Browsing through various publishers’ catalogues and websites, I’ve come across new or recent books on The Dog in the Dickensian Imagination (Ashgate), Beckett and Animals (CUP), Stage, Stake and Scaffold: Humans and Animals in Shakespeare’s Theatre (OUP) and Jane Austen and Animals (Ashgate again). And at my local Oxfam bookshop I have just snapped up a literary theory volume entitled Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (Minnesota); it contains an important essay by Jacques Derrida, whose work has been formative in this field. I remember, some thirty years ago, when postgraduate friends and I were casting around for topics for our next cultural theory seminar, Sue Vice (now Professor in the Sheffield University English Department) eagerly suggested ‘animals’. The rest of us looked at her in complete bewilderment then, but clearly she was well ahead of her time and is thoroughly vindicated now.
So one’s mind naturally starts trying out the topic of ‘William Morris and Animals’. In a general way, the motif of animality is central to Morris’s utopianism: a hedonistic celebration of our own animal nature resituates us in the natural environment that capitalism has so despoiled and downgraded. But there are more transgressive versions of this theme elsewhere in his oeuvre, in the motif of actual human-animal metamorphosis. Glimpsing those ponies in the new Kensington forest in News from Nowhere seems genial enough, but when Birdalone is magically turned into a deer early in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, or when Sigmund and Sinfiotli are transformed into ravenous wolves in Sigurd the Volsung, the porous nature of the human-animal binary is altogether more unsettling. Certain it is, at any rate, that we would now benefit from a full-scale – and properly theorised - study of this topic in Morris’s work. Prospective PhD students, please note!