Hanson, Ingrid. William Morris and the Uses of Violence, 1856-1890. London: Anthem Press, 2013. ISBN-13: 978 0 85728 319 1. Pp. xxi + 230.

Martin, Amy E. Alter-Nations: Nationalisms, Terror, and the State in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012. ISBN 0-8142-1202-6. Pp. x + 238.


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hese two books about Victorian violence have much in common: both examine major authors in the context of political violence, Hanson concentrating chiefly upon William Morris though she does look at many other major figures in passing while Martin takes on Carlyle, Arnold, and Joyce. Both also examine contemporary historical contexts, Hanson looks at late-Victorian socialism and left-wing revolutionary movements while Martin understandably devotes most attention to her main subject, Fenianism. Both have interesting things to say, Hanson pointing out the great extent to which physical violence remains central to Morris's poetry, fiction, and politics while Martin suggestively argues that Irish resistance to British dominance in the form of Fenianism figures in both how the British thought about themselves and how they conceived of terrorism. Unfortunately, there the parallels cease, for whereas Hanson gracefully and effectively situates her subject — Morris and violence — within various fields including Victorian literature, Greek, Roman, and Nordic cultures, psychology, and a wide range of political and critical theorists, Martin harms her cause with prose permeated by naive binary oppositions, pseudo-professional jargon, and some fundamental inconsistencies and special pleading.

William Morris — can violence really bring peace?

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fter a helpful introduction, Morris and the Uses of Violence opens with a chapter on the early romances, after which follow excellent ones on The Defence of Guenevere, Sigurd the Volsung, and The House of the Wolffings and The Roots of the Mountains before closing with a chapter on A Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere. Throughout the entire book, Hanson, who has a rare gift for gracefully and succinctly drawing upon the statements of other critics, situates her claims within a network of earlier interpretations, Morris's life, Victorian politics and society, and a wide range of critical theorists. Morris and the Uses of Violence so effectively moves among the multiple fields upon which Hanson draws that if I were still teaching my old introductory seminar to postgraduate study — the once-standard methods course — I would direct students to it as an example of how to conduct complex scholarly and critical arguments, particularly those that contradict orthodox received views of a subject — in this case Morris's views of violence.

For example, explaining the role of violence in Morris's early romances, she emphasizes that in their “absorption in and celebration of battle” they

celebrate the haptic and kinaesthetic development of self and identity through battle, challenging ideas of knowing or being that focus on the purely abstract or even the chromatic or visual, important though these are in the stories. My emphasis on Morris's absorption in and celebration of battle offers an alternative view to the recent brief consideration of the early stories in Eleonora Sasso's Freudian analysis of Morris's violence. Sasso argues that in these romances, "lust for killing, hatred and destruction is somehow reduced by intense love for family and damozels." It is my argument, on the contrary, that love is not reduced by, but rather expressed through various kinds of battle. [3]

A major theme in this book is the role of violence in Morris's definition of manliness, an issue of central importance to his reimagining Nordic sagas in Sigurd the Volsung so that “manliness does not consist in suppressing violence in Morris's version of the tale, but rather in acknowledging and accepting its primal power. He broadens the concepts of manliness and courage to allow them to encompass both failure and loss of control in varying degrees, judging manliness by the response to suffering rather than the ability to avoid or inflict it” (84). In the complex and contradictory nature of Sigurd, the poem's protagonist, manliness therefore is “ not the orderly, ordering characteristic of the naturally ruling race or class, but rather a broad spectrum of behaviours that arise from and shape circumstance and will, and are connected with freedom rather than success” (84).

His acceptance of violence as beneficent, which critics of Morris have tended to deny, lies at the heart of his political beliefs as well, for “his imaginative and political vision of a peaceful communal future is inseparable from his continuing commitment to the inevitability of organized revolutionary violence.” For Morris physical violence, Hanson argues, serves not just as the inevitable means of arriving at a desired society but also as a means of “physical, mental and communal transformation.” Therefore, “Metaphors of violence drive the content, form and structure of his propaganda poems, while more acutely realized scenes of active violence underlie the vision of fellowship that is central to John Ball, and offer a countervailing tension to the idea of tolerance in his 'epoch of rest' in News from Nowhere” (132).

The chapter entitled “Knightly Women and the Imagination of Battle in A Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems” strikes me as the most convincing readings of the early poetry I have seen, though I'm not entirely convinced that one has to see Guenevere as in some way “knightly.” My only major criticism, if criticism it is: I wish Hanson had extended her book another chapter and discussed the brilliant late fantasies, The Well at the World's End and the feminist Wate of the Wondrous Isles.

Martin — violence of the state

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artin has interesting ideas well conveyed by her four chapter titles: “Nationalisms, Terror, and the State in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland” — “The Condition of England" and the Question of Ireland: Anti-Irish Racism and Saxon Nationalism in Victorian Writings on Capitalist National Crisis,” “Fenianism and the State: Theorizing Violence and the Modern Hegemonic State in the Writings of Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill,” “Envisioning Terror: Anticolonial Nationalism and the Modern Discourse of Terrorism in Mid-Victorian Popular Culture,” and “A Somewhat Irish Way or Writing: The Genre of Fenian Recollections and Postcolonial Critique.”

Martin's first chapter employs the cliché so fashionable for the past few decades in cultural and gender studies — the idea that a category is defined by opposition to an Other, and like most clichés, this one has a good deal of truth to it. We have to agree with the author that to some extent Victorian England defined itself in opposition to Ireland. Unfortunately, Alter-Nations employs this idea in such a simple-minded, binary way as to undercut its credibility. The problem here is that the author writes as if unaware of the fact that the nineteenth-century Britons also developed their self-conceptions in opposition not only to Ireland but also to India, Jamaica, its lost colony, the United States, and France — especially France. Martin could have made a much stronger case had she pointed out that others have posited other Others and that she wanted to concentrate upon Ireland as a particularly important case. But Martin seems drawn again and again to the high drama of exaggeration: if something concerns, or even worries someone, they must be in a state of “panic”; if one attempts to prevent fellow-citizens from dying at the hands of those who wish to attain their ends with explosives, the attempt to do so inevitably takes the form of tyranical state violence in the service of imperialist domination of Ireland.

Her comments on British attitudes towards race and the Irish are hardly new: Anthony S. Wohl commented in the late 1980s that phrenology and popular literature assigned similar characteristics to the Irish and Africans, some of which were also applied to women: they were all supposedly unreasonable, irrational, and easily excited, childlike, having no religion but only superstition. Irish and Africans, who were excessively sexual, had criminal natures and showed little respect for private property. Filthy, too. So one factor that lessens the value of Martin's work is what Harold Bloom would call her belatedness: too many people have used Tenniel's Punch cartoons about Ireland to go over this ground without more of an original contribution. Some pages after she begins the chapter devoted to this topic, she belatedly acknowledges the pioneering contribution made by Perry Curtis, a member of my own institution, and she goes on to acknowledge that “Michael De Nie reminds us, Curtis's work ignores a whole body of images sympathetic to the Irish and flattens British press opinion, which is in fact quite 'mixed and complex'” (115).

The quality of Martin's insights into Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill — and the quality of her writing — appear the the following sentences:

In this passage on the "Irish Fenian," Arnold makes absolutely clear that the development of a hegemonic state form does not mean that the state relinquishes its coercive powers. In fact, the monopoly of violent repression is the condition of possibility for the emergence of its hegemonic and ethical form. [76]

I contend that, like Arnold, Mill theorizes a fundamentally violent and counterinsurgent state as the condition of possibility for the continued viability of the United Kingdom to which he is committed. His vision of the state aims simultaneously to appease Irish discontent and to incite in both British and Irish subjects their consent to be represented by and subject to a violent state. [87]

She seems very upset because Arnold doesn't find Fenianism as threatening as she desperately wishes it to be. She quotes Arnold asking his mother, “Who can wonder at these Irish, who have cause to hate us, and who do not own their allegiance to us, making war on a State and society which has shown itself irresolute and feeble?” Quoting Arnold's assertion that "[w]e are not in danger from Fenianism, fierce and turbulent as it may show itself," she argues that “with this dismissive gesture, Arnold reverses and undoes the discourse of 'panic,' 'terror,' and 'danger' concerning Irish nationalism that had begun to saturate the mainstream British press by 1867. . . . What allows him to discount the danger of Fenianism and to challenge the psychic power of the idea of a 'fierce and turbulent' threat to the British public is the unquestionable repressive function of the state” (76). The words she quotes from Arnold and her general conclusion — that Arnold believes what he terms culture will preserve England — are certainly correct. But her tone throughout the book and her rather bizarre belief that any and all acts of the police and legal systems are forms of state violence do much to undercut her credibility.

Winston Churchill famously described Clement Atlee as a sheep in sheep's clothing. Amy E. Martin, in partial contrast, is a sheep in wolf's clothing, since while writing with words and phrasing that present her as doctrinaire Marxist, she so completely denies all power to the state, any state, that she turns out to be a somewhat incoherent anarchist. Of course, as Aeschylus and anarchists have long recognized, violence plays an essential role in all states. Thus the Oresteia dramatizes the origins and necessity of state violence: in order to halt the otherwise unending cycle of revenge killings, the state takes upon itself the guilt associated with violence, distributing it among all its citizens. To those who charge that capital punishment and other forms of violence in the criminal justice system make us all complicit, Aeschylus responds, “Well, yes, that's the point!” Martin seems not to have gotten the point, since she finds appalling all regulation, policing, imprisonment, and punishment and sees them as nothing but examples of tyrannical state violence. Whereas Hanson confines herself to actual physical violence, Martin wobbles back and forth between literal and metaphorical uses of the word, mentioning with apparent horror “the state violence that secures the working of culture.” One must ask, can any state take any action without committing state violence? Apparently not.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the tone and modes of argumentation in Alter-Nations belong, not to the language of scholarly and critical debate, but to the discourse of advertising and political campaigning, particularly that form involving so-called attack ads. Whereas Hanson differentiates her views from those of previous Morris scholars with courtesy and precision, often finding things to praise in passages with which she disagrees, Martin takes a very different approach to the works of predecessors. If Sheridan Gilley inquires “whether Victorian prejudice against the Irish can be called ‘racism’ since the Irish are ‘white’” (113) he participates in “solipsitic debates”(113) and should be condemned as a racist, since he practices — I kid you not — “adamant epidermal racism” (113). To present an argument with which Martin disagrees is to be vilified or simply dismissed. Thus when an art historian cautions against taking Tenniel's Punch cartoons on Fenian terrorism as representing English attitudes towards Ireland, she briefly admits that fact, but she immediately turns away, using Anderson and Althusser to “insist on the newspaper press as a constitutive element in the formations and dissemination of ideologies such as statist nationalisms” (112) — hardly a matter that needs demonstration! — and later tells us she doesn't want to discuss “this complexity” (115). If Martin were her own worst enemy, weakening her ethos by her tone and sloppy thinking, I would have just mentioned the problematic aspects of this book in passing, but matters are much worse. Martin is one of those academic authors so convinced that they write on the right side of history that they willingly destroy the give and take of scholarly and critical debate. She is, in other words, precisely the kind of author that Arnold warned against in Culture and Anarchy.

One doesn't often associate Ruskin with Matthew Arnold — in tone and areas of interest they often seem so very different — but he shares some of Arnold's purpose in Culture and Anarchy. In the midst of Ruskin's address to the businessmen of Bradford who had invited him to advise them on the architectural style for their proposed exchange, he relates how “As I was walking up Fleet Street the other day, my eye caught the title of a book standing open in a bookseller's window. It was — 'On the necessity of the diffusion of taste among all classes.' 'Ah,' I thought to myself, 'my classifying friend, when you have diffused your taste, where will your classes be? The man who likes what you like, belongs to the same class with you, I think” (“Traffic”). To the many Victorians who opposed the 1867 Reform Bill's extension of the right to vote on the grounds that without education and proper culture, these new voters would not vote responsibly, Arnold urged education for the masses. Arnold, a man who turned down a cushy job as governor in the West Indies to continue the often dreary work as a school inspector, hoped newly educated classes would vote as least as responsibly as their supposed betters, whom Arnold satirized as barbarians (the upper classes and aristocracy) and Philistines (the middle-class often-Evangelical Captains of Industry).

Martin's myopia permits her to see none of this — with Arnold and Mill it's all a con. Scholarly criticism should point out the inconsistencies, hidden agendas, incoherences, and unintended points of canonical and non-canonical texts, but it should also show an understanding of the author's more obvious points, and this Alter-Nations often fails to do. Take her comments on Carlyle. Writing of Chartism, she correctly points out that “pathologizing proletarian insurgency” allows Carlyle to distinguish between what he takes to be symptoms and “the deeper causes that they signify” (21). A few sentences later she then points out that “Carlyle also deploys the figuration of revolutionary politics as a disease, a metaphor common in British conservative reaction to the French Revolution several decades earlier ” (22). True as far as she goes, but one has to be careful associating early Carlyle with conservative attutudes toward the French Revolution. She never mentions his extraordinarily influential French Revolution, the central work of his early radical period in which Carlyle justifies revolutionary violence as the just and inevitable result of poor governance by the rich and powerful. It warns that if England doesn't quickly create a just society, revolutionary violence, which he presents as a natural, inevitable phenomenon, will afflict it, too. Carlyle urges that the French Revolution, when properly understood, serves as England's fire-letters or writing on the wall: "France is a pregnant example in all ways. Aristocracies that do not govern, Priesthoods that do not preach; the misery of that, and the misery of altering that, — are written in Belshazzar fire-letters on the history of France." Past and Present mentions the Peterloo Massacre and insists that “in all hearts that witnessed Peterloo, stands written, as in fire-characters, or smoke-characters prompt to become fire again, a legible balance account of grim vengeance; very unjustly balanced, much exaggerated, as is the way with such accounts: but payable readily at sight, in full with compound interest!” All England heard the question, though few understood it; all England saw the fireletters, the writing on the wall, though few grasped its meaning, so Carlyle must warn his readers of imminent, inevitable judgment. "All England heard the question," says Carlyle. "England will answer it; or, on the whole, England will perish." Every time he mentions a crisis and wonders what the aristocracy is doing about it, Carlyle responds that its members are preserving their game.

Similarly one must admit that Carlyle, a master of invective, says all those harsh things Martin quotes about (some of) the Irish, but it is also true that Past and Present cites the case of the poor woman who could prove her common humanity to the citizens of Britain only by infecting them fatally with disease:

A poor Irish Widow, her husband having died in one of the Lanes of Edinburgh, went forth with her three children, bare of all resource, to solicit help from the Charitable Establishments of that City. At this Charitable Establishment and then at that she was refused; referred from one to the other, helped by none; — till she had exhausted them all; till her strength and heart failed her: she sank down in typhus-fever; died, and infected her Lane with fever, so that "seventeen other persons" died of fever there in consequence. The humane Physician asks thereupon, as with a heart too full for speaking, Would it not have been economy to help this poor Widow? She took typhus-fever, and killed seventeen of you! — Very curious. [10.149]

Then, continuing to provide a voice for inarticulate fact, Carlyle speaks the meaning contained in the widow's act — indeed, in her very existence. She demands of her fellow creatures that they give her their help and asserts that she deserves it because "I am your sister, bone of your bone; one God made us: ye must help me!" The inhabitants of Edinburgh responded by denying her appeal — "No, impossible; thou art no sister of ours," but as Carlyle emphasizes, she "proves" her sisterhood when her typhus kills them: "They actually were her brothers, though denying it! Had human creature ever to go lower for a proof?" (10.149). Somehow this does not sound like Carlyle treating the Irish as Others. It is not that Martin's interpretations of Carlyle are entirely wrong, just that they often lack a necessary knowledge of Carlyle and his contexts.


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Last modified 28 May 2013