Book number four in my latest reading project is Herland by Charlotte Gilman Perkins, published a hundred years ago in 1915.
When selecting this book, I somehow missed that it was the middle part of a trilogy. That turned out not to be a problem, though, for apparently the first book (Moving the Mountain) and this one have no common characters at all. Being the middle book would also explain why Herland ends so abruptly.
The story is told from the perspective of a young American, “Van” Jennings. He leaves with two friends, Terry and Jeff, on an expedition to an uncharted land where, according to rumor, only women live. The men first boat upriver and then fly to the unreachable plateau on Terry’s plane, land successfully, and start their exploration on foot, only to be caught and imprisoned by the inhabitants. The men are allowed increasing amounts of liberty, and after some language tutoring, they start making sense of their new home.
Most of the short book consists of various descriptions of this utopian land, either the men’s observations or discussions with the women. It turns out that women have, indeed, been its only inhabitants for some two thousand years. After losing their men in a civil war following a catastrophe, they’ve been able to survive through some mysterious sort of parthenogenesis, first in one woman only, then only in her five daughters and their five daughters; eventually all women in Herland could reproduce should they want to (“When a woman chose to be a mother, she allowed the child-longing to grow within her till it worked its natural miracle.”).
Eventually, after a year or so in Herland, the men arrange a triple wedding, mashing up their customs with the women’s, to accommodate the women’s wish to return to a bi-sex community and their own love for the three girls they first met upon arrival. Soon after, Terry is expelled due to a botched rape attempt. Jeff is at this point deeply in love with his wife Celis and decides to stay permanently, but Van, accompanied with his wife Ellador, leaves with Terry.
In a weird way, some of Perkins’s vocabulary reminded me of Anglo-Saxon compounds like war-terror (wīggryre), spear-bold (gārcēne = ‘brave’) or spear-warrior (gārwiga) in Beowulf. She mostly used them in contexts to do with gender relations and reproduction, like child-longing in the quote above or sex-love and sex-feeling. Perkins has been criticised for racism and praise of eugenics, and there are instances in the book that stick out (e.g. “these people were of Aryan stock”). Both these features turn the reading experience into a more dated one than it otherwise would be.
As I’m generally not big on utopian or dystopian worlds, and as there’s nothing in Herland that would make me want to continue reading the last part of the trilogy (With Her in Ourland), this will most likely remain my only encounter with Perkins.
P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.