Want to know how to navigate the Victorian Web? Click here.
[Part 3 of the author's "Homesick in Utopia: State Capitalism and Pathology in Novels of the 1880s and 1890s."]
onrad Wilbrandt’s Mr East’s Experiences in Mr Bellamy’s World: Records of the Years 2001 and 2002 (1891) offers a particularly intriguing re-deployment of the Dystopian potential of Bellamy’s Utopia. Friedrich Ost reads Looking Backward and is disturbed by the questions it leaves unanswered. Put in suspended animation, he is at first delighted to wake in the “golden age Bellamy describes” (ch.2, 20): “I shall witness in person how humanity fares in the beginning of the twenty-first century.” (ch.2, 27) Yet Ost soon discovers that it is not “such a period of Paradise” (ch.2, 32) after all, and that West must have been “misinformed by his authority” (ch.3, 48). As it is put in the preface, “like Mr Bellamy’s Julian West, Friedrich Ost had the experience of being transported into a distant future, [but] his observations led to different conclusions” (iii).
Contrary to what theories of moral evolutionism suggest, the “nature of men and magistrates” has “undergone no change since the beginning of the world” (ch.3, 47), and “the battle for personal advantage [is still being] conducted with the same vehemence” (ch.3, 67). The nurse who supervises his “resurrection” tells him about her separation from her fiancé Alfred, who has left for Japan to become an engineer. As Ost puts it, “since this revolution, our old civilisation began to flow back to the East whence it came” (ch.7, 181). Successfully settled there, the young couple builds a home away from the uncongenial homeland. Meanwhile, war breaks out in Central Asia with detrimental repercussions for the world market; the economy of the new state collapses. On the brink of the New Year 2002, Ost muses: “What can the New Year bring? The stores of provisions are small and the end is drawing near.” (ch.11, 245) His narrative breaks off abruptly. Ost longs for the home of his nostalgic dreams: “And, as the god of dreams conjured these sweet visions before me, I again tasted the most exquisite happiness which had blessed my life.” (ch.6, 164) Ost is disillusioned; the happy couple can only find a home in exile.
Written similarly as a reaction to Bellamy’s influential Utopia, Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column depicts a repressive capitalist oligarchy controlling a technocratic society, which inspires the visiting protagonist – a pastoral figure – with awe and then with horror. Gabriel Weltstein, a third generation Swiss settler in Uganda, leaves his pastoral home in the mountains and encounters the wonders of twentieth-century “civilisation”. His description of the New York of 1988 opens as a Utopian eulogy on technological achievements, on progress in eugenics and city planning. In his letters to his brother, he revels in encomiums on the Great City: “My eyes are weary with gazing, and my mouth speechless with admiration; but in my brain rings perpetually the thought: Wonderful! — wonderful! — most wonderful!” (ch.1, 7) In his “country ignorance” (ch.1, 12), he is dazzled by magnetic lights, admires the pedestrian zones and the extravagant cuisine. Such ostensible eulogies on the status quo (time-present of the novel) underline the fraudulence of an alleged Utopia. Weltstein’s descriptions are interlaced with an underlying awareness that there is something ominous about this “tremendous civilisation”: “These swarming, laborious, all-capable ants seem great enough to attack heaven itself, if they could but find a resting-place for their ladders.” (ch.1, 7) It is not only that this hubris marks their nemesis, but also the state’s resemblance to an anthill that denotes the description as distinctly Dystopian. It is juxtaposed with Weltstein’s homesickness: "But our admiration may be here, and our hearts elsewhere. And so from all this glory and splendour I turn back to the old homestead, amid the high mountain valleys of Africa; to the primitive, simple shepherd-life." (ch.1, 7)
The pastoral settlement in an emphatically healthy and happy environment is a nostalgic space, contrasting sharply with the technocratic Dystopia. Observing the “joyless, sullen crowd” (ch.4, 37) that comprises the majority of the population of New York, where he stays in a hotel called The Darwin, Weltstein discovers that its civilisation is “rotten at the core” (ch.3, 34). The “old question of the survival of the fittest” (ch.3, 32) has moulded the suppressed into well-endowed suppressers. The seed of corruption has been fostered in an atmosphere of corruption – in a world in which the ruthless and corrupted are the fittest to survive: “The little seed of weakness or wickedness has been carefully nursed by society, generation after generation, until it has blossomed at last in this destructive monster.” (ch.4, 42) This “race has grown in power and loveliness – I fear it has lost in loveableness” (ch.1, 19). In the “Underworld” of the working classes, they all – like clones – “very much resembled each other; as if similar circumstances had squeezed them into the same likeness” (ch.4, 37). In a parody of Utopian moral eugenics, the women are “splendid animals, and nothing more” (ch.21, 179). Like the working masses, these sexually aggressive breeding-machines resemble clones, “as if some general causes had moulded them into the same form” (ch.1, 15). That Weltstein can contrast them with his own ideal of womanhood points to the existence of different Utopian possibilities: “They had none of that soft, gentle, benevolent look which so adorns the expression of my dear mother and other good women whom we know.” (ch.1, 15)
The counter-Utopia becomes a sanctuary for the novel’s two deserving couples. Like Lot, they are rescued from the destruction of a vile city. Weltstein leaves on the eve of utter chaos, together with his newlywed wife, Estella Washington, whose heredity “of a great and noble race” (ch.9, 81) generates nostalgia for a nobler time. In the “present”, she is an abused outcast-figure, a version of the Cinderella-type. Weltstein significantly woos her by telling her the “Story of Princess Charming and the Knight Weakheart”, in which she figures as “the fair and lovely Princess Charming, sitting weeping, among the ashes, on the kitchen hearth” (ch.22, 193). His nostalgia for his pastoral home creates their private Utopia: “I described my home in that strange, wild, ancient, lofty land; my mother, my brothers; the wide, old, roomy house; the trees, the flowers, the clustering, bleating sheep.” (ch.17, 141) In their flight, they are accompanied by Max, one of the leaders of the Brotherhood, who, it is emphasised, is prompted into this role out of filial duty – he liberates his imprisoned father and then deserts the cause – and by his wife, a singer who is out of place in this “world without a song” (ch.7, 68). Christina has “country blood in [her] veins”: “A race that has lived for several generations in the country is an exotic in a city.” (ch.27, 225-6) In a sense, she returns to her true home – to a pastoral resort in the countryside. Though Uganda differs from her native country, Sweden, the pastoral duality of city and country overrules such differences. The counter-Utopia is located in a “mysterious, ancient world” (ch.4, 40)
- An Introduction to Victorian Holocausts and their Literary Legacies
- Looking Backward: The Inadvertent Dystopia and the Nostalgic Subversive
- Subversive Nostalgia and Pastoral Utopia: William Morris
Last modified 11 November 2002