Phillippa Bennett (Author)

Phillippa Bennett is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Northampton. She is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Journal of William Morris Studies and has served as both Secretary and Vice President of the William Morris Society in the UK. She co-edited William Morris in the Twenty-First Century (Peter Lang, 2010) and has published a number of book chapters and articles on Morris’s last romances and their relationship to his aesthetic and political ideals.


Title: Wonderlands