- Aestheticism in the Late Romances of William Morris
William Morris does not figure prominently in literary histories of the late nineteenth century, in spite of the fact that from around 1888 until his death in 1896 he wrote ten prose romances. While many historians of the period acknowledge Morris's early influence on the aesthetic movement through Walter Pater's famous "Conclusion" to The Renaissance (written originally for a review of Morris's poetry), they tend to emphasize the elitist, separatist impulses of aestheticism (and, more properly, of Decadence) at the expense of its popular middle-class origins in romance and home decoration, which could be linked more readily to Morris than to many other writers who have canonical status within the period. In her important 1994 article, "A Critique of Practical Aesthetics," Regenia Gagnier reads the divergent tendencies within aestheticism as generally escapist or transformative, and makes room for Morris as a central figure in the movement (without, however, taking on the romances). Grouping Morris with Ruskin and Wilde as practical aesthetes, Gagnier sees the common link among them as the desire for different kinds of freedom—from poverty, from hierarchy, from conventional thought and behavior. The practical aesthetes believed art could make individuals free in a free society; while the Decadents, she argues, feared the freedom of others and saw art only as privately liberating, the only space—"a tiny, safe space—of freedom."1
Morris's late romances suffer from critical neglect, because they seem to represent the final, decadent phase of an otherwise aesthetically innovative or socially committed career. In the last years of his life, Morris left the Socialist League, maintaining his connection only with the independent Hammersmith Socialist League, which put the date for socialist revolution far in the future; he founded the Kelmscott Press, which was dedicated to the production of beautiful, handcrafted books; and he wrote ornate, archaic prose romances that would be intelligible [End Page 73] to, though unread by, subsequent generations as sword-and-sorcery fantasies. Why would an artist so committed to doing and making turn to apparently unproductive dreaming and looking?
A hostile reviewer once criticized Morris for describing "a state of things which does not exist, and propos[ing], as a cure for it, a state of things which could not possibly exist."2 For many late-Victorian readers, Morris's prose romances offered abundant proof of this assertion, for they seemed to be merely the literary accompaniment to a Gothic Revival that could not put down roots in the nineteenth century. A smaller number of admirers hoped that Morris's romances would teach people how to live aesthetically in a world from which beauty had all but vanished. Two now-familiar arguments followed from these contemporary responses: the romances represent a turning away from practical considerations of social and aesthetic reform, embodying an increasingly decadent and decorative conception of art for art's sake; or, the romances have "internalized" socialism and are therefore continuous with Morris's political commitment rather than a deviation from it.3 Instead of rehearsing the claims on either side of this debate, I want to take a step backward and consider the quality and aims of Morris's literary project in the late romances, in particular his relationship to the period's aestheticism. The turn to romance is unequivocally a turn to aestheticism, an acceptance of its terms for the conduct of life, which, indeed, he was instrumental in creating; however, Morris adopts the romance form not in order to escape from the world, but rather to reform it from within an ethos of absolute idealism.
While Morris's earlier political utopias certainly contained elements of romance, and depended on the waking dreams of characters who were guests in the past or future, the romances of the 1890s turn away from what was a practical aesthetic toward a mode of storytelling that seems frequently escapist, nostalgic, or even Decadent. He eschews the socialist aesthetics of A Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere and even the historicism of the Germanic romances The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains in favor of an older...