Real and imaginary topography in News from Nowhere
Susan Trouvé-Finding, Université de Poitiers
Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town ;
Think rather of London, small, and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green
Stanza from the Prologue, The Earthly Paradise, William Morris, 1865
News from Nowhere, written after seven years of intense and pre-eminent political activity (some say overly so (EPT, 572)) in the funding and organising of various permutations of
the nascent socialist movement, can be read as an account of his own personal journey of discovery, a parable of his own life rooted in Morris’s personal and political lieux de mémoire. In the novel, Morris maps out the future, laying an imaginary mappa mundi Morrisi over the topography of the Thames Valley upriver from sea to source, tidal reaches to little; stream. Taking the form of a voyage of discovery in the best utopian tradition, the novel recounts a trip into Terra Cognita, the capital city adventuring into the hinterland beyond. Morris turns certain conventions upside-down, topsy-turvy, reversing the methods of contemporary social investigators such as Andrew Mearns and General Booth, whose footsteps he followed. The reader is translated not into the reality of Outcast London (Mearns 1883), or Darkest England (Booth, 1890) unknown to the well-off middle classes, but into a transformed but known world, where major landmarks serve as signposts and symbols. Despite the fictional pretence of foreignness (p.49), ‘a place very unlike England’ (p.49), everything is done to enable the reader to recognise the setting, from the opening pages where Hammersmith is identifiable from the street names (The Broadway, The Creek, King’s Street), the river (Chiswick Eyot, Putney, Barn Elms, Surrey Banks), the peregrination through London, and upstream past towns and landmarks to the upper reaches of the Thames. This transparent transposition is anchored on the real loci of Morris’s own world from Kelmscott House, Hammersmith to Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire.
Paper given at Day Conference organized by François Poirier at the Univeristy of Paris I3 in January 2005 published on line : http://www.univ-paris13.fr/ANGLICISTES/POIRIER/Morris/STrTopography2.pdf and by the William Morris Society in the United States.