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topian fiction, which I define as narratives about alternative, non-existent societies, serves as a powerful means of presenting ideas about the author’s present society and its possible future. This genre has long been a well-established arena in which different social schemes engage in a verbal competition with issues of public interest at stake. The very nature of utopian fiction takes the reader to the core of Victorian idiosyncrasies, issues and controversies, beliefs and aversions. The utopian fiction of the last thirty years of the nineteenth century stands out not so much for its narrative paradigm but for its distinctive approach to science and technology. Because science plays an increasingly important role in Victorian utopias, they move from Thomas More’s ideal society toward the model proposed by Francis Bacon.
Science-oriented utopias were by no means a Victorian invention, although they became mespecially popular in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The first scientific utopias were Plato’s Timaeus, a compendium of all knowledge, and Critias. The Atlantideans are versatile in philosophy and applied science, Sophia and Tekne. The eponymous utopia hints at some technical inventions, like the incubator; but the momentous production which paves the way for nineteenth-century utopias occurs much earlier at the time of the first scientific revolution. As John Morley, the first Victorian editor of utopian fiction, pointed out in his Ideal Commonwealths, “Ardor in the cause of science” is fundamental in Campanella’s Civitas Solis (1602, 1623) and J. V. Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619), but it is Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) that has pride of place and is revisited in later works.
New Atlantis, whose title declares its association with the Platonic model, celebrates the scientific community organized on the Baconian principles of inductive science. The ruling caste, the House of Salomon, is a confraternity of scientists. Its denomination suggests a link between scientific research and wisdom, an assumption that would be questioned from Jonathan Swift on. The inhabitants of Bensalem, as the place is called in the local language, benefit from all kinds of wonderful contrivances. They produce artificial weather conditions to suit their needs, their advances in chemistry and medicine are unsurpassed, and they have worked out hydraulic miracles. Their discoveries include the “water of paradise . . . . very sovereign for health and prolongation of life.”
However, this scientific paradise has its dark sides, beginning with its exclusive nature. Visitors, rarely admitted, are kept in quarantine before landing on the island. The activities of Bacon’s dissecting laboratories do not pass the test of a reading which takes into account future outcome — literary and not. A sinister, retrospective light comes from Frankenstein or Dr. Moreau, Wells’s pernicious vivisectionist and breeder of monsters. Another ominous side of the House of Salomon is its status of secret sect, and this negative connotation revives in later texts.
Many scientific romances of the nineteenth century, charge advancements in all branches of science with hubris and regard them as producing unpredictable revenge. The fear of some imminent danger remained untamed throughout the century, and “scientists” (the word was coined by William Whewell in 1833) were alternatively regarded as potential saviours of mankind or Faustian hero-villians.
Victorian utopias expand Bacon’s model or take up, as it were, the experiments of Bensalem for further developments. Arthur Leslie Morton, a pioneer in studies of utopian fiction, sees Bacon’s novelty precisely in the fact that he devotes most of his text to the description of “a great variety of metallurgical, biological, astronomical and chemical marvels, as well as the practical application of science to the making of new substances and fabrics, to medicine and even to engineering” (85). Both the development of science and industrial technique on which The New Atlantis is based and “Bacon’s preoccupation with applied science as a form of power” (85), link him not only with the utopian writers of the Commonwealth but also with the future utopians of the Empire.
References to Bacon’s writings are commonplace among both Victorian writers of utopias and spiritualists, who considered Plato’s Atlantis, revived in Bacon’s New Atlantis, the kingdom of unsurpassed scientific and metaphysical knowledge.
In National Evils and Practical Remedies (1848), with its plan for the model town Victoria, J. S. Buckingham cherishes an “advancement of learning”, but also warns the reader against the risks of ill-directed application of scientific knowledge. Buckingham, a member of Parliament from 1832 to 1837, social reformer, abolitionist, and active supporter of the Temperance Movement, is now considered the forefather of the garden city movement.
R. E. Dudgeon’s subaqueous utopia, Colymbia (1875), has evident Atlantidean and neo-atlantidean connections. The author also pays his tribute to Bacon in his vademecum on healthy living entitled “The Prolongation of Life.” Dudgeon, the founder of London’s Hahnemann Hospital and School of Homeopathy, made English translations of the basic texts on homeopathy, wrote medical tracts, and invented the sphygmograph and lenses for use under water. He was also Samuel Butler’s doctor.
E. A. Abbott, mathematician and writer of a better-known utopia, Flatland (1888), also wrote Bacon’s biography, and Bacon’s battle against contemporary misconceptions lies at the basis of Abbott’s satire against the two-dimensional inhabitants of Flatland, in many ways similar to his contemporaries.
Walter Besant’s Inner House (1888) revives the House of Salomon, in his College of Physicians. The novel has been justly defined a proto-Brave New World, for the aberrations perpetrated by a despotic lodge of researchers. The villain of the story is Dr. Linister — an obvious portmanteau from Dr. Lister (the inventor of antiseptic dressing) and sinister. In the name of the advancement of medicine, the subjects of the Inner House have become a never-ageing, grey community of lifeless and emotionless individuals; with no conscience of the past, and no concern for a remote future, they are trapped in their everlasting present. This dystopia must have influenced Well’s description of his Eloi in The Time Machine (1895).
The Narrative Frame of the Utopian Genre
The new emphasis on scientific and technological themes had a strong impact not only on the contents but also on the narrative frame of the utopian genre. For example, the access to Utopia constitutes is a motif, and most classical utopias take the form of islands only accessible by water. The myth of the blessed island loses its centrality in the narrative paradigm of the nineteenth century. Apart from the aforementioned aquatic romance, Colymbia, which grafts contemporary sanitary issues onto the tradition of water symbolism, utopias are no longer approached by sea.
In the second half of the century, the typology of the journey varies, in accord with the Victorian frenzy for inventions, to suit the modified perception of the world. More conceived Utopia at the time of major geographical discoveries. Hythloday, the visitor of the extraordinary island, boasts of his connections with Vespucci. By contrast, the progressive colonization of the globe had left little room for speculations about unknown lands on this planet. The traditional surface journeys (by ship or by land) survive; but the voyager also descends under the sea or towards the centre of the earth — narrative devices inspired by the London Underground, which opened in 1863, and the Mont Cenis tunnel (completed 1871), which a contemporary magazine described as “the largest project being carried out by our civil engineers today” (De Vries, Victorian Inventions, 64-65). In 1874 Brunton designed the machine intended to drive the tunnel between England and France. Excavations on a wide scale elicited imaginative responses.
Alternatively the privileged visitor of a utopia is uplifted in the sky in balloons or machines able to defeat gravity thanks to powerful propellents. Contemporary interest in baloons and flying devices inspired the most imaginative enterprises. Such attempts, however, were perceived as not devoid of hubristic overtones. Articles in periodicals of the 1870s and 1880s testify to such fears:
Shall man at last succeed in doing this (i.e. “rising into the air”) with the machine known as “aeroplane”? [ . . . ] Penaults was the first to achieve good results with aeroplanes. [ . . . ] Unfortunately, this ingenious inventor [ . . . ] shortly after his successful experiments was taken from us by a fatal illness. [De Vries. 47-48]
A third approach to utopian narratives involves locating the utopian community not in space but in time, so that Victorian utopias are often exercises in futurology. Victorian visions of future worlds manifest a widespresd ambiguity towards the machine. Revealing the influece of John Ruskin, some imaginary communities have done away with machinery. From different perspectives and with diverse purposes, such is the case with Samuel Butler’s Erewhonians (Erewhon, 1872), W. H. Hudson’s Crystalites (The Crystal Age, 1887), William Morris’s own bucolic socialists (News from Nowhere, 1890) and H. G. Wells’ Eloi (The Time Machine, 1895).
The Time Machine, the summa of nineteenth-century utopian imagination, famously combined utopian narrative and science fiction while celebrating the power of the machine — against which Carlyle warned in “Signs of the Times,” — voices, not without tongue in cheek, fears and the warnings.
Although some Victorian obsessions, like the cooling of the sun and the thermal death of the planet, may be regarded as a thing of the past, the warning raised by Wells and his utopian predecessors, for the defence of what makes us human, our imperfections and our feelings, must stay with us.
Morley, Henry. Ideal Commonwealths. Comprising: More’s Utopia; Bacon’s New Atlantis, Campanella’s City of the Sun and Harrington’s Oceana. New York: Dedalus Edition, 1988. c. 1885.
Morton, Arthur Leslie. The English Utopia. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1952
L. De Vries, Leonard. Victorian Inventions. London: John Murray, 1971.
Last modified 28 May 2010