Book Reviews

By Phol, Nicole | Transformations, September 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews


Phol, Nicole, Transformations


Book Reviews

In her essay "What Can A Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write," Joanna Russ poses the following question: Without traditional male themes and myths, what would women write about? She suggests that by creating their own myths, which avoid the explicit and implicit gender stereotypes deeply rooted in society, women will find their own true form of literature and expression. These myths would depict an alternative world more appropriate for expressing female experiences. Russ proposes a selection of potential genres for this revision of literature and, not surprisingly, one of the genres is science fiction. Here, fixed notions of gender, sexuality, race and culture are completely irrelevant. As such, "science fiction, political fiction (when successful), and the modes (if not the content) of much medieval fiction all provide myths for dealing with the kinds of experiences we are actually having now, instead of the literary myths we have inherited, which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we ought to be having" (92).

The books reviewed here are dedicated to those didactic fictions which propose alternative realities in the case of utopias, or parallel worlds in the case of science fiction.

In Dream Revisionaries, Darby Lewes focuses on the re-establishment of a utopian tradition in work by women in Britain and the U.S.A. between 1870 and 1920. Many of these fascinating and important novels have been forgotten or neglected by readers and scholars alike. Although confined to a fifty-year period, Lewes contextualises over one hundred utopian novels, reading them in the tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth century utopian fiction which was dominated by male writers. Thus, Lewes problematises the aspect of gender and genre in the history of utopian fiction. In addition to this juxtaposition, the author explores a further component of the discussion: nationality. The divergence between the British and American fictions and the disparity in their dreams and visions ultimately show the degree to which utopias are rooted in their own historical reality. The rise of early feminism, the Suffragette Movement, industrialisation, and later the Great War determine the themes and concerns of these women writers and ultimately change the mode from optimism to disenchanted dystopias of the interwar and postwar years.

The first chapter attempts the impossible which every utopian scholar faces: to provide a definition of the term "utopia" and to delineate the utopian tradition. Following Lyman Tower Sargent, Lewes interprets utopia as "a non-existent society described in considerable detail" (5) and argues for a broad demarcation of the term to open up the genre for the imperatively uncanonical contributions by women writers. She also gives a brief overview of relevant secondary literature and specialised bibliographies, and most important for researchers and teachers, offers an extended and annotated bibliography of utopian fiction between 1621 and 1920.

The second and third chapters contextualise nineteenth-century women's utopias within a broader historical and political background. Utopias were not only the fictional programmes of early feminist thought and later reformist movements of the nineteenth century, but with the failing of the suffrage movement, became the idealising outlets for disappointments and frustrations.

The fourth chapter diffuses the homogeneity of the authors by comparing the visions of British and American utopian novels. Whereas the American writers appropriated the American frontier for their utopian dreams, their British fellow-writers were struggling with the redefinition of the woman's sphere, domesticity and ultimately femininity. Whilst the British women were challenging the dreary tasks of motherhood and housework and sought relief in technology and science, the American writers acknowledged their reproductive power and interpreted it as the ultimate utopian moment. …

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