Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Nineteenth-Century Utopian Explorer

A Nineteenth-Century Utopian Explorer
by Lucy Sussex

Catherine Helen Spence (1825–1910) was a philanthropist, social reformer, and the first woman to stand for Parliament in Australia. She was pictured in 2001 on the Australian five dollar note, and earned the soubriquet of "The Grand Old Woman of Australasia." In addition she wrote eight novels, of which two, Handfasted (1879) and A Week in the Future (1888–89), were utopian explorations of the future. Few other nineteenth-century women wrote so much futuristic fiction, precursive of the SF genre proper.

She was born in Scotland, daughter of lawyer David Spence and his wife Helen. Her father unwisely speculated, sending the family bankrupt, and they emigrated to South Australia in 1839. From her late teens Catherine was obliged to support herself and her mother from teaching and later journalism. Her social activism including campaigning for social welfare, women’s rights, and electoral reform. Though she lived in Adelaide for most of her life, she maintained a network of correspondence, being acquainted with notables such as novelist George Eliot, and economist John Stuart Mill.

Her first utopia, Handfasted, was submitted for the Sydney Mail’s novel competition (its prize £100). Its matter, an ancient Scots system of trial marriage, was famously rejected for being socialistic, dangerous, and calculated to “loosen the marriage tie”. Handfasted was only published in 1984, proving to be one of the most readable and durable of nineteenth-century utopias.

Her second utopia, A Week in the Future, was serialized in the Sydney Centennial Magazine. It was less of a novel than a blueprint for the future, covering economics, law, marriage, and the arts. The heroine Emily Bethel is single and of similar age and politics to Spence. She is dying, and her doctor grants her wish—to swap increasing invalidism for a week spent in London a century in the future. What follows is 1988, as Spence hoped it might be. She had read English social thinker Jane Hume Clapperton’s Scientific Meliorism and the Evolution of Happiness (1885). “Meliorism” referred to social advances via altruism; the “science” was evolution. Spence essentially popularizes Clapperton’s notions, depicting a highly evolved society of honest work, co-operation, and the rights of women and children. It is socialistic, communal in its living, and Christian. The utopia is presented day by day, from Monday’s Associated (communal) Homes to Friday’s Government and Laws, ending with Sunday’s Religion. A “good exchange” writes Emily Bethel, at the end of the narrative ready to die with good cheer at this happy future.

Some of Spence’s predictions occurred, such as women’s rights. Others, as happens with prognostic literature, are inaccurate. We do not practice eugenics, and modern fantasy literature is not her school of fiction, “purely ideal, in which spirits and fairies and supernatural beings…were called out to paint a moral and adorn a tale”. Spence was unaware of ecology and uninterested in non-Anglo-Saxon cultures (as was typical of Victorian utopianists). Yet what she gives us, in this optimistic vision, is a society run for the good of all, some of whose better features still might be achievable.

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