Science Fiction Studies

#37 = Volume 12, Part 3 = March 1986



  • I.F. Clarke. Dorking Revisited (Carlo Pagetti, ed. La Battaglia di Dorking, tratto dal Blackwood's Magazine, Maggie 1871)
  • Susan Gubar. Feminism and Utopia (Marleen Barr & Nicholas D. Smith, eds. Women and Utopia: Critical Interpretations; Carol Farley Kessler, ed. Daring to Dream: Utopian Stories by United States Women, 1836-1919)


I.F. Clarke

Dorking Revisited

Carlo Pagetti, ed. La Battaglia di Dorking, tratto dal Blackwood's Magazine, Maggie 1871. Milan: Editrice Nord, 1985. xviii + 161pp. 8,000 lire (ca. $5.50).

This Italian translation (by Riccardo Valla) of George Chesney's notorious Battle of Dorking marks the start of a venture in the reprinting of utopian and futuristic texts that "are difficult or impossible to find in Italy." As the preface demonstrates, the editorial plan calls for a page-by-page translation in parallel with the (photo-reproduced) original text plus an explanatory introduction and a biographical note. This admirable initiative for Italian readers aims at a series of Documenti da Nessun Luogo, a style that registers its nominal origins in the "nowhere" of Samuel Butler and William Morris.

The idea of nessun luogo is central to Carlo Pagetti's preface on the workings of utopian and futuristic literature. In the beginning, he writes, there was the imaginary voyage to those unknown lands where telling differences in social structures, moral attitudes, and legal systems offered their special revelations to the reader. Can that fictional progression from somewhere to nowhere shed any light on the development of the tale of the future in the 19th century and, in particular, on the extraordinary success of The Battle of Dorking? In every way, says Pagetti, because Chesney's story is an inverted utopia in which England becomes a nowhere and the Gulliverian traveler is transformed into the German invader.

Now, that may be a possible explanation for the practical psychology that controls these tales of future warfare; but it has nothing to say about those novel factors--military and political--that provided the rational basis for Chesney's projection. Pagetti is quite right in tracing the immediate origins of The Battle of Dorking to the universal alarm that followed on the unprecedented German victory in the War of 1870. Indeed, he gives ample evidence of the anxieties expressed in British middle-class journals about the future of the UK in the new age of vast conscript armies, train-borne infantry and quick-firing artillery. Those anxieties undoubtedly helped to trigger the chain reaction that led to, and followed on, the publication of Chesney's short story in the May (1871) issue of Blackwood's Magazine; and Italian readers are fortunate to have a detailed and accurate account of the contemporary circumstances that favored the spectacular eruption of The Battle of Dorking. The limitations of a 17-page introduction and the special interests of Italian readers may have caused Pagetti to ascribe the psychological point of origin for the Chesney story to "the hypothetical recurrence of an event buried in the collective subconscious...the Battle of Hastings" (p. v).

The world-wide reactions to The Battle of Dorking obscure the fact that the tale of the war-to-come goes back to the beginnings of futuristic fiction in the 18th century. The first English utopia of the future, The Reign of George VI (1763), was mostly taken up with a long and gratifying account of the British conquest of Europe. 40 years later, when the French were committed to conquering all Europe, the Napoleonic scheme for the invasion of England generated a vast outpouring of prophecies--prints, poems, songs, plays-- about the perils of a French landing. Burns, Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, and many others turned out verses that breathed defiance to the French. Long, long before Tennyson "looked into the future far as human eye could see," Wordsworth had composed what is probably the first futuristic poem in English literature--an essay in SF appropriately entitled "Anticipation" that looked forward to the moment when "On British ground the Invaders are laid low."

An island people is eternally aware that a superior naval force can end their happy isolation at any time. Robert Southey made that point in Sir Thomas More... (1829) when he reversed the course of recent history in order to demonstrate that if the French had possessed steamships, "our deadly struggle with Buonaparte must have been decided upon our own soil; and in that case London might easily have shared the same fate as Moscow." No one doubted that the new steamships had altered the conditions of naval warfare. In 1845, the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, told the House of Commons that it was no longer possible to think of the English Channel as a moat defensive: "Steam navigation has rendered that which was before impassable by a military force nothing more than a river passable by a steam bridge." That was one element in the subsequent Dorking scenario. Another was the eternal possibility of a war with a great European power; and these two factors came together in 1851, when Louis Napoleon became the virtual dictator of France and the British press filled with warnings about the possible danger of a French invasion. One of the many pamphlets of that year of anxiety was "A History of the Sudden and Terrible Invasion of England by the French in the Month of May, 1852," a short story that was in every way a working model of Chesney's methods in 1871.

So Chesney was certainly not the first Englishman to describe an imaginary war of the future, and The Battle of Dorking was by no means the first of its kind. There were earlier efforts from the French: Louis Geoffroy (Napoléon et la conquête du monde, 1836) and Ernest Coeurderoy (Hurrah! ou la revolution par les Cosaques, 1854). Across the Atlantic, there were even more remarkable anticipations of civil war: in Nathaniel B. Tucker's The Partisan Leader (1836) and Edmund Ruffin's Anticipations of the Future (1860). These publications raise the question: Why did the world have to wait until 1871 and the universal uproar that followed on Chesney's story? As Pagetti shows, the War of 1870 seemed to expose the military deficiencies of the UK, and the prestige of Blackwood's Magazine added to the authority of The Battle of Dorking. Much more importantly, Chesney was a most able soldier and he could write well. The entire future of the British people--defeat, disaster, lasting despair--is powerfully condensed into the 20,000 words of a fast-moving short story that admirably dramatizes the inevitable consequences of a basic military failure. Pagetti, quoting the letter Chesney wrote to John Blackwood in which he proposed that "a useful way of bringing home to the country the necessity for thorough reorganization might be a tale," inexplicably omits the crucial phrase: "after the manner of Erckmann-Chatrian." This is an astonishing omission. Chesney could have been the ablest soldier of all time, and yet without the realistic techniques he had learnt from the two French writers he would never have discovered how to convert military facts into political fiction. That discovery was the core of Chesney's success-- his quite exceptional skill in leading the reader to draw the author's conclusions. He had, of course, the added good fortune of writing at that time when the idea of the future was beginning to catch the interest of publishers everywhere. In the 1860s, Jules Verne had begun a most profitable arrangement with P.J. Hetzel (not less than one story a year, so the contract had it); and in the 1870s, the first great wave of futuristic writing began with Samuel Butler, Bulwer-Lytton, and many others.

Finally, had Pagetti consulted the British Dictionary of National Biography, he would not have written: "We do not have much information about Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George Tomkyns Chesney" (p. xviii). Although he ended his days with the honorific title of Colonel-Commandant (Royal Engineers), he began his career as plain George Chesney in the Bengal Engineers, and spent his service days in India. In the 1860s, his outstanding work as a military engineer made him the obvious choice for planning the Royal Indian Civil Engineering College, an institution that gave India its own Indian engineers. He was recalled to England in 1868 and appointed the first president of the new college at Staines in Middlesex. About that time he began to review books for Blackwood's, and then came the War of 1870 and the idea for a famous short story. After that he tried his hand at other stories and a novel, but without the least success. The Dorking formula could not carry over from war to peace. Perhaps it was the continuing desire for an audience that caused Chesney to become a Member of Parliament. He is remembered to this day in the Chesney Medal awarded for the best original essay on a military theme. In 1940, Nazi propagandists paid him the back-handed compliment of a special edition with the appropriate title of Was England erwartet! And now Italian readers have the opportunity to discover how Chesney's story established the new narrative genre of le guerre del futuro.

[A response by Carlo Pagetti, and I.F. Clarke's reply, appear in SFS 39 (July 1986).]

Susan Gubar

Feminism and Utopia

Marleen Barr & Nicholas D. Smith, eds. Women and Utopia: Critical Interpretations. Lanham, NY, London: UP of America, 1983. ix+266pp. $10.50 (paper).

Carol Farley Kessler, ed. Daring to Dream: Utopian Stories by United States Women, 1836-1919. Boston, &c.: Pandora Press of Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. 171pp. $8.95 (paper).

As a project that seeks to transform not only the bias but also the basis of all recorded cultures, feminism is a form of fantasy, and its proponents have frequently relied on a rhetorical strategy of sex-role reversal to contrast the confinement of the everyday world of everywhere with the liberation of a world elsewhere. This tradition of feminist speculative fiction often juxtaposes a satiric critique of men's historical primacy with a visionary conviction of women's ontological equality. As early as 1870, Anne Denton Cridge composed Man's Rights; or, How Would You Like It? to demonstrate that men would be enfeebled, ignorant, insecure, or vain discontents if they were taught that "the sphere of man is home." Culture, according to Cridge, can always call on nature to support any mode or manner of socialization: "Let us for a moment see what Nature teaches on this subject," a womanly authority warns the female men of Man's Rights; "let us look at man divested of his embroidery and trimming; look at this angular, long form; look at his hairy face. Is he not in his outward structure and appearance more allied to the lower animals? Look at him, and do you not at once think of the monkey?" (quoted from Daring to Dream, p. 93). That the rhetorical reversals exploited by Cridge to analyze the social construction of what is defined as a biological destiny continue to inspire feminist writing is clear from Bette Jane Raphael's parodic essay, "The Myth of the Male Orgasm" (1973), in which Doctors Fern Herpes and Lavinia Shoot disagree on whether men have two orgasms ("penile," or "immature," and "spherical," according to Herpes) or none at all ("What passes for orgasm in the male is really a mild form of St Vitus dance," Shoot asserts).

Cridge's and Raphael's satires typify the reconfigurations proposed by many of the feminist utopias produced during both of the so-called "waves" of the feminist movement. The Amazonian sororities depicted by such late l9th and early 20th century writers as Mary E. Bradley (in Mizora, 1881) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (in Herland, 1915) extoll explicitly matriarchal virtues that implicitly criticize patriarchal values, and they therefore resemble the more recent work of contemporaries like Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Shattered Chain, 1976), Ursula Le Guin (The Word for World is Forest, 1976), Joanna Russ (The Female Man, 1977), and Suzy McKee Charnas (Motherlines, 1978).

Such feminist fantasies--femtasias? femtopias?--are the subject of the scholarly essays included in Women and Utopia, while their first appearance in the 19th century is documented in the literary excerpts comprising the anthology Daring to Dream. Both of these publications reflect a growing interest in the relationship of women as readers and writers to fantastic modes like SF, sword and sorcery, historical romance, pastoral, and (even) pornography.

By focusing explicitly on utopian fiction, Barr, Smith, and Farley Kessler seek to alter our sense of a tradition which has so far been defined in exclusively male terms. Although most of us were taught as undergraduates to trace the utopian (and dystopian) tradition from Sir Thomas More through, say, William Morris, Samuel Butler, and Edward Bellamy to Olaf Stapledon, Robert Heinlein, and Frank Herbert, both Women and Utopia and Daring to Dream suggest a lineage that would develop from Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward and Louisa May Alcott through Bradley and Gilman to Le Guin, Russ, and Charnas. As fascinating as this project would seem to be, for very different but equally instructive reasons both of these books fail to generate the intellectual excitement many readers have come to expect from women's studies scholarship in general and from feminist criticism in particular. Indeed, both are most interesting precisely when their limitations illuminate the problems facing contemporary students of women's literary history.

For the most part, the essays included in Women and Utopia are marred by a restricted sense of the canon. The majority of critics here tend to round up the usual suspects, many of whom are contemporaries--i.e., Le Guin, Russ, Marge Piercy, Doris Lessing, and James Tiptree, Jr. 17th and 18th century visionaries like Jane Lead (who testified to female spiritual authority), Victorian women like Fanny Wright (who tried to create utopian communities), turn-of-the- century allegorists like Olive Schreiner (who recorded feminist dreams), and early SF authors like C.L. Moore (who imagined women warriors) are missing from consideration, as is any discussion of the image of women in male-authored utopian literature. Just as problematic is the assumption on the part of a number of the contributors that there is a fixed ideology of feminism and that there should be a smooth fit between this ideologically "correct" feminism and the fiction produced by and for its advocates.

Too often the critics included in Women and Utopia assume the interchangeability of the term man with a host of evils that include sexual violence, hierarchy, dominance, ecological exploitation, and racism while woman is identified with freedom, nurturance, harmony, supportive- ness, the ecological interdependence of nature and human nature, and the erasure of discrimination. One example will suffice: in the words of Lyman Tower Sargent, "Men are given to authority and hierarchy as well as patriarchy. Women, being given to freedom and equality, are most likely to be anarchists" (p. 12). On the one hand, then, Lucy M. Freibert finds that "The choice of organic metaphors by women authors advocates the union of reason and nature, rather than the domination of nature practiced by the current male-oriented culture" (p. 69). Women writers, it seems, are morally superior to their male contemporaries, although we are given no evidence that male authors exploit inorganic metaphors. On the other hand, Ursula Le Guin is castigated by Jewell Parker Rhodes because "androgyny as a heuristic for uncovering 'essential humanity' is itself flawed by historical patriarchal biases" (p. 109). Women writers who fall into deluded (non-feminist) ways of thinking are in danger of being labeled "sexists."

If ideological and evaluative considerations tend to outweigh aesthetic concerns in many of these essays, such issues also seem to displace the critics' responsibility to take their own stylistic decisions seriously. Besides too many typos to list here, there are sentences that creak with flat-footed transitions (e.g., "Let met tell you something of the setting and situation in the novel" [p. 97]), while others seem virtually incomprehensible (e.g., "The most succinct way of putting the essence of an impaired, weakened or crippled state is: disobedience to Order and Necessity" [p. 136]), and still others verge on the hilarious (e.g., "Not everyone will welcome a novel which depicts interracial lesbianism among women who mate with horses" [p. 56]). Besides serving as an easy target for the reviewer, such stylistic faux pas, when taken together with the prevailing tone of humorless ideological certitude, suggest that feminist critics sometimes suffer from a lack of self-reflexiveness: they analyze historical contexts as if they were themselves somehow "outside of" history or they approach written texts as if they were themselves somehow not also producing such texts. Although other brands of criticism suffer from comparable problems, feminist criticism has (justifiably) prided itself on its attempts to address an audience inside and outside of English departments--indeed, an audience inside and outside of academia.

Two exceptions to the unnerving predictability of tone and content of Women and Utopia are the essays by Daphne Patai and Carol Farley Kessler. In "Beyond Defensiveness: Feminist Research Strategies," Patai moves from a useful discussion of defamiliarization in both feminist and anti-feminist utopias to a provocative renversement in which she claims that as utopian critics women should refrain--just as men traditionally have--from marking their work in terms of the gender of the agent. For Patai, then, "'Women's Studies' cannot help but confirm the paradigm of male centrality" (p. 157), although she does call for more work on sex roles and specifically for a more rigorous analysis of the political implications of male-gender identity. Like Patai, who questions the limits imposed by the discipline, Kessler circumvents the restrictions of the canon, in her case by examining the fiction of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps in terms of the utopian impulse that motivated American women in the Victorian period to turn toward religion. As in her anthology Daring to Dream, Kessler excavates a woman writer popular in her own time but neglected ever since. Exploring the social criticism implicit in the heavenly cities of novels like The Gates Ajar (1868), Beyond the Gates (1883), and The Gates Between (1897), Kessler also analyzes the pessimism about social change implicit in Phelp's fictional reliance on a liberating afterlife.

Kessler's Daring to Dream is an indispensable book for anyone interested in American women's contributions to utopian literature before the contemporary period. It is valuable precisely because it includes unknown, out-of-print, and unanthologized texts from the early feminist movement-- texts like Man's Rights; or, How would You Like It? The excerpts provided here demonstrate that Victorian, turn-of-the-century, and early modernist literary women meditated on many of the same problems that have troubled their postmodernist descendants. Whether they use religious dream-visions, satiric dialogues, or sentimental romances, 19th and early 20th century female-authored fantasies touch on areas still of concern today: from Mary Griffith's 1836 critique of historians who neglect to record the achievements of women and Cridge's 1870 analysis of the relationship between socialization and dress to Rosa Graul's 1897 depiction of child care centers, Caroline Dale Parke Sneadekers's 1917 presentation of marriage contracts, and Martha S. Bensley Bruere's 1919 description of a coeducational, vocational draft, these texts use utopian strategies to write about (and try to right) the intellectual, social, and economic wrongs inflicted on women. A feminist approach to language is suggested in Mary H. Ford's "A Feminine Iconoclast" (1889), for instance, when a character observes that "there is nothing more ennobling than l'Amour, nothing so degrading as la Passion" and then comments on the fact that the French language makes l'Amour masculine, and la Passion feminine: "could ever anything show more plainly what men have made of women?" (Daring to Dream, p. 153). A feminist response to religion is implicit in Lois Nichols Waisbrooker's A Sex Revolution (1894) when, for example, a character meditates on the significance of Genesis: "Man was first, but the fact that he was incomplete without her showed that he needed a leader" (ibid., p. 185). From this perspective Adam becomes a draft for the finished, more nearly perfect product, Eve.

Kessler's introduction, as well as her annotated bibliographical appendix, help map the tradition of American women's utopian fiction. It would be useful to have a companion volume so we could recover the contributions of women writing utopian fiction in England, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa during this same period. For all of their historical significance, however, the works in Daring to Dream are often disappointing. Indeed, just as the Barr and Smith anthology of essays demonstrates a failure of critical imagination among scholars who evaluate literary texts in terms of their feminism, the selections in Kessler's anthology--all of which were chosen precisely for their feminism--suffer from a failure of creative imagination that calls into question the relationship between feminism and the literary imagination. In their common insistence on a world without dominance or conflict, the feminist utopianists in Daring to Dream frequently present nowhere as a place of such forbearance, harmony, service, peace, and community that any reader suffering from what Edgar Allan Poe called the "imp of the perverse" longs for the somewhere of intolerance, discord, egotism, violence, individualism, and--most of all--adventure. Can it be that the impact of feminism on the female imagination is more problematic than we have been led to suppose?

To be sure, the fault may be partially related to generic rather than ideological constraints: critics have always viewed utopian literature as a societal blueprint or a philosophical argument that has to be judged on intellectual rather than aesthetic grounds. Even on this basis, though, it is disappointing that so many Victorian utopian women writers replicate a cult of true womanhood which associates women with a renunciatory, angelic morality that will serve and save society. Significantly, moreover, the similarity between the feminism of late l9th-century utopian women writers and some of the implicit assumptions about feminism held by the critics in the Barr and Smith anthology suggests that the contemporary women's movement has not come such a very long way as we have been led to suppose. Indeed, Kessler's book provides historians of American feminism and critics of American women writers with a unique opportunity to come to terms with a problem that-- judging from the Barr and Smith anthology of essays--still troubles us today: namely, the contradiction between feminism's rejection of any socialization process which stereotypes and its reliance on stereotypical sexual categories, its radical analysis of differences between men and women and its too frequent refusal to admit differences among women, its desire for the free play of the female imagination and its distrust of imaginative modes of conceptualizing that are not certifiably feminist.

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