Introduction

Walter Besant contributed significantly to the late-Victorian dystopian fiction with his two novels, The Revolt of Man, in which women take over the exclusive rule in a future England, with disastrous effects; and The Inner House, about an elixir of immortality, which leads to spiritual and social stagnation.

The Revolt of Man

The Revolt of Man (1882) reads like an anti-suffragette novel and the critique of the New Woman ideology which emerged in England in the 1880s. It presents a dystopian vision of a female-dominated society of the 22nd century, where women keep men in complete subordination after the historic Transfer of Power. Women gradually take over the traditional men's occupations and privileges, having become judges, doctors, lawyers, businesswomen and artists, whereas effeminate men are allowed to live and perform simple work in complete passivity, submission and obedience to the triumphant females.

As girls at school, everybody had learned about the Great Transition, and the way in which the transfer of Power, which marked the last and greatest step of civilisation, had been brought about: the gradual substitution of women for men in the great offices; the spread of the new religion; the abolition of the monarchy; the introduction of pure theocracy, in which the ideal Perfect Woman took the place of a personal sovereign; the wise measures by which man's rough and rude strength was disciplined into obedience, — all these things were mere commonplaces of education. [12]

The novel comically reverses Victorian gender roles. Women prove to be more effective in the public sphere; they are stronger, more intelligent, and better educated. Traditional masculine qualities and behaviour have become unacceptable in the new society. As a result, men must change their rough nature and adjust to new gender roles. They gradually become less manly, and many adopt the submissive look of earlier Victorian women, whereas women become assertive and domineering. Modern art reflects change in new stereotypical forms of masculinity and femininity.

Among the modern pictures a very remarkable change was apparent. The men were painted in early manhood, the women at a more mature age; the style was altered for the worse, a gaudy conventional mannerism prevailed; there was weakness in the drawing and a blind following in the colour: as for the details, they were in some cases neglected altogether, and in others elaborated so as to swamp and destroy the subject of the picture. The faces of the men were remarkable for a self-conscious beauty of the lower type: there was little intellectual expression; the hair was always curly, and while some showed a bull-like repose of strength, others wore an expression of meek and gentle submissiveness. As for the women, they were represented with all the emblems of authority — tables, thrones, papers, deeds, and pens. [15-16]

The female parliament (the House of Peeresses) is opposed to the previous policies adopted by the male-dominated parliament, especially uncontrolled industrialisation, exploitation of labour force, and destruction of nature. Thanks to women's power England has freed herself of oppressive male supremacy, aggression, male-dominated religion, polluting industries, and has become a totalitarian feminist paradise.

The Ancient Faith had long since become a thing dim and misty, and wellnigh forgotten save to a few students. Most knew of it only as an obsolete form of religion which belonged to the semi-barbarism of Man's supremacy: it had been superseded by the fuller revelation of the Perfect Woman, — imposed, so to speak, upon the world for the elevation of women into their proper place, and for the guidance of subject man. It was carefully taught with catechism, articles, doctrines, and history, to children as soon as they could run about. It was now a settled Faith, venerable by reason of its endowments and dignities rather than its age, supported by all the women of England, defended on historical and intellectual grounds by thousands of pens, by weekly sermons, by domestic prayers, by maternal admonitions, by the terrors of the after-world, by the hopes of that which is present with us. A great theological literature had grown up around the Faith. It was the only recognised and tolerated religion; it was not only the religion of the State, but also the very basis of the political constitution. For as the Perfect Woman was the goddess whom they worshipped, the Peeresses who ruled were rulers by divine right, and the Commons — before that House had been abolished — were members of their House by divine permission: every member officially described herself a member by divine permission. To dispute about the authority of the ecclesiastical Decrees which came direct from the Upper House, was blasphemy, a criminal offence, and punishable by death; and to deny the authority of the Decrees was to incur certain death. It is not, therefore, surprising to hear that there was neither infidelity nor nonconformity in the whole country. On the other hand, because there must be some outlet for private and independent opinion, there were many interpretations of the law, and opinions as many and as various as those who disputed concerning the right interpretation. Under the rule of woman, there could be no doubt, no compromise, no dispute, on essentials. The principles of religion, like those of moral, social, and political economy, were fixed and unalterable; they were of absolute certainty. As to the Articles of Religion, as to the Great Dogma of the Revealed Perfect Woman, there could be no doubt, no discussion. [137-38]

Education and career opportunities are severely limited for men; they cannot study at universities which are reserved for women only. Many impoverished young men are forced into marriage with older wealthy and powerful females. However, when married they lose all legal rights and wives dispose of their property and earnings. Husbands charged with disobedience or beating their wives are immediately taken to prisons and kept there for years.

“ Remember,” he said, “that the prisons of England are full of men charged with wife-beating. They never had an opportunity of defending themselves; they are tortured day and night. You may, all of you — any of you — be charged with this offence. Your word is not taken; you are carried off to hopeless imprisonment. Is that a pleasant thing for you?” [174]

However, women, who excel in art and education, have proven to have little interest in science and the economy, and the country begins to stagnate. In parliament several young women begin to dissent from the general feminist line and speak in favour of victimised men. This forms the roots of a revolt. A number of both women and men, dissatisfied with single-gender culture, prepare a plot to overthrow the feminist regime. Ultimately, the oppression of men under a female rule ends in a bloodless revolution and the re-establishment of male supremacy.

Besant seems to be very serious in his preoccupation with female dominance in a future society. He was aware that gender stereotypes began to break down in his time due to the stagnation of many exclusively male institutions and the gradual emancipation of women, but in Conclusion instead of endorsing the idea of gender equality, he reveals his affinity with traditional Victorian male patriarchy.

The Inner House

The Inner House (1888), which has been described as “a proto-Brave New World,” explores the consequences of artificially prolonged human life. On June 20, 1890, Professor Schwarzbaum announces at the Royal Institute and in various newspapers all over the world that he has invented an elixir which prevents ageing in the human body.

Science cannot alter the Laws of Nature. Of all things there must be an end. But she can prolong; she can avert; she can — Yes, my friends. This is my Discovery; this is my Gift to Humanity; this is the fruit, the outcome of my life; for me this great thing has been reserved. Science can arrest decay. She can make you live — live on — live for centuries — nay, I know not — why not ? — she can, if you foolishly desire it, make you live forever. [15]

The elixir, called the “Vital Force,” has been used by a group of young scientists to create a new society consisting of never-ageing individuals. However, in order to prevent overpopulation they have eliminated almost all old people. Many centuries after the discovery of the “Vital Force,” Dr. Linister (his name alludes to Dr. Lister, the inventor of antiseptic dressing) and his assistant Dr. Grout preside over a secret group of scientists, called the College of Physicians in Canterbury, who know the secret of the longevity elixir. They have founded a community based on socialist principles. Members of this community have stopped ageing although they are not immune to certain diseases. They have lost old moral bonds and traditional family relations, and lead a stable but unemotional existence. New births are allowed only if some immortal citizens have been accidentally killed. In this socialist utopia both men and women live apathetically in identical apartments, eat the same meals and wear drab, almost identical uniforms to emphasise social equality and lack of differences between the sexes.

As for their dress, it was all alike. The men wore blue flannel jackets and trousers, with a flannel shirt and a flat blue cap; for the working hours they had a rougher dress. The women wore a costume in gray, made of a stuff called beige. It is a useful stuff, because it wears well; it is soft and yet warm, and cannot be objected to by any of them on the score of ugliness. What mutinies, what secret conspiracies, what mad revolts had to be faced before the women could be made to understand that Socialism — the only form of society which can now be accepted — must be logical and complete! What is one woman more than another that she should separate herself from her sisters by her dress? Therefore, since their subjugation they all wear a gray beige frock, with a jacket of the same, and a flat gray cap, like the men's, under which they are made to gather up their hair. [19]

Besant calls the new system “socialism” in which there are no individual aims, no property, and no laws. Like in Thomas More's Utopia, private property has been substituted for communal property. There are no crimes either “because there is no incentive to jealousy, rapine, or double-dealing.” (29) Simultaneously, the New Era people experience a gradual extinction of all the emotions — love, jealousy, ambition, rivalry, etc. There is no money and no competition. Total equality prevails in this classless society “because the State began to provide for everybody's happiness.” (41)

Canterbury has been refurbished according to the principles of socialist modernity. Its new layout is efficient and functional.

The City of Canterbury, as it was rebuilt when Socialism was finally established, has in its centre a great Square, Park, or Garden, the central breathing-place and relaxation ground of the City. Each side is exactly half a mile in length. The Garden, thus occupying an area of a fourth of a square mile, is planted with every kind of ornamental tree, and laid out in flower-beds, winding walks, serpentine rivers, lakes, cascades, bridges, grottos, summer-houses, lawns, and everything that can help to make the place attractive. During the summer it is thronged every evening with the people. On its west side has been erected an enormous Palace of glass, low in height, but stretching far away to the west, covering an immense area. Here the heat is artificially maintained at temperatures varying with the season and the plants that are in cultivation. In winter, frost, bad weather, and in rain, it forms a place of recreation and rest. Here grow all kinds of fruit-trees, with all kinds of vegetables, flowers, and plants. All the year round it furnishes, in quantities sufficient for all our wants, an endless supply of fruit; so that we have a supply of some during the whole year, as grapes, bananas, and oranges; others for at least half the year, as peaches, strawberries, and so forth; while of the commoner vegetables, as peas, beans, and the like, there is now no season, but they are grown continuously. In the old times we were dependent upon the changes and chances of a capricious and variable climate. Now, not only has the erection of these vast houses made us independent of summer and winter, but the placing of much grass and corn land under glass has also assured our crops and secured us from the danger of famine. This is by no means one of the least advantages of modern civilization. [21]

On the whole, the community lives in complete apathy, having forgotten their past. However, a young woman named Christine, who was bred to fill the gap of an accidental death, learns about the previous system when she finds in the museum documents from the nineteenth-century. She is keen to learn about the former ways of life and soon attracts a group of dissenters who revive their past memories and regain their emotional life. Fascinated by the bygone times, Christine tells people about gentlefolk, an extinct species, that existed in the former times.

Long ago there were people called gentlefolk. Grandad here was a gentleman. I have read about them in the old books. I wonder if any of you remember those people. They were exempt from work; the lower sort worked for them; they led a life of ease; they made their own work for themselves. Some of the men fought for their country — it was in the old time, you know, when men still fought; some worked for their country; some worked for the welfare of those who worked for bread; some only amused themselves; some were profligates, and did wicked things — “She paused — no one responded. “The women had no work to do at all. They only occupied themselves in making everybody happy; they were treated with the greatest respect; they were not allowed to do anything at all that could be done for them; they played and sang; they painted and embroidered; they knew foreign languages; they constantly inspired the men to do great things, even if they should be killed.” Here all shuddered and trembled. Christine made haste to change the subject. “ They wore beautiful dresses — think — dresses of silk and satin, embroidered with gold, trimmed with lace; they had necklaces, bracelets, and rings; their hands were white, and they wore long gloves to their elbows; they dressed their hair as they pleased. Some wore it long, like this.” [54-55]

Dr. Linister, who has rediscovered his old flame in Christine's group, is persuaded to join the conspirators and overthrow Dr Grout, the true villain in the story, who is responsible for the massacre of the old and the unnatural preservation of the immortals in the New Era. However, the plot is revealed and the dissenters are arrested. Dr Linister is to be executed, but in the end he and the whole group of dissenters are rescued by immortal nineteenth-century soldiers. They break away from Canterbury to found another, more human community, with newly liberated individuals who reestablish old moral standards and open themselves up to emotional relationships including love.

The Inner House ends with a vision of two societies, the former is still controlled by Dr. Grout, in which immortal people continue to live in complete stagnation, and the latter, founded by Dr. Linister elsewhere in England, in which human individuality is not stifled by the fear of eventual death.

Conclusion

Walter Besant's two dystopian novels blend satiric utopia and contemporary discourse over the Woman Question (The Revolt of Man), and an ideal socialist society (The Inner House). Unlike earlier Victorian utopias, e.g. Samuel Butler's Erewhon, Besant's novels do not criticise the foundations of Victorian society, but they rather express the author's anxiety about the development of contemporary ideologies within British society: radical feminism and utopian socialism. Besant was also interested in late-Victorian debates about evolution, degeneration and eugenics.

Related Material

References

Besant, Walter. The Revolt of Man. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1882.

___. The Inner House. Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1889.

Bleiler, Everett Franklin. Science-fiction, the Early Years. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1990.

Boege, Fred W. “Sir Walter Besant, Novelist.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 10 (1956): 249-280, and 11 (1956): 32-60.

Gnappi, Carla Maria. “Science and Technology in Victorian Utopias,” The Victorian Web.


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Last modified 30 December 2012