Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Book Review by Jane V: I knew about Charlotte Perkins Gilman from her short autobiographical novel The Yellow Wallpaper but it was not until I searched for a(n?) utopia authored by a woman that I was reminded of Herland and the fact that, felicitously, I had a copy somewhere.

The blurb on the back of my copy reads: ‘A robust vision of a feminist utopia, merrily exposing and exploding the conventions of patriarchy’ [Pamela Daniels]. And so it does – most entertainingly!

Three young American bloods, having heard that there exists an apparently all-female civilisation cut off from the rest of the world, decide to set off in search of the place. The three are Terry of ‘the impressive moustache’, ‘a man’s man’, popular with women and ‘rich enough to do as he pleases’. He owns several types of transport, including a biplane. Jeff ‘a tender soul’, is a recently qualified doctor who according to the narrator probably imagined the country was ‘just blossoming with roses and babies and canaries and tidies’. (Yes, there is a lot of humour in the account of their expedition.) The third is ‘Van’, the narrator who is a sociologist, able in languages and well informed as to the many types of civilisation to be found in the world.

The three set off well equipped for all the situations they believe they will encounter. In Terry’s baggage is a revolver and ammunition to subdue the men he is sure must be in the country somewhere; baubles and beads to seduce the women – packed together with his extreme sexist prejudices. He is confident that if it is an all-female society that the inhabitants will be bickering among themselves, ‘women always do’ and that there will be no sort of order or organisation. Terry, according to Van, seems to hold the principle that pretty women are just so much game for the chase and that ‘homely ones are not worth considering’. Terry is sure that not long after arriving in this country of women he will be made their king. Jeff, who ‘idealises women in the best Southern style’ is ‘full of chivalry and sentiment.’ Van claims the middle ground where women are concerned, ‘highly scientific, of course’. As the tale unfolds it is delicious to see each of these lads cut down to size by the society of highly organised and civilised women they actually meet in the hidden country.

The three chums – rather in the style characters in Boy’s Own comics – set off on their adventure in the yacht. They leave this at anchor, lodging details about themselves with the ambassador in case they don’t return and need to be traced, then set out in the light aircraft to reconnoitre. From the air they see a beautiful, cultivated land which seems to be very productive. Next day they fly the aircraft into the country and land. Setting off on foot they are soon aware that they are being watched and catch sight of three girls hiding in a tree. Terry produces the sparklies, trying to catch the boldest of them. But she is too lithe and quick for him. She snatches the beads and retreats higher up the tree. These girls are unlike any the three have known in America. They are tall and sun tanned, simply dressed and exceedingly athletic. The lads trudge on through well-ordered orchards, past gardens and conveniently laid out villages. They are amazed at the design and quality and high standard of the buildings. Terry is sure this must be the work of male architects. But word has gone ahead of them. The senior women are alerted. Presently a large crowd of older women appears and, surrounding the boys they ‘herd’ them through sheer pressure of numbers, and with no sign of violence, back to the main settlement. Here the lads are kept in comfortable confinement, given loose fitting, comfortable clothing and fed healthy vegetarian food. Here they are discretely monitored by their gentle jailers. They are taught the language of the women while teaching them something of English. (Charlotte gets over the language difference quickly, explaining that Van is a linguist and can pick up languages quickly, so he helps the others.)

So the days pass in pleasant captivity, the very civil and gentle ‘jailers’ are concerned to teach the men all about their history and their social structure while showing a great deal of interest in American civilisation. Herland came about when a catastrophic earthquake not only cut them off from the known world but also obliterated the male half of the population. Charlotte goes on the explain how the women manage to produce children without men. It seems that the first women after the catastrophe to bear a child was a particularly worthy individual who had learned all the ways and philosophy of the women’s society. It was found that simply by wishing earnestly for a child she was able to conceive. She went on the bear five daughters. These daughters were able also to produce female children and motherhood becomes the epitome of a woman’s achievement in life. Charlotte again glosses over any possible scientific explanation for this parthenogenic reproduction. The population increased until it became obvious that over-population was sure to happen. So, it was decided that each citizen would be allowed to bear just one child. Children are cared for communally, although they are recognised as the child of their mother, something like kibbutzim. Education of these children is undertaken by women who have specialised in teaching and it is a gradual, exploratory type of education, encouraging children to form interests in various areas of knowledge and to discover things for themselves. An ideal sort of education perhaps a little like the Steiner method. Or that of the ‘small schools’. From early days the children know Peace, Beauty, Order, Safety, Love, Wisdom, Justice, Patience and Plenty. The women find it hard to understand American methods of instructions where knowledge is ‘dinned’ into pupils, with punishment for not learning their lessons adequately.

Terry, predictably, finds this confinement irksome and kicks against it, speaking to his companions in derogatory terms about the women because they are not in the first flush of youth. The other two are absorbed by the study of this unique civilisation but in time they concede to Terry’s restlessness and agree to engineer an escape. Of course, they don’t get far and are brought gently back to their accommodation feeling rather sheepish.

The men are curious as to how the women have arrived, apparently without the superior brain of the male, at such a high level of technological achievement, evident in their buildings and their agriculture. The women explain that they have achieved these things through experimentation. The men are astounded. They believe it is only the male sex which can produce architecture, technical advances and inventions. By the time the men have learned enough of the women’s language and they of English, the three senior women appointed to monitor the men decide that they can be shown more of the country. The men are taken on a tour of the immediate countryside and are shown how the settlements are laid out, each supplied with good standard living units, communal canteens and well-tended gardens and orchards. The women long ago decided that keeping large mammals was not viable as they take up so much of the natural resources. Consequently they have developed a wholly vegetarian diet. Every woman works in the gardens and orchards with the result they are strong and healthy and do not succumb to diseases.

The men’s education continues until it is decided that they should be allowed to give some talks to the young girls about America. But as Van and Jeff learn more about Herland they begin to tell less and less of how American society operates because the contrast is not in America’s favour. These very logical girls can’t understand how it is that, although Jeff insists that women in America are not expected to carry out hard physical labour, being deemed unsuited to it, yet some women do have to work and, what’s more, these are the women who have the biggest families; higher class women have fewer children and servants and a great deal of help in organising their households. What do they do then, asks a curious girl. ‘Good works’ is the reply, of course, visiting the poor, sitting on committees and entertaining their husbands’ business associates. Charlotte’s socialism shows through here.

Time passes, pleasantly enough for Van and Jeff. Terry remains truculent and frustrated. The three meet up again with the three girls they first saw hiding in the tree. Relationships develop between each pair. Terry falls madly in love with Alima but is infuriated because he is unable to subdue her. Sparks are struck between the two. They quarrel and part frequently but come together again. Theirs is a stormy relationship. Van and Ellidor have a deep, restful feeling, ‘as if we’d always had one another’– a relationship based first and foremost on friendship and equality. Jeff and Celis’s relationship is rather more a situation of adored and adoring. The three girls further the men’s knowledge of their society and are eager to learn more of American society. Marriage in American society is described and the girls are curious and finally consent to undergo a marriage ceremony with each of their lovers. But problems soon arise. The men try to explain sexual love within marriage to the girls, who find some difficulty in comprehending that sex might be practiced without the intention of producing children. Terry, predictably, dislikes the type of woman who is utterly tied up in her children. Eventually this mismatch of understanding is Terry’s downfall. Angered and frustrated at the lack of a sex life with his ‘wife’ he hides in her room (the girls insist on keeping their own rooms) and, if Alima had not already become fearful of his actions and asked a senior woman to occupy the room next to hers, he would have raped her. He is swiftly overpowered and bound. The women of Herland come to the conclusion that Terry must go back to his own ‘civilisation’. Van’s wife Ellidor is of an exceptionally curious nature and she is all for accompanying Van to American because she is eager to find out about life there. With reservations he agrees to this. Jeff, on the other hand, fits well into the gentle society of Herland and is willing to live his married life as Celis wishes. He stays. Van and Ellidor, and Terry leave, sworn to secrecy about their sojourn in Herland and all the records of their stay confiscated. Van is sure Terry will keep this promise, most likely because he came out of the experience so badly.

As I came to the end of the book, I felt very concerned for Ellidor. I felt sure that she would find living the American woman’s life in the early twentieth century totally alien to everything she had been brought up to expect from life. I feared she would be crushed by the experience even though she is a stalwart sort of girl, intelligent and eager. Maybe she would, in some small way, have brought a little of utopia into Van’s life, but I don’t think he would have been able to protect her from the harm living in that society would do her. Maybe there could be a sequel in which life becomes intolerable for Ellidor in American and she and Van return to settle in Herland. It would seem that this is the only place in which they could ‘live happily ever after’.

This is a very enjoyable read, somewhat mischievous in its demolition of ‘the conventions of patriarchy’, but never vicious. Ridicule and logic are Charlotte’s main tools.

Another review of the book, by Mary P., can be found here.

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