Antipodean Utopias of the Victorian Era!

   Posted by: ermyntrude   in Culture, Literature, Victoriana

Coming across a detailed encyclopedia of British Utopias throughout history (I had no idea Glastonbury had a countercultural Festival back in the Edwardian era!), I was inspired to investigate what manner of similar occurences may have been underway in the Antipodes at the same time, as the influence of Mother England was of course very strong, and there was likely to be some cultural concurrence.

I must confess though, to having become a tad distracted from intentional communities of the time; and have found what may be of even more interest to Antipodean Steampunks: fictional utopias that were being written by Victorian Era Australians. Therefore, I’d like to present a brief appraisal of two of Australia’s better known Utopian works: Melbourne and Mars: My Mysterious Life on Two Planets by Joseph Fraser, and A Week In the Future by Catherine Helen Spence.

Now Joseph Fraser appeared to be an interesting character indeed. Listed as a Phrenologist (the study of the shape and protuberances of the skull, based on the belief that they reveal character and mental capacity - hugely popular in Victorian times but now well debunked) in the Sands & McDougal Melbourne Directory during the late 1880’s,  Fraser was better known as the author of several titles popular *ahem* with the ladies - namely Husbands, How to Select Them, How to Manage Them, How to Keep Them, and How to Read Men as Open Books. One can only imagine what kind of life the venerable Mr Fraser ans his lovely lady wife, Mrs Fraser, must have lived.

Melbourne and Mars: My Mysterious Life on Two Planets was published in 1889 by E. W. Cole (of the Book Arcade, about whom I intend to write a lengthy article at some point). Fraser’s utopian vision (a parallel life on Mars) is for a world where money is abolished, everyone has enough food, clothing and accoutrements to live a comfortable existence and electricity is an almost magical conduit, powering everything (however impractical even by our standards today); and this utopian vision is charmingly and earnestly described. Land travel occurs on an extensive underground railway system powered by electricity, people work minimal hours each day with extensive leisure time,and still appear to be theists, giving thanks for their bounty to “The Giver of Good”.

Catherine Helen Spence was a little more distinguished, being noted as Australia’s first female science fiction author. Spence led the life of a recognised public figure, landing in Adelaide only 3 years after the colony was founded and becoming a noted journalist and political activist. A Week In the Future leans in different directions while touching many of the same themes - a standard working day of only 6 hours, communal living, significant leisure time and a generally socialist approach to life are all similar to the ideas in Melbourne and Mars. Significant attention is given by Spence to fashion and it’s lack of utility, as one might expect from a feminist writer: in her 1988, clothing is no longer for decoration but is merely functional, and the concept of fashion is no longer considered relevant. The description of a bustle by our time-travelling protagonist when questioned by her relative from 1988 is one of my favourite lines:

“What is the meaning of that hump at the back? Is it to hide any sort of deformity?”

“By no means. It is to hang the drapery on, and is considered–or was considered–to be indispensable. It helps stout people like myself to have some appearance of a waist.”

Another issue worth exploring from a feminist viewpoint and one that is explored by both writers and where there is significant divergence, is that of overpopulation. Fraser’s Mars has four times the population of earth in a fraction of the space, due to their advanced technology and their use of the magical properties of electricity which “eats no food” unlike the beasts of the earth; an amusing misconception but ultimately disappointing; as the protagonist comes to the conclusion that the Earth need not fear for Malthusian scenarios for centuries. Spence however, brings forth very early in her work the concept of deliberate population restriction; in her London of 1988, all married couples are restricted to a maximum of 3 children, and there is no stigma attached to individuals who make the choice not to reproduce, and the restriction is in fact “the keystone to their whole system”. Instead of a child born out of wedlock being scandalous, it is the idea of having more than three offspring which is considered disgraceful. Conversely, infant mortality is virtually unheard of, most children living to maturity - a very different scenario than what faced Catherine in Victorian Adelaide, where the child mortality rate was 40% higher than in other parts of the colony and as a feminist, she would have championed any means to diminishing the domestic roles of women.

While many of the ideas expressed are fanciful and unrealistic dreams, there are in both accounts fascinating insights to life in Victorian Australia and the kinds of ideas and ideals from the perspective of both sexes to be found. I feel these kinds of works heavily inform our understanding and growing solidification of the concepts of steampunk, too. I would urge you to read them, and fortunately, both these works are out of copyright and freely available online:

A Week in the Future can be found on Project Gutenberg in full html text format; and Melbourne and Mars can be found as a scanned version of an original printed copy either viewable through the browser or as a full download [pdf, 37MB]on the excellent Reason in Revolt website, which archives a great number of works of Australian Victorian Utopianism.

Warmest Regards,

Mme E. Millais

This entry was posted on Saturday, September 26th, 2009 at 5:20 pm and is filed under Culture, Literature, Victoriana. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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