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"The Obstinate Refusers: Work in News From Nowhere."

by Jan Marsh

Marsh, Jan. "Concerning Love: News From Nowhere and Gender." William Morris & News from Nowhere: A Vision for Our Time, eds. Stephen Coleman and Paddy O'Sullivan. Bideford, Devon: Green Books, 1990. 107–125.

DURING THE 1880s-90s, the 'Woman Question' was as lively an issue as Feminism in the 1980s-90s, permeating all areas of discussion, not least those of the socialist movement. However radical their views on the transformation of society through class struggle, many socialists held traditional views on the present and future position of women, whereas it was precisely the promise of an entirely re-structured way of life that attracted to the cause many articulate, active women who questioned and challenged all the prescriptions, and restrictions of prevailing gender ideology. As a leading lecturer and propagandist of the Socialist League, William Morris was unavoidably drawn into the debate, and his responses to feminist issues are an important and even dominant element in News from Nowhere.
          In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, first published in 1884, Friedrich Engels offered a Marxist analysis of the Woman Question, tracing patriarchal oppression to its ancient roots, claiming that in the 'savage' and 'barbarous' stages of human history, 'the position of woman [was] not only free but honourable', family life taking the form of group marriage in a society of primitive communism, with 'mother-right' or matriarchal authority and lines of descent. With the rise of civilization and private ownership, however,

the overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the house also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of his children. [1] [Original italics]

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The first class opposition in history, that of owners/ bosses versus serfs/workers, Engels continued, coincides with the development of antagonism between male and female in patriarchal marriage, and 'the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male'.
          Through the classical, feudal and capitalist epochs this pattern persists. In bourgeois marriage, the woman 'sells her body once and for all into slavery'. In Protestant countries, the sale is disguised by the element of free choice allowed to each spouse, but the usual result is 'a conjugal partnership of leaden boredom known as domestic bliss. As a result, prostitution flourishes. Among the working class, free choice and true 'sex-love' is possible, since no property enters the equation and, as an equal, working partner, the wife retains the right to dissolve an unsatisfactory union.
          From this rather rosy view of proletarian marriage, Engels moved on to the conditions for change:

In the old communistic household, which comprised many couples and their children, the task entrusted to the women of managing the household was as much a public and socially necessary industry as the procuring of food by the men . . . the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and that in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society. [2]

Now the proposed abolition of monogamy was one of the most alarming aspects of the Socialist movement according to its opponents, who were even more agitated by the idea of 'free love' and sexual autonomy than by the prospect of dispossessed factory-owners and landlords. As with the endorsement of gay rights today, it also alarmed many within the movement, fearful of the deterrent effect on potential supporters.
          'We are now approaching a social revolution in which the economic foundations of monogamy will disappear,' Engels stated boldly. 'Will monogamy therefore disappear?' On the contrary, he responded,

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it will be realized completely . . . the overthrow of capitalism will bring marriage based on true sexual love and inclination . . . if affection definitely comes to an end, or is supplanted by a new passionate love, separation is a benefit for both partners as well as society--only people will then be spared having to wade through the useless mire of a divorce case . . . [3]

He ended with a hopeful, if vague, view of the future:

What can we now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production? ... What will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who have never in their lives known what it was to buy a woman's surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover for fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual--and that will be the end of it. [4]

These and similar views shaped socialist thinking on gender relations in the 1880s. The decade also saw the publication of August Bebel's Woman under Socialism, reviewed by Eleanor Marx in The Commonweal in April 1885 when it was translated into English as Woman in the Past, Present and Future. In this, the social relations of the sexes under socialism are defined as those of absolute equality--the 'equal duty of all to labour, without distinction of sex' for the general good, in an industrial system where 'everybody decides for himself [sic] in which branch he desires to be employed'. The woman receives the same education as the man, and

having performed her share of social labour in some branch of industry, the next hour she becomes educator, teacher or nurse, later on she devotes herself to art or science and afterwards exercises some executive function. She enjoys amusements and

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recreations with her own sex or with men, exactly as she pleases and occasion offers.

In terms of personal relations,

in the choice of love she is free just as man is free. She woos and is wooed and has no other inducement to bind herself than her own free will . . . the gratification of the sexual impulse is as strictly the personal affair of the individual . . . . Should incompatibility, disappointment and dislike ensue, morality demands the dissolution. . . . As men and women will be fairly equal in number . . . men will no longer be in a position to assert any superiority . . .
          Woman is therefore entirely free and her household and children, if she has any, cannot restrict her freedom but only increase her pleasure in life. Educators, friends, young girls [sic] are at hand for all cases in which she needs help. [5]

These ideas were further aired in articles and a pamphlet written by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in 1885-6 'to explain the position of Socialists in respect to the woman question', in which the future perspective is sketched out:

Clearly there will be equality for all, without distinction of sex. Thus woman will be independent: her education and all other opportunities as those of man. Like him she, if sound in mind and body (and how the number of women thus will grow!) will have to give her one, two or three hours of social labour to supply the wants of the community and therefore of herself. Thereafter she will be free for art or science or teaching or writing or amusement in any form. Prostitution will have vanished with the economic conditions that make it a necessity . . . [6]

In this context, the Woman Question was important enough for a clause on marriage to be included in the manifesto of the Socialist League, which William Morris helped to found at the beginning of 1885. But debate continued. Were legal marriage and monogamy to be abolished? In March Morris told Bernard Shaw privately that 'we of the S.L. must before long state our views on wedlock quite plainly and take the consequences, which I admit are likely to be serious'.

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But the issue was complex:

Of course I agree that abolishing wedlock while the present economical slavery lasts would be futile: nor do I consider a man a Socialist at all who is not prepared to admit the equality of women as far as condition goes. Also that as long as women are compelled to marry for a livelihood, real marriage is a rare exception and prostitution or a kind of legalized rape the rule. [7]

Later in the year a revised manifesto for the League, which Morris was involved in drafting, amplified the clause on sexual relations:

Under a Socialistic system contracts between individuals would be voluntary and unenforced by the community. This would apply to the marriage contract as to others, and it would become a matter of simple inclination. Women also would share in the certainty of livelihood which would be the lot of all; and children would be treated from their birth as members of the community entitled to share in all its advantages. [8]

But such noble pronouncements obscured some of the argument, and the same period saw an angry debate in the S. L. occasioned by an egregious attack on sexual equality and female suffrage by Morris's friend and collaborator Belfort Bax, defending patriarchal authority and even marital violence. As editor of The Commonweal, Morris strove to mediate, replying to one critic that 'there is more to be said on Bax's side than you suppose . . . it would be a poor economy setting women to do men's work (as unluckily they often do now) or vice versa. [9]


When, therefore, Morris sat down to write News from Nowhere in 1890, after the 'brisk conversational discussion as to what should happen on the Morrow of the Revolution' in which no one listened to anyone else's opinion and he himself 'finished by roaring out very loud and damning all the rest for fools', he was conscious that questions of gender equality and personal relations formed a large element in the debate about the socialist future. Indeed, it looks as if in his

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'chapters from a Utopian Romance' Morris set out not only to discuss utopian economics and landscapes, but equally importantly to respond to Engels' rhetorical questions, in conjecturing 'the way in which sexual relations will be ordered. . . when a new generation has grown up', and imagining a new society for the 21st century, in which 'there will be equality for all, without distinction of sex'.
          So, after the narrator William Guest first meets Dick and Robert, the handsome young waterman and the weaver, they enter the Hammersmith Guest House to be greeted by three young women who are 'at least as good as the gardens, the architecture and the male men'. (Morris is here, incidentally, aiming at non-sexist language, using 'men' in the generic sense of 'persons', as when in his correspondence he occasionally used the terms 'male-man' and 'female-man' for men and women. [10]) Firstly, the women are attractively dressed, 'decently veiled with drapery and not bundled up with millinery'; they are 'clothed like women not upholstered arm-chairs, as most women of our time are'. Moreover,

They were so kind and happy-looking in expression of face, so shapely and well-knit of body, and thoroughly healthy-looking and strong. All were at least comely, and one of them very handsome and regular of feature. They came up to us at once and merrily and without the least affectation of shyness, and all three shook hands with me. [11]

The women lead the men to breakfast and wait on them. While one arranges a great bunch of cottage-garden roses, another brings new-picked strawberries; for thanks, Robert pats her head in a kindly manner.
          So far, so disappointing, at least to feminists in the 20th century. Furthermore, the utopian quality of Nowhere is specifically confirmed a page later in terms of its effect on women's looks. When the narrator guesses that Annie, the prettiest of the three women, is twenty years of age, she replies: 'I am well served out for fishing for compliments, since I have to tell you the truth, to wit, that I am forty-two'. At this the narrator stares,

for there was not a careful line on her face; her skin was as smooth as ivory, her cheeks full and round, her lips as red as the roses

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she had brought in; her beautiful arms which she had bared for her work, firm and well-knit from shoulder to wrist. She blushed a little under my gaze, though it was clear that she had taken me for a man of eighty. [12]

As he is in fact fifty-six, the preservative qualities of Nowhere are evidently gender-free, but the main impact is on the women, whose good looks are repeatedly stressed.
          Beauty, pretty clothes and the domestic graces of hospitality, flower arranging and food preparation--if these are the lineaments of utopian femininity then it is hardly surprising that, in general, women are less likely than men to find News from Nowhere a fully compelling vision of perfection--or even a place in which they would like to dwell. For as this early chapter demonstrates, it offers a too-masculine viewpoint, conjuring a harmonious world of decorative, contented women and active, interesting men. Dick and Robert, for example, in the space of a few lines, sketch in the breadth of their activities: sculling, silversmithing, haymaking, travelling, weaving, printing, mathematics and historical research. Each has several occupations, and scope for many more. By contrast, although not overworked by her hotel duties at the Guest House, Annie looks forward only to reading a 'pretty old book'. This is scarcely the stuff of socialist dreams for most female readers.
          Moreover, the narrator's words are those of quite unreformed masculine desire. Annie is erotically presented: feeling the warmth of Guest's sexuality, despite his age, she blushes under his gaze.
          The children of Nowhere, in the following chapter, appear to enjoy a non-sexist education. They all learn, without schools or systematic teaching, and spend the summers camping in the woods, looking after themselves. But when, on their journey into central London, Dick and Guest come upon a road-mending gang, all its members are men. Their strenuous, enjoyable work and cheerful fellowship are not shared by the half-dozen young women who watch admiringly. The traditional division of labour seen at Hammersmith thus seems to be general, even natural.
          Nevertheless, when in Chapters IX to XVI the various aspects of government, economics, culture and international relations are outlined through Guest's questions to old Hammond, the first inquiry

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relates to gender. 'Now may I ask you about the position of women in your society?' says Guest. In reply Hammond laughs, dismissing 'the emancipation of women movement' in the 19th century as a 'dead controversy'. For in the 21st century

the men have no longer any opportunity of tyrannising over the women, or the women over the men. . . . The women do what they can do best, and what they like best, and the men are neither jealous of it or injured by it. [13]

The issue of women's suffrage--a major plank of Victorian feminism--is also irrelevant. In Nowhere there is no legislation and no Parliament and therefore no votes for women or men. But Guest persists:

very well, then . . . but what about this woman question? I saw at the Guest House that the women were waiting on the men: that seems a little like reaction, doesn't it?

'Perhaps you think housekeeping an unimportant occupation, not deserving of respect?' retorts Hammond acerbically. 'I believe that was the opinion of the advanced women of the 19th century and their male backers.' His view is his author's:

Don't you know that it is the great pleasure to a clever woman to manage a household skilfully, and to do it so that all the house-mates about her look pleased and are grateful to her? And then, you know, everybody likes to be ordered about by a pretty woman: why it is one of the pleasantest forms of flirtation . . . [14]

Ignoring for the moment the second, unemancipated sentence, it could be argued that here Morris is at least taking housework seriously; as Hammond says, he certainly does not subscribe to the silly notion current among the cultivated classes of 'ignoring all the steps by which their daily dinner was reached as matters too low for their lofty intelligences'. But although both Hammond and Guest claim to be good cooks (as we know Morris was, incidentally), they do not tell us that the men of Nowhere take an equal share of the domestic arts and chores: just as the men choose roadmending, so in 'doing what they like best' the women naturally enjoy housework.

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Even if housework has high status, this gendered division of tasks is not what socialist feminists would regard as utopian. It has indeed, more in common with Engels' view of 'primitive communism' in which household management is as socially necessary as hunting and in which, he claimed, there was much more real respect for women than under European capitalism where

the lady of civilization, surrounded by false homage and estranged from all real work, has an infinitely lower social position than the hard-working woman of barbarism, who was regarded among her people as a real lady. [15]

From his passion for archaic Nordic literature, we know that Morris held much the same view.
          Hammond also goes on to demolish an idea proffered by Guest as the view of certain 'superior' women in his own time, who 'wanted to emancipate the more intelligent part of their sex from the bearing of children', by insisting that this folly was the result of class tyranny. In the society of the future, maternity is highly honoured. Childbirth is an extra stimulus to affection between couples, and in a land of equal access to wealth, mothers are spared sordid economic anxieties and artificial burdens, as well as the curses of heredity, which have, over time, been carefully eliminated. As a result

the ordinarily healthy woman (and almost all our women are both healthy and at least comely) respected as a child bearer and rearer of children, desired as a woman, loved as a companion, unanxious for the future of her children, has far more instinct for maternity than the poor drudge and mother of drudges of past days could ever have; or than her sister of the upper classes, brought up in affected ignorance of natural facts, reared in an atmosphere of mingled prudery and prurience. [16]


Questions concerning women are thus the first to be asked and answered in News from Nowhere, taking precedence over those of politics and economics. They are prompted by the appearance of Clara, one of the central characters in the story, whose relationship

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with Dick illustrates what may be called the Marxian view of marriage and divorce, albeit with a happy resolution.

Clara and Dick were once married, or at least lived together and had two children before, in old Hammond's words

she got it into her head that she was in love with somebody else. So she left poor Dick . . . but it did not last long . . . and then she came to me and asked how Dick was, and whether he was happy and all the rest of it. [17]

As Dick has not found another mate, all is set for a reconciliation. 'Ah,' comments Guest sagely, 'no doubt you wanted to keep them out of the Divorce Court.' But of course there are no courts in Nowhere, no divorce and no marriage--at least not in the sense of a legal contract. Marriage is, in Engels's terms, a matter of simple inclination and 'true sexual love'. Hence the title of this chapter.
          Love, however, is the cause of what sadness and conflict exist in this society. In a famous passage Hammond outlines the emotional problems that still ruffle the utopian tranquillity, and how they are handled:

We do not deceive ourselves, indeed, or believe that we can get rid of all the trouble that besets the dealings between the sexes. We know that we must face the unhappiness that comes of man and woman confusing the relations between natural passion, and sentiment, and the friendship which, when things go well, softens the awakening from passing illusions; but we are not so mad as to pile up degradation on that unhappiness by engaging in sordid squabbles about livelihood and position, and the power of tyrannising over the children who have been the result of love or lust.

He offers some examples of sexual trouble:

Calf-love, mistaken for a heroism that shall be lifelong, yet early waning into disappointment; the inexplicable desire that comes on a man of riper years to be the all-in-all to some one woman, whose ordinary human kindness and human beauty he has idealised into superhuman perfection . . . ; or lastly the reasonable longing of a strong and thoughtful man to become the most intimate friend of some beautiful and wise woman . . .--as we exult

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in all the pleasure and exaltation of spirit which goes with these things, so we set ourselves to bear the sorrow which not unseldom goes with them also. [18]

The treatment, if not the cure, is the kind of stoical response that Morris endeavoured to practise in his own emotional life; as he wrote in relation to his wife's intimacy with another man, 'how I long to keep the world from narrowing on me, and to look at things bigly and kindly! [19] In Hammond's words:

it is a point of honour with us not to be self-centred; not to suppose that the world must cease because one man is sorry; therefore, we should think it foolish, or if you will, criminal, to exaggerate these matters of sentiment and sensibility: we are no more inclined to eke out our emotional sorrows than to cherish our bodily pains: and we recognise that there are other pleasures besides love-making. You must remember also that we are long-lived, and that therefore beauty both in man and woman is not so fleeting as it was. . . . So we shake off these griefs in a way which perhaps the sentimentalists of other times would think contemptible and unheroic, but which we think necessary and manlike. [20]

We will return to this gendered language, first noting that Nowhere is essentially, though not rigidly, a monogamous society. Clara has lived with another man without censure before returning to Dick, but does not continue the relationships simultaneously or promiscuously. Later on, Ellen is partly in flight from more suitors than she can handle. When Guest asks about phalangsteries--what would today be called 'communes'--Hammond claims that such early socialist experiments in group living arose from poverty. In Nowhere, 'we like to live as a rule with certain house-mates that we have got used to', and separate dwellings are usual, although no door is shut to any good-tempered person who wants to join. But if household structures are flexible, there is no hint of sexual sharing, just as there is no suggestion of anything but heterosexual relationships beyond natural friendliness: utopian love is resolutely traditional in this respect. It is true that there is no outright condemnation or prohibition of gay or lesbian love, but in a work of fiction what is not

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mentioned does not and cannot exist. In Nowhere, heterosexuality rules.
          It is interesting however that, given the virtual perfection of economic, social and environmental arrangements in Nowhere, 'love matters' provide the only arena for conflict. In the absence of competition over property and of compulsion to labour (Morris's view of work not being an orthodox Marxian one), there are few other areas in which quarrels arise. Although rare, murders occasionally happen as the result of hot temper and sudden violence, but the only instance described--as related by Walter Allen at Reading--is that of a rejected lover who attacks his rival with an axe and is accidentally killed in self-defence. The killer--who cannot really be called a murderer--is so stricken with remorse that he is liable to commit suicide, which makes the community very unhappy; indeed, the excitement and jealousy surrounding the tragedy make for an 'evil and feverish' atmosphere that must be dispelled. The solution is to isolate the 'criminal' and trust to the healing power of his love for the girl in question.
          Unlike the examples cited by Hammond, both this tale and that of Clara's desertion of, and reunion with Dick, present love problems in terms of men rather than women as victims of rejection. In the utopian absence of all economic dependency and childcare difficulties, there is no reason to feel that women would be more vulnerable or disadvantaged if the roles were reversed, but the slant of the stories is significant. Just as emotional stoicism is heroic and 'manlike', so the ability to bewitch, or drive a man to violence, is a female attribute.
          In this respect, the story follows the traditional contours of romance. In the real world of the 19th century, male desertion was the greater problem, among the proletariat as well as bourgeoisie, since social circumstances made women economically and emotionally vulnerable; in all classes, unsupported wives and mothers faced severe problems. And the function of romance fiction, in capitalist culture, is to obscure the facts of male power by proposing an emotional fantasy in which, finally, the right man surrenders his heart to a woman's power.
          In News from Nowhere, women are implicitly given this sexual power over men. In a situation of absolute gender equality, such

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power might be mutual, for in a rational utopia there would, surely, be no unrequited love, even allowing for changes of partner. All would recognize the folly of unreciprocated desire and of demanding exclusive affection; love confers no rights and stakes no claims.


Are romantic love, motherhood and happy housekeeping all that News from Nowhere has to offer women? If this is so, we would be justified in consigning it to the historical bin, recognizing it as a product of its patriarchal age and author, despite his otherwise progressive attitudes.
          But although reactionary gender relations do form the bedrock of Morris's desirable society, it is also true that, as the story is told, the social and personal relations of men and women are rather more flexible and varied than this implies.
          For one thing, the female characters are lively, acute and generally wiser than the men, and in the second part of the book, during the journey up the Thames, they feature more largely: Clara joins Dick as Guest's escort, and Ellen, who with her strange wild beauty can only be described as the heroine, takes over the central role of utopian interlocutor and guide.
          On the way upriver, the social division of labour remains more or less traditional--the men do most of the rowing, and the women's participation in haymaking, although an example of shared labour, is presented more as festival than as everyday work. The masons dubbed obstinate refusers because they prefer building to haymaking are mainly male: half a dozen men and two women--Philippa and her daughter Kate. Now Philippa (inspired, it is said, by the success of Philippa Fawcett in attaining the highest marks in the mathematics final exams at Cambridge University) is the 'best carver', and accorded high status; but the masons' team-leader or foreman is a man.
          It cannot be argued that, as in Bebel's prediction of life under socialism, the women in Nowhere all have equal opportunity and are not prevented from choosing 'masculine' pursuits, as Philippa appears to demonstrate. For in general the women spend their time

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in typically feminine affairs; Philippa is simply the exception that proves the rule. And beyond their housekeeping duties, they lead lives of what can only be termed idleness or, more politely, permanent holiday. Just as the weather is always fine, so the ladies are always leisured.
          Now News from Nowhere is subtitled An Epoch of Rest, and central to its imagination is the freedom from the competitive struggle against poverty in arduous, insecure employment such as characterized much late 19th century labour in Britain. Morris knew himself to be an exception, even among his own class, in both freely choosing and enjoying his work, and his image of paradise is one where this freedom is extended to all. And there is no doubt that being freed from drudgery at home and at work would in large measure have greatly benefited working class women--those employed in laundries, sweatshops, manufacturing and domestic service--the main categories of female labour at this date. It would also have enhanced the lives of many in the lower reaches of the bourgeoisie.
          The problem, from a feminist reader's perspective, now or then, is that however desirable the universal abolition of uncongenial work, this forms only part of the subjection of women. The social oppression of women has also to do with exclusion, with denial, with consciousness, definitions of difference and chauvinistic ideas about protection and special talents--that is, with all the sexist ideological impedimenta that accompanies and is invoked to justify economic oppression. It is all very well for there to be no jobs in Nowhere for lawyers or army commanders, for example--and we can all agree that in an ideal state these are unnecessary--when women have never had the opportunity to select or reject such work.
          Equality and freedom for women as for other oppressed groups is a process of struggle and achievement--not secured on an individual or exceptional basis but as a general condition, without distinction of gender, class, skin colour or any of the other markers the rich and powerful use to exclude others. And one of the attractive aspects of News from Nowhere is indeed that its utopia is not simply represented as a given, magical state, but as something that has been fought for, gained and improved through conflict and argument. In its history, however, the gender issues of this struggle are subsumed

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in those of the class struggle, and thereby, as so often, ignored or evaded. Which would not matter too much--many details of the new Jerusalem are inevitably omitted from the tale--were it not for the fact that the position of women in the future so closely resembles that of women in the past, and that this was and is one of the specific items on the socialist agenda.
          Even with Ellen this pattern is only slightly disturbed. She joins the travellers at Wallingford, rowing by herself--which was a more arresting image of independence in 1890 than it appears today--and shares the remainder of the sculling with Guest. Acute, affectionate and perceptive, she is the most ideal representative of the new society. Of all the persons 'in that world renewed', says Guest, 'she was the most unfamiliar to me, the most unlike what I could have thought of.' Clara, in comparison, reminds him of a very pleasant and unaffected young woman of his own time, whereas Ellen

was not only beautiful with a beauty quite different from that of a 'young lady', but was in all ways so strangely interesting; so that I kept wondering what she would say or do next to surprise and please me. Not, indeed, that there was anything startling in what she actually said or did; but it was all done in a new way, and always with that indefinable interest and pleasure of life which I had noticed more or less in everybody, but which in her was more marked and more charming than in any one else that I had seen. [21]

She has knowledge, intelligence, ability, sensitivity and intuitive awareness beyond the reach of her compatriots. But these qualities are firmly linked to her femininity: she seems, to us, a perfect example of the sort of pretty woman by whom Guest would enjoy being ordered about, as one of 'the pleasantest forms of flirtation'.


News from Nowhere is therefore, undeniably and regrettably, a masculine vision of paradise. Furthermore, this is not simply a matter of its political statements, omissions and elisions. It is also as a literary text deeply imbued with the feeling and language of male desire. To

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a quite surprising degree, given the political origins of the book, this erotic thread is prominent throughout, from the first encounter with the blushing Annie through to Guest's final sorrow at losing Ellen. And the problematic nature of his lust is made explicit in the early morning at Runnymede when the three travellers glimpse Ellen in the garden; Guest protests at being left out of the fable Dick invents for the occasion and is told that he may imagine he is wearing the cap of darkness, seeing everything, himself invisible.
          Guest responds sexually to all the women he meets, sometimes suspecting that they fancy Dick more than himself, and for various reasons is disappointed each time--the women vanish, or have lovers already. The disappointments pave the way for the meeting with Ellen, who has light hair and grey eyes, suntanned face and hands. When first seen she is lying on a sheepskin rug, and both her brown skin and bare feet are explicitly admired. The most openly erotic passage in the story is spoken by Dick, promising that Clara will look like Ellen after a summer spent haymaking:

'. . . and we will manage to send you to bed pretty tired every night; and you will look so beautiful with your neck all brown, and your hands too, and you under your gown as white as privet . . .' The girl reddened very prettily and not for shame but pleasure . . . [22]

Guest's relationship with Ellen follows a courtship pattern. She leads--often literally taking him by the hand--with hints and promises of consummation:

'I should like to go with you all through the west country--thinking of nothing', concluded she, smiling.
          'I should have plenty to think of', said I. [23]


'This evening, or tomorrow morning I shall make a proposal to you to do something which would please me very much, and I think would not hurt you. . . .'
          I broke in eagerly, saying that I would do anything in the world for her . . . [24]

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Despite, or indeed because of, his frequent disparagement of his fifty-six years, it is clear that Guest's youthful lust has returned--such rejuvenation is a chief feature of this new life--and his slow, dreamy conversations with Ellen follow the movements of lovemaking, enacting the caresses and hesitations of sexual pleasure in syntax and language, most evidently in Chapter XXIX, describing the picnic lunch on the upper reaches of the Thames (too long to quote in full) which ends:

As we went slowly down towards the boats she said again: 'Not for myself alone, dear friend; I shall have children; perhaps before the end a good many;--I hope so. And though of course I cannot force any special kind of knowledge upon them, yet, my friend, I cannot help thinking that just as they might be like me in body, so I might impress upon them some part of my ways of thinking; that is, indeed, some of the essential part of myself; that part which was not mere moods, created by the matters and events around me. What do you think?'
          Of one thing I was sure, that her beauty and kindness and eagerness combined, forced me to think as she did, when she was not earnestly laying herself open to receive my thoughts. I said, what at the time was true, that it was most important; and presently stood entranced by the wonder of her grace as she stepped into the light boat, and held out her hand to me. And so on we went up the Thames still--or whither? [25]

As a changeling, Guest cannot of course mate with an inhabitant of fairyland, so their intercourse--as Ellen 'lays herself open to receive my thoughts'--is that of philosophical discussion, and their children remain hypothetical, dream progeny. And their embraces are similarly displaced. 'On we went', says Guest, noting his 'new-born excitement about Ellen and my gathering fear of where it would land me', to arrive at their journey's end. Here Ellen makes her promised proposal, which is indeed no more than a chaste but meaningful invitation 'to live with us where we are going', and together they approach the old house. 'Take me on to the house at once', she whispers; 'we need not wait for the others; I had rather not.'

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On the path, she gives a sensuous sigh of joy, as the climax is reached:

She had me close to the house, and laid her shapely sun-browned hand and arm on the lichened wall as if to embrace it, and cried out 'Oh me! O me! How I love the earth, and the seasons, and weather, and all things that deal with it, and all that grows out of it--as this has done!'
          I could not answer her or say a word. Her exultation and pleasure were so keen and exquisite, and her beauty, so delicate yet so interfused with energy, expressed it so fully, that any added word would have been commonplace and futile. I dreaded lest the others should come in suddenly and break the spell she had cast about me; but we stood there a while by the corner of the big gable of the house, and no one came. . . . [26]

Yet of course, there is no happy ending to this romance. As in an erotic dream, the narrator must wake before fulfillment, at the village feast in the church, when he stands on the threshold with an expectant smile, ready for the festivity. Suddenly, the vision begins to slip; he becomes invisible and turns to Ellen, whose face saddens:

she shook her head with a mournful look, and the next moment all consciousness of my presence had faded from her face. [27]


The fact that the loss of paradise takes place at the feast, in a social setting, however, indicates that sexual love or desire is only part of the vision of the future, although the erotic suffuses the depiction of Nowhere. Lust (in its original root-sense of passion rather than vice) in fact works, throughout the text, as metaphor or carriage for utopian desire, just as Ellen stands, in her strange wild beauty, as a personification of the new age, at once alluring and unattainable.
          For it is longing that drives News from Nowhere, from the opening cry of the narrator 'If I could but see a day of it! If I could but see it!' And it is the sense of impossibility that sustains the reader's answering desire--for, once attained, satisfaction or joy begin to dwindle: utter happiness is always out of reach, or fades in banality, giving rise

[page 125]

to discontent. And it is Morris's skill in holding this emotional yearning dramatically in tension with the social perfection of Nowhere that takes his narrative beyond the notion of a blueprint, with every detail 'correctly' sketched in.
          In his discussion of socialist utopias, E. P. Thompson (quoting from Miguel Abensour, and without specifically mentioning the erotic thrust of News from Nowhere) noted that what distinguishes Morris's enterprise 'is, exactly, its open, speculative quality, and its detachment of the imagination from the demands of conceptual precision'. More important than whether you approve or disapprove of its formulations regarding utopian economics, or gender relations, or whatever, 'is the challenge to the imagination to become immersed in the same open exploration':

in such an adventure two things happen: our habitual values (the 'commonsense' of bourgeois society) are thrown into disarray. And we enter into Utopia's proper and new-found space: the education of desire . . . 'to teach desire to desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire in a different way'. [28] [original italics]

After talking of past miseries with Guest, Clara senses unhappiness in the air, 'as if we were longing for something that we cannot have'. As she also suggests, one problem with utopia is complacency and shallowness, since life leaves nothing to be desired. Happiness, indeed, can only be known by contrast with its lack. Again, Morris skilfully succeeds in endowing his utopia with this consciousness, which saves it from smugness. And it is, I think, an index of the passionate strength of Morris's socialist desire that eroticism, finally subordinated to social fellowship, so frankly shapes the feeling and language of News from Nowhere, not as an intellectual exercise but as an expression of the plainest human need and demand for joy. Without such desire, there can be no hope. And in the final analysis what matters, and makes the text continually worth re-reading and re-printing, is not so much the unsatisfactory images of women's position in the supposedly free and equal society of the 21st century, but the immediate challenge to our own imaginations to desire more, and better, and in a different way, in order to change things.

[page 183]


(All page references to News from Nowhere relate to the edition published in 1973 by Lawrence and Wishart, London, edited by A. L. Morton.)

[page 193]

The author of this chapter would like to thank Florence Boos, Norman Kelvin and Linda Richardson for their comments on her text, and for their own complementary studies of William Morris's works.


1. Friedrich Engels, Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats (Zurich: 1884, revised 1891). I have used the English language edition The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (London: 1940) p. 59. Strictly speaking, Engels appropriated for Marxist purposes arguments from Lewis Morgan's Ancient Society (London: 1877) which forms the basis for The Origin of the Family. Although the latter text was not published in English until 1902, Engels's ideas were widely circulated, by Eleanor Marx among [page 194] others, within the Socialist movement in Britain during the 1890s. There is some debate about how familiar Morris was in general with Engels's unpublished work, to which his own frequently seems to refer, but his two-part article on 'The Development of Modern Society', published in The Commonweal in July and August 1890, which summarized parts of Engels's argument in The Origin of the Family, indicates a fairly close acquaintance with the book, perhaps gained through discussion as Engels revised the text. Possibly, however, Morris was more familiar with Lewis's book than Engels's.

2. Ibid., pp. 78-80.

3. Ibid., pp. 81 & 89.

4. Ibid., pp. 89-90.

5. August Bebel, Woman in the Past, Present and Future, translated by H.B. Adams Walther (London: 1885) pp. 229-232.

6. Edward and Eleanor Marx Aveling The Woman Question (London: 1886) p. 15.

7. William Morris to G. Bernard Shaw, 18.3.1885, The Collected Letters of William Morris, edited Norman Kelvin (Princeton, 1987) vol. II, p. 404.

8. Ibid., II, p. 857.

9. William Morris to J. Bruce Glasier 24.4.1886, Letters, II, p.545.

10. Ibid.

11. N.F.N., p. 193.

12. Ibid., p. 198.

13. Ibid., p. 241.

14. Ibid., p. 241-2.

15. Engels, op. cit., p. 50.

16. N.F.N., p. 243

17. Ibid., pp. 236-7.

18. Ibid., p. 238.

19. William Morris to Aglaia Coronio, 25. 11. 1872. Letters, I, p. 173.

20. N.F.N., p. 239

21. Ibid., p. 371.

22. Ibid., p. 322.

23. Ibid., p. 379. [page 195]

24. Ibid., p. 377.

25. Ibid., pp. 383-4.

26. Ibid., p. 391.

27. Ibid., p. 399.

28. E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 2nd edn. (London: 1976) pp. 790-1; the essay quoted is from Miguel M-H. Abensour, Utopies et dialectique du socialisme (Paris: 1977).

Further Reading

Feminist and gender issues in relation to William Morris and News from Nowhere have been explored by a number of scholars in recent years; published work includes the following:


Norman Kelvin, 'The Erotic in News from Nowhere and The Well at the World's End', Studies in the Late Romances of William Morris, ed. Carole Silver and Joseph R. Dunlap, William Morris Society (New York: 1976).

Florence Boos, 'An (Almost) Egalitarian Sage: William Morris's Later Writings and the "Woman Question"', Victorian Sages and the Feminine: Gender, Discourse and Power, ed. Thaïs Morgan (Rutgers University Press, 1990).

Linda Richardson, 'Louise Michel and William Morris', Journal of the William Morris Society, vol VIII, no. 2, Spring 1989. Richardson further discussed William Morris's relations with socialist women in her lecture 'Daintily-Fashioned Engines of War: William Morris and Women of the Socialist Movement', William Morris Society, March 1987, and in her doctoral dissertation 'William Morris and Women: Experience and Representation' (University of Oxford, 1989).


This text was scanned, OCRed, and proofread from the original source by JoAnn R. Seeman. This document was created by the William Morris Society with the kind permission of Green Books. For permission to use this document, in whole or in part, for any purpose except educational, please contact Green Books.

Reprinted from William Morris & News from Nowhere: A Vision for Our Time, edited by Stephen Coleman and Paddy O'Sullivan, by permission of Green Books. Copyright © 1990 by Green Books.