From William Morris to Sergeant Pepper



In the pages that follow I've made a selection of essays and reviews that I've written over the years, some of which have not been previously published. The phrase that I believe best sums up my understanding of that aspect of England that interests me most is the "radical domestic," a term I have borrowed from the work of the brilliant young art historian Christopher Reed. I believe those perhaps slightly contradictory two words suggest an extremely important aspect of English society, a major source of both its strengths and weaknesses. Reed uses the phrase in his discussion of Bloomsbury, and it is particularly appropriate in his tracings of the connections between it and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Change does take place in England, but it is rarely the sort of sharp break that one might find in other societies. Violence is hardly unknown in England, but one suspects that it is rarer and might well manifest itself in what Christopher Isherwood has called "tea tabling": that the most appalling events are taking place while others are quietly having tea, the sort of juxtaposition found in the famous first sentence of a chaper in E. M. Forster's The Longest Journey: "Gerald died that afternoon."

One of my favorite illustrations of this contrast was an experience that I had years ago when emerging from the Roundhouse Theatre, in Camden. There was some political protest going on against the theatre's management, and a mimeographed sheet was thrust at me as I emerged from the theatre by an extremely fierce young woman. As she handed the sheet to me, she said, with great vehemence and a face twisted with anger, "Fascist Pig." I looked at the sheet and saw that it was blank. I pointed this out, and the woman then said to me in quite a cultivated tone, "Oh, I'm terribly sorry." Perhaps wrongly, I felt that this was a society in which a revolution was extremely unlikely. But change there is, and it is likely to take place on a domestic scale. It may be less exciting, and it runs the risk of being smug, but it is change all the same. Radicals are co-opted and become Life Peers. Is this a failure or an accomplishment? Many of the pieces that follow are, in their various ways, discussions of this theme, of the nature of change, and of the interplay of radicalism and domesticity. I can only hope that the reader may find that they shed some illumination on the English world, the study of which I have devoted myself to for almost fifty years.

Doing such a collection as this has been in my mind for some time. I am deeply grateful to the Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship for being willing to publish it (and the University of Washington Press for distributing it), and most particularly to SPOSS's Executive Officer, Janet Gardiner, and the advice of one of its Trustees, that wise publisher Norris Pope. Great help in the selection of what pieces to include was given with great effectiveness some years ago by John Dean and Stewart Weaver, and most significantly over the past year by Rodney Koeneke, who also did much to prepare the manuscript for publication. Philippe Tapon has given excellent advice. My greatest debt, as always, is expressed in my dedication. What little I know of writing, life, and love has largely been learned from my companion and collaborator, Billy Abrahams. Before he died, he knew that this collection was forthcoming, and I hope that this gave him some pleasure. I fear that I was a poor recipient of his bounty and fell sadly short in my ability to equal his extraordinary generosity of spirit. He cast a severe and I think loving eye on all the words that follow.

Peter Stansky
April 1999

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