religion,  the ethical life

William Morris and Jane Austen: Lens for Literature

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I’m reading about William Morris, the 19th century designer and socialist. His company rejected the assembly line in favor of treating every creation like a work of art to be done by one person from start to finish. Morris learned old techniques and reinvented lost techniques. He hoped that as people saw the great quality products they would shun the cheaper mass-produced goods, but of course this didn’t happen and instead other companies produced cheap knock-offs of his work. I first heard of him years ago at university, when I was busy fingerweaving Metis-style sashes, which gave me at least a bit of a feel for the time involved in creating things from scratch. In some ways his firm faced the same problem Etsy producers do today – either of pricing themselves into a niche market or earning unreasonably low hourly income.
As I read about Morris now, I’m thinking about ideas about human nature. Apparently his firm had a policy of always hiring the first applicant for any job, on the philosophy that anyone could be taught to produce things of beauty. That incredible hope in human’s inherent goodness and in human skills seems very interesting. I wonder about what happened once a person was hired, whether they would be given chances at producing different things until they found where they were skilled, or what his teaching process was like, or if people ended up being encouraged to quit, or whether there was enough self-selection about applying it wasn’t a problem. In some ways I’d love to share his belief but I also think about patience, and what patience it would require in the training process.
Morris wrote a version of Utopia called “News from Nowhere” that argues that without our emphasis on private property and property rights, and the accompanying focus on work and earning, people could be raised to be free, happy and generous with their time and belongings.

One essay in the book I’m reading about him traces that belief in the perfectibility of humans back to the Pelagian heresy in the fifth century, when a monk denied the existence of original sin, suggesting that sin is not an inborn aspect of human nature but rather a habit that could be defeated through education and situation. John Locke had revived that idea in the 17th century. I’m going to be watching for that idea and counters to it in my readings now.

William Morris and News from Nowhere: A Vision of Our Time
William Morris and News from Nowhere: A Vision of Our Time
The essay argues that Pelagian heresy had to be rejected by Christianity because it implied a lack of need for God’s grace, but I think over the years many Christians have become less concerned with the theological details of whether our fallen state is due to some inherent sinfulness or whether it is a result of the fallenness of the social circumstances we are born into and able to see the need for God’s grace in helping people overcome their social circumstances.
A little while ago I was reading a book called Jane Austen and religion: salvation and society in Georgian England by Michael Griffen. It argued that Austen’s novels were didactic stories meant to teach the Georgian image of salvation, which in turn was based on a notion that the path to salvation involved thoughtful reflection, recognizing one’s own mistakes and coming to a balance of feeling and reason. God and Jesus don’t feature obviously in the books, though Griffen argues that certain characters represent the role of God and Jesus in the other characters’ lives.
Since reading the book on Austen I’ve been looking at other stories with an eye to how they portray the path to “salvation” (meaning in most cases just a happy ending) and now I’ll be watching too for how books deal with the sense of fallenness and the limits of human-perfectibility. The transformation Morris portrayed was pretty complete but also, I think, over several generations and it was communal and not individual. Austen’s books the individual may transform their family (Mansfield Park) or community (Emma) but the transformations are still personal with one person’s reflections and changes having ripple effects outward, as opposed to a communal change.
In some ways then this brings me back to the idea of how we make change in the world. In many ways William Morris’ firm could be seen as being like the organic or local food movements or the sale Etsy hand-crafts, all of which propose that one’s purchasing power can help transform the world, yet all suffering from the fact that they simply because niche markets in themselves, absorbed into the capitalist world without really posing a challenge to it. (This idea is explained wonderfully in the book The Rebel Sell, Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter.) Personal changes or lifestyles go only so far and real change needs to be communal/legislative.
Of course the Morris and Austen also had different ideas about what salvation would look like, with Morris believing economic equality was essential and Austen accepting social inequality and arguing for benevolence. I’m not looking for a strong comparison between the two of them as much as looking at which lenses I will try to view literature too, and what concepts I will try to watch for. What are the ideas of sinfulness, salvation, and where does change come from?  What is the relationship between a person and his origin or social circumstances?  What is the best situation offered – the end goal? Most books won’t use those words and the ideas aren’t restricted to religious books. Those are religious words for ideas that permeate secular stories as well because they are basic philosophical issues.
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