In the comments section to Gregory’s post on the phonograph, I promised that my next entry would be on Dickens…
Then, however, I saw this. A William Morris vacation? Awesome. Led by Peter Cormack? Even more awesome. The tour’s highlight is a visit to Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s beloved country home. Total cost? 300 pounds. Now if only I could find a way to Britain…
However, as is usual with things that excite me, I soon realized the complication of it all. While part of me is very happy to know that there is enough interest in Morris to make these kinds of vacations possible, I’m saddened at the rise of “heritage tourism,” which testifies to the intense commodification of history and culture.
Many before me have noted these challenges, but a chapter in Pramod K. Nayar’s Reading Culture (2006) provides a helpful phrase to organize our thinking about present-day Kelmscott. Discussing the many political calculations and ideological maneuverings jostling to present certain versions of past events, Nayar introduces the idea of “the heritage zone” (169), a place that acquires its cultural capital precisely because it is named as such by “official gestures, signs and descriptions” (169). The naming function is important since it makes visible the power which is attempting to organize and mobilize that heritage in the service of its own interest.
This kind of thinking certainly pertains to the Victorian context, and the efforts to preserve in museumized form the homes of its great artists. This should not be surprising since the Victorians effectively invented the “heritage” movement. Although as Linda Colley points out, the origins of the heritage industry are found in the Stately Home and Grand Tour phenomena of the early century (Colley 193), it is not until the creation of the national trust that heritage becomes democratized, available to the public for consumption and thus deployable in the sustenance of particular national or collective visions.
A personal confession: For a year in London I lived just down the street from the Dickens Museum which was opened “in 1925 and is still welcoming visitors from all over the world in an authentic and inspiring surrounding.” I’m ashamed (or should I be proud?) to admit I never went. Actually, no, I’m ashamed. At least I should have visited.
Putting my laziness to one side, we might think more broadly about the controversy generated following Tanya Gold’s piece about the Gaskellised sanitized version of Charlotte Bronte for sale in the Haworth gift shops, that appeared in the Guardian newspaper in 2005. It’s neat to compare Gold’s article with Norman Shrapnel’s piece on Haworth, published fifty years earlier in the same newspaper, if only to observe the changes in journalistic decorum.
We could go on to explore how under late capitalism the Victorian past is being repackaged to enable Britain to compete in the global marketplace. Countries like Canada have plentiful natural resources; China has inexpensive labour; Britain has History and Culture (both, pardon the pun, capitalized). It also has the City but the less said about that at the moment, the better. It’s almost a decade old now, but John Kucich and Diane Sadoff’s edited collection Victorian Afterlife (2000) remains the most salient discussion of these issues as they pertain to Victorian culture. But these discussions would be lengthy and I really want to return to Kelmscott and my discomfort.
Kelmscott Manor is the Tudor farmhouse co-leased by William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1871 and used by Morris as a summer home and country retreat. Inspired, Morris renamed his Hammersmith home Kelmscott and, in 1891, so named his famous press. Today it is owned by the Society of Antiquaries and open to the paying public.
The reason I’d feel particularly ambivalent about joining a guided tour to Kelmscott Manor is because it so strongly echoes the experience of William Guest, the protagonist of Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890). That novel imagines life in England under actually existing socialism. It opens by introducing us to the social conditions of late-Victorian London. Polluted and overheated, London has forced people into ever-closer physical contact while simultaneously producing their mutual alienation. To explain the problem by way of contradiction, Morris grants William Guest a vision of the world 150 years in the future, a world where people live harmoniously with each other and with their environments, a world where nothing is made that is not both beautiful and useful. Guest’s reeducation culminates in a visit to Kelmscott Manor, which his own tour-guide introduces thusly:
this many-gabled old house built by the simplest of country-folk of the long-past times, regardless of all the turmoil that was going on in cities and courts, is lovely still amidst all the beauty which these latter days have created; and I do not wonder at our friends tending it carefully and making much of it. It seems to me as if it had waited for these happy days, and held in it the gathered crumbs of happiness of the confused and turbulent past. (265)
In the utopian future, Kelmscott Manor is a lived-space, the operational centre for, among other things, the seasonal haymaking. So although it maintains a deep connection to the best of the past, it retains vitality in the present economy. Simply put, in Morris’s ideal world, people still would live and work in Kelmscott. I’m not sure how happy he’d be to know it is now a heritage zone, complete with a gift shop, which according to the Manor’s website “sells a wide range of items – soft furnishings, china, glass, stationery, etc., all inspired by the designs of William Morris and his associates.”
The whole matter becomes even more complicated when we consider that our modern day tour guide, Peter Cormack, is indeed one of the world’s leading Morris experts. According to the tour’s brochure, Peter Cormack, MBE is now “a free-lance art historian, writer and lecturer” and “the Honorary Curator of Kelmscott Manor.” What our brochure does not tell us is that Peter Cormack acquired his expertise through his thirty year long curatorship of the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, which is the only public gallery devoted to Morris. Admission is free. However, in 2007, the Waltham Forest local council cut funding to area museums and galleries which led to the amalgamation of several curatorial positions, making the Morris Gallery’s curator and his deputy redundant.
Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.
Kucich, John and Diane Sadoff, eds. Victorian Afterlife. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000.
Morris, William. News from Nowhere 1890. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891.
Nayar, Pramod K. *Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis, Politics.* New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2006.
p.s. In contrition for evading Dickens in this post, here’s a something to think about when comparing his social vision to Morris’s. The opening description in News from Nowhere of London’s infernal underground transportation network has always struck me as more representative of London life than anything we find in Dickens. Dickens, to me at least, inherited too much from his daily visits to the theatre. His novels, which so frequently deploy the contingencies of the urban landscape to bring individuals from diverse class and social backgrounds into contact with each other, remain relentlessly sociable. Characters, as if under a dramatic compulsion, actually talk to each other. Morris, if my own experience of urban life is any guide, knew better. People thrown together on a tram or a tube will studiously ignore the humanity of the thing jostling alongside them. It’s a wonderful example of how architecture, urban design, and predominant economic practices can structure human subjects.
This difference illuminates the source of Morris’s energetic pursuit of reform. He saw that humanity had a wonderful potential for progressive and sympathetic sociability. All they needed was a well-designed environment to enable that potential to flourish. Thus far it had been otherwise. News from Nowhere imagines life in a well-designed world, making a statement that at least in principle aligned Morris with the contemporary emergence of urban design theory, evidenced most strongly in the Garden City movement. This shared sense that we’ve built the world the wrong way is, in turn, the Victorian precursor to 20th-century interventions of people like Jane Jacobs and the coterie behind the annual TED conferences.