Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Sequels to Utopia

‘You must take me there someday, darling ... I want to see your country’, remarks Ellador to Vandyck Jennings in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), which at once gives you the easiest of sequels. A utopian woman falls in love with the visitor to utopia (why they do this so regularly is matter for another post in its own right, perhaps); but instead of settling with her in utopia, as Julian West does with Edith Leete in Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the visitor now decides to take her back home to his own bad society. And there you have your volume two, With Her in Ourland (1916) in Gilman’s case.

Samuel Butler had already experimented with this narrative paradigm in Erewhon, where Higgins escapes from utopia in a balloon with Arowhena. In the sequel, Erewhon Revisited, written some thirty years later, we learn, however, that this hasn’t turned out too well. Arowhena has never really felt at home in London and she dies prematurely, a rather defeated and poignant figure. Gilman’s Ellador is made of sterner stuff, fortunately, and gets on well enough with Van in ‘Ourland’.

So I suppose the readiest model of a sequel to News from Nowhere, if Morris had ever been inclined to pen one, would have been to have Ellen return with William Guest to late-Victorian London as we see it in the opening pages of the book. Taking your utopian woman home, however, imposes more narrative problems for time-travelling utopias like Morris and Bellamy than it does for spatially-travelling ones like Butler and Gilman. If you can’t depend on an H.G. Wells-style Time Machine, then you must invent other temporal procedures – mesmerism or dream-vision – which work well enough in one direction but are not so easily reversed.

On the other hand, Morris’s Ellen shows so much interest in history in general, and in what she herself might have been in the nineteenth century in particular, to make us feel that a further dream-vision in which she woke up in 1890s Hammersmith alongside Guest might make a very lively book. Anyone out there fancy having a go at writing it on Morris’s behalf?

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