i. Looking Backward, a science fiction novel describing a utopian socialist America of the future, sold 200,000 copies in a year and by the end of the nineteenth century had — with the exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur: a Tale of the Christ — sold more than any other book in the history of American publishing.
ii. Writing in the Commonweal in 1889, in response to the recently published Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, William Morris declared that “the only safe way of reading a utopia is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author.”
[Bellamy’s] temperament may be called the unmixed modern one, unhistoric and unartistic; it makes its owner (if a Socialist) perfectly satisfied with modern civilisation, if only the injustice, misery, and waste of class society could be got rid of; which half-change seems possible to him. The only ideal of life which such a man can see is that of the industrious professional middle-class man of to-day purified from their crime of complicity with the monopolist class, and become independent instead of being, as they now are, parasitical.¹
¹ The full essay can be found on the Marxists Internet Archive.
CIRCLE 2: The beautifullest place on earth.
On a sodden late-August bank holiday we took the train from London Bridge to Bexleyheath to visit William Morris’ Red House. The story of the house, as we came to understand it, is of a sort of sanctuary from that brutish, industrial modernity Morris railed so vehemently against: an utopian project on the friends-and-family scale. Here a microcosm society of artists and freethinkers would sequester itself in window seats or collaborate on painting the walls with pre-Raphaelite visions of what the world outside might be, if only it could be what it never had been: a depopulated Arthurian arcadia of turreted wishing wells and pasty maidens. The idyll — a condition I’m presumptuously (romantically) superimposing over the gabled roofs — was not to last. The Morris family had five years at the Red House before the costs involved in maintaining their medieval manor, and the strains of the daily commute, obliged them to vacate. Morris said he would never return, the memories of halcyon days being too much to confront. In the years to come the Firm would grow in popularity, Morris — adding yet another string to his bow — would come to be recognised as an important poet and travel to Iceland on a research trip, leaving Janey Morris and Rossetti — as we learned from National Trust docents speaking in morose yet tantalised tones — to continue their affair at the family home in Kelmscott.
It is knowing the end that clouds the chapter: the honeymooning couple, the newborns, the parties, the painted smiley-face concealed in the rafters. And the sunlight flooding William’s study, where, as thousands of miles away, the New World tears itself apart, he perhaps sits reading the latest from German émigré, Karl Marx, reflecting on the role design and craftsmanship might play in realising the visions of a fairer, better future society forming all around him.