Victorian utopias

The nature of the ideal society has occupied philosophers and writers for millennia. Dr Marcus Waithe considers how Victorian writers such as H G Wells, William Morris and Edward Bulwer-Lytton reimagined utopia to interrogate their own age.

‘Modern’ utopias

In 1905, H G Wells published an experimental fiction with the provocative title, A Modern Utopia. The book proposed that tomorrow’s ideal societies would not be like those of the past that saw happiness as a matter of arresting change, of keeping things still. Plato described a changeless society overseen by philosopher ‘Guardians’ in The Republic (c. 380 BC); and in Utopia (1516), Thomas More based his new world on the model of a lonely island state. Isolating the good society was one way of keeping it safe from the world’s corruption. This made islands and mountain valleys an obvious location.

Consigning all this to history, Wells announced the coming of a ‘kinetic’ ‘World-state’. By ‘kinetic’, he meant that it would embrace the forces of change that his predecessors saw as a threat to social perfection. By extending it across the whole globe, he meant to solve the problem of a hostile outside world. It would not be a permanent solution, but rather ‘a hopeful stage’, and it would lead to ‘a long ascent of stages’ inspired by the incremental mutations of Darwinian theory (ch. 1).

Thomas More's Utopia

The title of Thomas More’s work Libellus Vere Aureus (1516) translates as ‘A truly golden little book, no less beneficial than entertaining, of a republic's best state and of the new island Utopia’.

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Journeys in time

Wells overplayed the novelty of his enterprise: a great deal of utopian fiction was published between 1860 and 1905, and much of it was more ‘modern’ or experimental than he gave it credit. Why was this? It is a cliché to suggest that the Victorian age was a time of great change, but it is true that Victorian writers were unusually concerned with their position in history. Thinking about where you are in time is one short step away from imagining life in future times. This preoccupation with historical placing accounts for the popularity of the genre, and also its relationship with the beginnings of science fiction.

Victorian ‘time slips’

As modes of transportation improved, journeys in space were losing their mystique. In his earlier novella, The Time Machine (1895), Wells represented history as a medium through which we might travel. He was not alone in recognising time as the new frontier. Most literary utopias of the late 19th century focused on distant times, rather than distant places. Perhaps because sudden shocks held more obvious dramatic interest, many works preferred the surprise of an accidental ‘time slip’ to the slow pace of evolutionary change. Like Washington Irving’s character Rip van Winkle, their heroes fell asleep in one age and woke up in another.

Reaching the future and backward glances

W H Hudson used this device in his ‘romance of the future’, A Crystal Age (1887). Dispensing with any framing scenario or explanation, the narrative begins in the confused first-person voice of a man who has just regained consciousness after falling during a ‘botanizing expedition’. Unsure how long he has lain under the ‘heap of earth and stones’, he walks through an unspoiled and depopulated landscape, before settling in an isolated ‘household’,[1] whose members are welcoming, but also subtly strange.

In the same year, the American writer Edward Bellamy used this mechanism to deliver his hero, Julian West, into a reformed Boston of the future. Treated for insomnia by his doctor, West enters a deep mesmeric sleep in a specially-constructed underground chamber. A century later, he is woken by the owner of the land on which his house was build. Unlike Hudson, who maroons the narrative voice in a mysterious future, Bellamy takes pains to explain how his character got there. He even situates his readers in the future: the book opens with the matter-of-fact claim that we are looking back on the 19th century, ‘Living as we do in the closing year of the twentieth century’.[2] West experiences an unpleasant flashback at the end of the narrative, but we know his stay in the future will be permanent.

Dream visions

William Morris’s utopian romance, News from Nowhere (1890) also links a personal journey into the future to a process of history. His hero, William Guest, falls out of bed into a London transformed by a socialist revolution. It’s a magical change, but in the end no substitute for the hard struggle of history, as a long section on ‘How the Change Came’ makes fully apparent. In his review of Looking Backward (1887), Morris was critical of what he saw as Bellamy’s ‘tightly drilled’ vision.[3] Instead of a collective end-point, he casts Nowhere as a personal dream, inspired by the dream-visions of medieval literature, but written to prompt diverse striving for better futures. Guest is accordingly ejected from this ideal society at the end of the book, the implication being that happiness is something we will need to work at together.

Underground and over the range

Not all Victorian utopias staged a journey through time. Two earlier works, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) retained More’s original emphasis on place (hence, utopia from the Greek word topos). Bulwer-Lytton’s hero founds an alien civilisation underground, and Butler’s Higgs finds a new world over a New Zealand mountain range. Neither entirely fulfils the expectation that a utopia is a ‘good’ place: in both works, the hero is forced to plan an escape. Bulwer-Lytton and Butler keep happiness at arm’s length, seeming to fear unchanging perfection as a tyranny. In contrast, Morris and Bellamy are insistent that the new world is also London, or Boston. A balance is struck between sheer novelty and the possibility that our familiar cities really could undergo radical change.

Footnotes

[1] W. H. Hudson, A Crystal Age (Aukland: The Floating Press, 2010; originally printed, 1887), p.8.

[2] Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1887), p. xviii.

[3] William Morris, “Looking Backward: 2000-1887”, The Commonweal, 22 January 1889. Cited in A. L. Morton, The English Utopia (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1952), p.155.

  • Marcus Waithe
  • Dr Marcus Waithe is a Fellow in English and University Senior Lecturer at Magdalene College, Cambridge, specialising in nineteenth-century literature. He is the author of William Morris’s Utopia of Strangers: Victorian Medievalism and the Ideal of Hospitality (2006). Recent work includes essays on Thomas Carlyle, William Barnes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Oscar Wilde, William Empson, and Geoffrey Hill. In 2010, he launched a web-based ‘reconstruction’ of John Ruskin’s St George’s Museum (www.ruskinatwalkley.org). Forthcoming work addresses the idea and practice of literary labour, and the relationship between thought and style in nineteenth-century prose.

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