Utopia Limited

David Cannadine

  • Fabianism and Culture: A Study in British Socialism and the Arts, 1884-1918 by Ian Britain
    Cambridge, 344 pp, £19.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 521 23563 4
  • The Elmhirsts of Dartington: The Creation of an Utopian Community by Michael Young
    Routledge, 381 pp, £15.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9051 X

The Road to Utopia was trodden by many star-struck pilgrims before Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour made their celluloid expedition there in the 1940s. Sir Thomas More, who first wrote of the place, lost his head completely, for non-Utopian reasons, and since then a succession of charismatic cranks, frenzied philosophers and visionary vegetarians have aspired to realise heaven upon earth while more usually anticipating hell. Mighty prophets like Gerrard Winstanley (a bankrupt cloth merchant turned cattle herdsman), Sir Richard Bulkeley (an early 18th-century hunchback virtuoso), William Blake (‘I see so little of Mr Blake now,’ his wife once complained: ‘He is always in Paradise’), and James Pierrepont Greaves (damned by Carlyle as a ‘blockhead’ and an ‘imbecile’), preferred to leave the world rather than to understand or change it, renouncing (inter alia) religion, property, profit or prostitutes, tobacco, alcohol or flesh (sometimes animal, sometimes human).

But, like the road to hell, the path to Utopia has more often been paved with good intentions than with good results. The religious zealots of the 17th century, the Enlightenment rationalists of the 18th, and the Owenite socialists of the 19th, were equally unsuccessful in their Utopian endeavours, for reasons well summarised by Leonard Elmhirst, founder of Dartington Hall School: ‘they disregarded sound economics, they followed some ethical or theoretical principle too rigorously, or they attempted to isolate themselves too completely from the social and economic world around them.’ Above all, Utopians have usually been more certain what to rebel against than what to believe in: ‘perfect harmony’, ‘divine revelation’, ‘inner light’ and ‘visible and sensible communion with the angels’ may be appealing as dogmas of dissent, but they are of little help as guidelines of organisation. Infuriatingly if predictably, Utopia turns out to be an objective more utopian than utilitarian. Not surprisingly, then, the names of sects like the Camisards, Pantisocrats, Swedenborgians and Phalansterians suggest little more to most of us than Tolkien on an off-day, while such fleeting Utopian communities as Fulneck, Ockbrook, Icaria and Topolobampo sound about as plausible as those exotic realms visited by Gulliver – or Dr Who.

Despite this accumulated catalogue of failures, the years from the 1870s to the 1930s saw what may prove to be the last grand flowering of Utopian designs. One late 19th-century approach, exemplified by Ruskin in his Guild of St George and by William Morris in his News from Nowhere, sought salvation in a world of rustic, artsy-craftsy, thatched and timbered, anti-machine socialism: ‘small is beautiful’ before its time. Another, more pragmatic coterie, presided over by Ebenezer Howard and his Garden City Association, realised some of the most substantial and enduring Utopian designs in the planned communities of Letchworth, Hampstead Garden Suburb and Welwyn Garden City. A third approach, in conscious and deliberate opposition to this shared rural sentimentality, held out the alternative prospect of a glittering, metallic future, dominated by machines, scientists and technocrats, most famously and prolifically articulated in the novels of H.G. Wells.

It is in this fertile, Fin-de-Siècle context of confused and competing Utopias that these two authors set their studies of conjugal crusaders which tell us much about informed, élite attitudes to Utopian ideas in this most recent phase of sustained and self-conscious development. There, however, the similarities end. Britain’s densely-researched book is a revised doctoral dissertation which views the Webbs with Webb-like detachment: Young’s account is longer but also slighter – an affectionate (if faintly equivocal) survey by an Old Dartingtonian, who knew both Elmhirsts well, and is himself a trustee of the school.

As Britain explains, the Fabians have usually been depicted as dull, killjoy philistines, indifferent to art, lacking in imagination, immersed in their Blue Books and Royal Commissions, and obsessed with bureaucratic procedures and collectivist regulation. In this bleak and grey landscape, the Webbs stand out as the bleakest and greyest of all: arid, austere, ascetic and abstemious, shunning enjoyment and pleasure, and coldly censorious of self-indulgence and moral lapses. In 1902, they founded a dining club at which experts might discuss contemporary problems: it was called The Coefficients. Beatrice once admitted that she was ‘poetry-blind’ in the same way that other people were colour-blind; that Sidney was ‘undistinguished and unimpressive in appearance’; and that together they were ‘two second-rate minds, but curiously complementary’. They belonged, she explained, to ‘the B’s of the world – bourgeois, benevolent and bureaucratic’. ‘All the good in the world,’ she observed in a further moment of alliterative awareness, ‘has been done by either priests or prigs,’ and she made it plain that Sidney took the prize as the biggest prig of all. When trying to adapt socialism to the affluent society of the late 1950s, Anthony Crosland had little time for this puritanical earnestness: ‘Total abstinence,’ he observed, ‘and a good filing system are not now the right signposts to the socialist Utopia.’

In at least two ways, however, Crosland’s put-down of the Webbs missed its target. As Shaw once explained, the Fabians had split off from the Fellowship of the New Life in the mid-l880s, ‘one to sit among the dandelions, the other to organise the docks’, and this anti-Utopian strain in Fabian thinking received its fullest articulation at the hands of the Webbs themselves. Practical, particular, gradualist, emphasising efficiency rather than equality, and permeation in preference to revolution, they reacted against all three packages offered by the fashionable future-gazers of their day. They condemned Ruskin as a ‘hopeless dreamer’, viewed Ebenezer Howard with scarcely more approval, and found the self-indulgently Utopian pretensions of H.G. Wells to be especially distasteful. Although he was briefly a Fabian, and shared with the Webbs a belief in experts and efficiency, Beatrice soon wrote him off as a half-baked visionary intoxicated by his own daydreams. Even worse, his wide and wild-eyed Utopianism spilled over into his everyday life. Beatrice, tight-lipped and prim, believed that ‘socialists should be respectable.’ But Wells believed in free love and in following his instincts. He was a ‘romancer spoiled by romancing’, a Fabian soiled by philandering. Utopia, for Beatrice, was always suspect: carnal, lusty, Wellsian Utopia was even worse.

This fundamental cleavage between Wells’s world and the Webbs’ has long been known. But Ian Britain goes further than anyone else in the work of Fabian rehabilitation by arguing that they also had an aesthetic, which implies that the traditional antithesis between the romantic, Utopian artists at one extreme, led by Morris, and the bleak Utilitarians at the other, captained by the Webbs, has far less substance to it than is commonly supposed. He points out that many Fabians felt a genuine, guilt-ridden revulsion from the values and vices of the Victorian capitalist system; that several continued as members of the more aesthetic and Utopian Fellowship of the New Life until its demise in 1898; and that, at different times, their society was adorned by literati such as Wells, Shaw, Bennett, Jerome K. Jerome, Harley Granville-Barker, Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf. Britain shows that the society sponsored lectures on a broad spectrum of arts subjects (with literature predominating), provided a forum for sustained discussion of the relationship between art and politics, and spawned a range of cultural offshoots, including the Arts Group, the Stage Society and the Fabian Summer Schools.

He suggests that, whatever she may have said about herself, Beatrice was not indifferent to art: she was well read in fiction and poetry, admired Goethe, toyed with becoming an artist or a novelist. And Sidney spent youthful hours sauntering around museums and picture galleries, had a liking for concerts and the opera, lectured on George Eliot, and was more sympathetic to the values of Ruskin and Morris than is usually supposed. Both were devoted to the natural beauty of the countryside: Sidney courted Beatrice in Epping Forest, where he read extracts from Keats and Rossetti, and they won Wells for the Fabians (a decision they were later to regret) only after hot, breathless bicycled pursuit up hill and down dale. So, Britain argues, the reason they readily accepted Wells’s later merciless and influential lampoon of themselves in The New Machiavelli, as people devoid of taste and in love with ugliness, was not because they were philistines but because they were diffident. They knew how important the arts were, and they knew how little they knew about them: but that was in comparison with their immense knowledge of other matters, and was a matter of deliberate policy rather than the result of unthinking boorishness. In idle moments, Beatrice went shopping for William Morris wallpaper, but there were usually more urgent matters clamouring for attention.

In general, this case is well made: as a group, the Fabians re-emerge from Britain’s pages as more diverse in their aims and more cultivated in their opinions than is generally supposed, and the Webbs appear as more rounded, warm-hearted and attractive – at least two-and-a-half-dimensional, if still not quite fully human. Even so, they remain curiously innocent, artless, confused and detached, unable to change the world, either aesthetically or politically, not least because there was so much of it they only dimly understood. And, although he tries hard, Britain is rather less successful at rescuing the Fabians from the more serious charge of élitism which has repeatedly been levelled at them. They may have been less élitist than Bloomsbury, and subject to sporadic twinges of egalitarian conscience; they may have admitted on occasions that there were things of genuine value in working-class culture; they may even have recognised that middle-class culture had its faults and upper-class culture its failings. But the fact remains that most of them preferred the opera to the music hall, believed that working-class culture was predominantly coarse, and felt that the only way to elevate the morals of the masses was to open them up to the improving delights of middle-class culture. Perhaps one of the reasons why the Webbs came to dislike Wells so much was that his incongruous mixture of egalitarianism and élitism reminded them disconcertingly of themselves.

Like the Webbs, Leonard Elmhirst was a one-time admirer of Wells. He was born in 1893 in the Yorkshire village of Laxton, the son of a breezy, country-loving, muscular-Christian vicar who preferred the gun to the prayer book. He hated his prep and public schools, took a third in history at Cambridge in 1915, spent the latter part of the war in India, and in 1919 went to Cornell University to study agricultural economics. While in the United States, he met, and later married as her second husband, Dorothy Payne Whitney. If he resembled one of those thrice-scrubbed, well-meaning and impoverished young men from a Wodehouse novel, she was more akin to some forlorn and melancholy maiden from the pages of Henry James. She was born in 1887. Her mother died when she was six, her stepmother when she was 12, her father when she was 17, and her first husband when she was 24. Her father was successively a lawyer, a politician, a businessman and a robber baron, and his daughter was reared among Newport mansions, private railroad cars, Atlantic liners, Astors, Vanderbilts and Roosevelts. Grief at so much family death drove her to conventional religion, to Christian Science and to Spiritualism. Guilt at so much family money impelled her into a variety of radical, do-gooding causes, which included the founding of the journal, the New Republic, and of the New School of Social Research.

The Dartington experiment, agreed on before Leonard and Dorothy actually married in 1925, was the product of his disenchanted vision and her tainted money: yet another example of calling in the new world to redress the bank balances of the old. Part of their effort was devoted to reviving the lost and ancient glories of Dartington Hall itself, to the restoration of the fabric and the re-opening of the house as one of the most sumptuous mansions in the West Country. A second and related enterprise was the foundation of Dartington School as a centre of progressive education, which would avoid all the mistakes which had made Leonard’s schooldays so terrible and would do so by treating children as people in their own right, to be educated for their present life, not for what came after. Initially, this proved a harder task than restoring the hall: there were no trained teachers, early publicity was adverse, academic standards low. Only the appointment of W.B. Curry as headmaster in 1931 stopped the rot – and even his radical zeal did not survive the Second World War. Their third area of endeavour, which began seriously only in the 1930s, was in the arts, and for a time Dartington became an international metropolis in pottery-making, dancing, music and ballet. Finally, there was the estate itself, where the Elmhirsts encouraged dairy and poultry farming, forestry and cider-making, textiles and sawmills.

Like the Fabians as described by Ian Britain, the Elmhirsts were ‘in active and articulate revolt against the values and conventions of their class while at the same time inescapably imbued with many of them’. Dorothy advocated the redistribution of wealth with all the impassioned fervour of one whose fortune exceeded forty million dollars by the 1930s. She wanted Dartington to be a school where ‘free love might play its part,’ but she disliked sex, and read it up in Havelock Ellis so as to be match-fit for her (second) wedding night. They both yearned for a world relatively free from capitalist competition: but they drew their millions from capitalist sources, and at one stage kept 6,000 battery hens on the estate. They hated industry, and preached a rural, Ruskinesque, arts-and-crafts Utopia: yet they crossed the Atlantic in Cunarders and, like the Fabian Summer Schools, their ‘romantic fantasies about the superiority of rural living’ were easier to sustain given ‘all the comfort and facilities of a full-sized country house’. For all their claims that Dartington was a community, they employed a domestic staff of twenty, paid them ungenerously, and enforced a servile hierarchy as strict as that depicted below stairs by Vita Sackville-West in The Edwardians. Like the Fabians, the Elmhirsts were unable to reconcile the competing claims of élitism and egalitarianism. Hence the ‘Dartington paradox’ which, as Michael Young admits, lies at the heart of their endeavours: ostensibly they had created a self-governing, fully democratic community, but as long as Leonard was the squire and Dorothy the paymaster, everyone knew where the real power lay.

The story thus unfolded is so engagingly eccentric that even the author, for all his evident affection for the Elmhirsts, is unable to recount it entirely poker-faced. Like many Utopians, Leonard and Dorothy knew exactly what they were revolting against – the conventional education he had suffered and the Christianity they had both come to reject – but were far less sure what they positively wanted. Their educational philosophy was ‘notably vague in its outline’: Rousseau’s Emile crossed with Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys, topped off with some windy platitudes from Tagore. Their artistic interests were ‘enigmatic and often confused’: they aspired to bring together education and aesthetics, but had no practical ideas on how to go about it. They were the most substantial private patrons of architecture in England this century: but they were notably insensitive about planning and buildings, and were usually uninspired in their choice of design. They sought to make the estate self-sufficient: but Dorothy scarcely knew the value of money, and Leonard was a singularly bad judge of subordinates and managers. For all their passionate desire to treat children on their own terms, they had very little interest in what happened to them after they left the Dartingtonian Utopia for the real world, and Dorothy in particular was more solicitous of the welfare of other people’s children than of that of her own. If the Webbs were ‘all the B’s’ (except bohemian), the Elmhirsts as portrayed by Young merit many of the R’s: rich, rustic, romantic – and really rather ridiculous.

In attempting to describe such a mélange of confused, contradictory, escapist and introspective opulence, it is hardly surprising that the author is unable to decide whether to write a family history of Leonard and Dorothy, an educational history of the school or an economic history of the estate. The threads cross and re-cross so frequently that the ensuing tangle is probably unavoidable. The abiding impression which the book leaves – albeit rather coyly – is that the Elmhirsts were only part-time Utopians. They founded and funded the school and the estate; they expected to be deferred to; and they frequently (if sometimes unavailingly) interfered. But they seem to have spent most of their time providing lavish country-house weekends at Dartington, running up to London to spend a night or two in their Upper Brook Street flat, crossing the Atlantic to stay in New York and Long Island, or on extensive travels further afield. Thus described, they form part of a significant coterie of millionaire Anglophile Americans, obsessed with English country-house life, which included the Astors at Cliveden and Hever, the Baillies (Dorothy’s relatives) at Leeds Castle, and the Fairhavens of Anglesey Abbey. For all of these families, there was a strong element of self-conscious play-acting, and the Elmhirsts were no exception, playing at country houses, at being educationalists, at being Utopians. Like the Fabians’ Charing Cross Parliament, Dartington seems ‘more memorable as a performance of a make-believe situation than as a rehearsal for a real one’.

At the end of his account, Michael Young bravely poses the simple, challenging question: ‘what effect has Dartington had?’ The answer seems to be not much. Conventional attitudes to school uniform, co-education and sexual mores are now much more akin to those of Dartington than they were half a century ago. But the school’s role in this transformation seems exceedingly small, while its own pupils now receive a more conventional education than was the case in the early days of Leonard and Dorothy. While other schools have become more like Dartington in the last fifty years, Dartington has become more like other schools. As for the ‘wider educational opportunities’ which Leonard sought to make available to the working class, they have, indeed, come – but not via Dartington. Nor have subsequent events borne out Leonard’s claim that, at Dartington, ‘the element of universality would make such discoveries as we made there applicable, in principle at any rate, to any part of the globe.’ For the Dartington Utopia has spawned few offspring. Perhaps the supreme irony of all is the fact that very few Old Dartingtonians are able to earn salaries of sufficient size to enable them to pay the fees to send their children there.

What would Sidney and Beatrice have made of all of this? If Ian Britain is correct in his analysis, they would have been more appreciative of the Elmhirsts’ artistic endeavours than would generally have been thought. But they would surely have condemned so self-indulgent and unregulated a Utopia. Even Thomas Davidson, founder of the Fellowship of the New Life, found Rousseau’s educational philosophy excessively undisciplined, training men to enjoy ‘the maximum feeling with as little reflection and restraint as may be’, and it is hard to believe that Sidney and Beatrice would have disagreed with him. They found Tagore to be a man of ‘unconscious and spiritual insolence’ who had no time for ‘the man of action, the lawyer, the administrator and the scientific worker’: in short, for most Fabians. And since Beatrice disapproved of the Fabians’ own summer schools for their unstructured programmes and degeneration into gossip and games, it is hard to see how she could have reconciled herself to the Elmhirsts’ more liberated and less precise ideas.

Looked at from the outside, however, the gap separating the Webbs from the Elmhirsts narrows markedly, almost completely. In his anti-Utopian travelogue, The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell happily lumped together Fabian gradualists and wide-eyed Utopians as guilt-ridden do-gooders, who regarded their social inferiors with ignorant condescension, and displayed all the wayward moral fervour of lapsed Evangelicals. Reading these books (one of which makes explicit reference to Orwell’s views) revives much of the power of his polemic. Like the Webbs, the Elmhirsts were well-meaning, sincere and high-minded. But, like the Webbs again, they were guilty rather than compassionate, detached and élitist rather than warm-hearted and committed. The Webbs sought salvation by fretting; the Elmhirsts sought salvation by fretwork. But neither could mobilise the masses, for they travelled very largely alone. As Gilbert and Sullivan reminded us in their penultimate opera, which appeared, appropriately enough, in the year of Leonard Elmhirst’s birth, Utopia is a very Limited concept – in more senses than one.