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Wonderlands

The Last Romances of William Morris

Series:

Phillippa Bennett

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.
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Chapter 2: The Topography of Wonder

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← 52 | 53 → CHAPTER 2

The Topography of Wonder

The titles of Morris’s last romances signify places redolent of marvel and surprise. With their glittering plains, sundering floods, wondrous isles, woods beyond the world and wells at the world’s end they construct a geographical web of extraordinary places whose locations are deliberately ambiguous – residing ‘beyond’ or at the ‘end’ they are both in and out of the world. As such they can be located within an established tradition of topographical writing which, as Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park note, ‘depicted the margins of the world as a privileged place of novelty, variety, and exuberant natural transgression’.1 The experience of wonder is hereby articulated in terms of aspiration and destination. Wonder is given a specific location: it is travelled to, enjoyed and then relinquished on the inevitable return journey, maintained in a marginalized place set apart from everyday realities which retains its imaginative power through its physical absence.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the adaptation of the romance genre by writers such as George Macdonald, Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry Rider Haggard regenerated this interest in alternative and unfamiliar topographies and maintained the romance’s structural focus on what Ernst Bloch describes as ‘the walk, the ride, the never-avoidable adventure’.2 In their various depictions of voyages to mysterious islands, journeys across unknown corners of vast continents, or wanderings ← 53 | 54 → through parallel supernatural realms, these authors evoke in their romance narratives a sense of...

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