Love in Utopia
Love can undo worlds. At least one type of love – subjective longing to possess another. And at least one type of world – Utopia, the new Eden.
Milton suggests as much in his account of our exile from the old Eden; Though he knows the consequences, Adam eats the apple because he cannot bear to be without Eve. Utopia is foregone in favor of another plotline, one of romantic longing and fulfillment (at a high cost: Paradise lost).
Morris’ utopian fantasy News from Nowhere depicts a new Eden, like many utopian fantasies of the Victorian era. Morris’ work shares much with the genre, of course: the geeky-adolescent engineer’s desire to map out experience; the nostalgia for a simpler time; the pragmatist’s optimism. It’s leavened and brought to life by the two poles of the author’s personality, often at odds: his romanticism and his social conscience. But there is one aspect of the book that is unique and remarkable.
Like many utopian romances, News from Nowhere is structured as an outsider’s tour of a new world. Here, the outsider is William Guest, from late Victorian England, and the new world is an England of a couple of hundred years later – enjoying a utopian harmony that is the product of common sense catching up to and corralling the shove of civilization.
And like many utopian romances, there is a very appealing woman to serve as an emotional guide to the outsider, to connect him deeply to this new world. Here it is Ellen, a young woman who mirrors all the characteristics of her place of origin (this renewed England, and Morris’ psyche, both): she is vital and beautiful, open and interested, at once self confident and self effacing. She is very easy to fall in love with.
And of course Guest, as he must, does fall in love with Ellen, as he has begun to fall in love with her world – and so does the reader (this one, anyway). And as readers, we begin to identify the familiar structures of that other genre, doomed romance: we follow the protagonist’s longings, heartaches, struggles with the economies of unfulfilled desires. And a book about a very important new world is nearly subsumed by a more familiar book about subjective longing.
The thread of the old familiar doomed-love plot line are there: when Ellen expresses her frank interest in William Guest as a foreigner, from a distant, benighted world, he thinks “…I felt young again, and strange hopes of my youth were mingling with the pleasure of the present, almost destroying it, and quickening it into something like real pain.”
I like that “quickening:” coming alive and waking and discomfort. And later, as he shadows his experience of this bright land with the certainty that he must leave it, she suggests that he stay: “I was going to propose that you should live with us where we are going,” she tells him. “I feel quite old friends with you, and should feel sorry to lose you.”
I can love and be deeply moved by romantic dramas, and can certainly relate (as can we all, I reckon) to unfulfilled longing and broken hearts and regret. But here, in this fine and working new world, it is disheartening to recognize humans – myself and William Guest – are still outcast from a beautiful new Eden because of our needy, desiring hearts.
And so it is truly astonishing and delightful when Ellen shatters her role as love interest, inspirer of male longing, and the old narrative. Catching Guest mooning over her, she calls him out: “Then she smiled on me, and said: ‘Do you know, I begin to suspect you of wanting to nurse a sham sorrow, like the ridiculous characters in some of those queer old novels that I have come across now and then.”
She calls him on that “sham sorrow,” that lingering desire to make her his own, the desire that troubles and upends so much. She calls me on it, for I’ve been seeing in her (the embodiment of all that is ideal) a manifestation of my own romantic desires… which she simply refuses to be. She will not let this beautiful new world be undone by the old economies of romantic desire.
Instead of being eaten, the old Edenic apple is planted and grows into a new world. Ellen (and Morris) will not let me play out the same old plot lines of subjective desires costing me the world. Utopia is depicted in any number of novels, but it’s only in this work that I might become a person who could live there.
George Henry, Hikers at Goodwood Downs, 1930s, Graves Gallery Sheffield