Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 3, 2018

2018 Rare Book Week

Once again it is Rare Book Week in Melbourne, and although I missed most of it because we were away on Norfolk Island we were able to attend a terrific event today at the Monash Conference Centre in the CBD.  The session was called ‘The Australia to Come, exploring 19th century visions of Australia’s future’ and it was presented by Zachary Kendal who’s a librarian at Monash and a PhD candidate in Literature and Cultural Studies.

Zachary began by acknowledging that the views explored in the books presented today, are views of 19th century British colonisers.  Whether they were presenting an optimistic view of Australia’s future or a dystopian vision of a future that they feared, the reality for Indigenous people was that the dystopian future was already here from the time that colonisation began.  He recommended that the audience also read contemporary books that recognise that colonies created both utopias and dystopias at the same time, suggesting The Swan Book by Alexis Wright and Terra Nullius by Clare G Coleman, and also the TV series Cleverman.

He also pointed out that Utopian writing began in 1516 with Thomas More’s Utopia, but that the word derives from eutopia meaning ‘good place’ and outopia meaning ‘no place’.  In other words a utopia is not a perfect place, not an ideal, and not an unchanging paradise, but merely better than what’s already there.  But dsystopia just means ‘bad place’.

Having clarified his position with this culturally respectful introduction, Zachary went on to share his insights into the utopian writing of the pre-Federation era.  Printing was becoming more accessible here in the late 19th century, but many of the books would be called SF today.  He has identified a number of themes in these utopias, including:

  • Socialism
  • Federation and independence
  • Foreign invasion
  • Women’s rights
  • Secularism
  • Christianity, and
  • Spiritualism.

So, to the books!

He began with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards 2000-1887 published in the USA in 1888.  This Rip Van Winkle in reverse is a portrait of an ideal life in the future – with the end of capitalism, no wars, no poverty, and an early retirement from work with much reduced working hours. It became influential around the world, sparking all kinds of spinoffs including here in Australia.

  • Melbourne Riots and How Harry Holdfast Emancipated the Workers, a realistic novel, by David A Andrade.  Andrade, who was an anarchist, shows the oppressed workers taking control of the city without having to rely on the wealthy to change.  His workers unite, form co-ops, and end the private ownership of land.  This utopia is not state-run socialism because there is still some private wealth, but the workers are empowered.
  • The Coming Terror is an 1894 novella by S A Rosa.  He wanted to see an enlightened electorate voting for change at the polls.  His socialist utopia nationalises industry so that workers only work four hours a day.  There are just laws, wise government and it’s an earthly paradise.
  • Sometimes, utopias were compared with life elsewhere.  Melbourne and Mars, My Mysterious Life on Two Planets by Joseph Fraser (1889) is apparently a better novel and not just a propaganda tract like the ones listed above.  It features worldwide peace because there are collectivist values on Mars, where people are bound together by the difficulty of life there.  This altruism is contrasted with less noble values in Melbourne.  The focus is on technology and science and the advances made on Mars, which include hey! the use of renewable resources. (BTW I’ve linked this one to its online edition because I had to check the author’s name, but Zachary says that nearly all of these can be read online because they’re all now in the public domain).
  • Neuroomia, a Manuscript from the Deep (1894) by G. McIver, is an adventure in Antarctica.  Its theme of a lost civilisation is a common one, but it’s different to the usual ones set in the Australian interior.  This one was published on grey boards like a respectable novel, but also as a disreputable ‘yellow-back‘ competing with Penny Dreadfuls.

Books that are pro Federation and independence contrast with those expressing a fear of invasion.

  • John Dunmore Lang’s 1852 Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, the Right of the Colonies and the Interest of Britain and the World divvies Australia in half, with a utopia on the eastern seaboard and Western Australia offered to Britain as a penal colony.  (I bet the reviews in WA were a bit caustic about that!)
  • Not all the utopias were in favour of independence.  Charles Ashwold Bland’s 1891 Independence, A Retrospect, tells a story of how things went wrong with premature independence and a Republic.  States fail to unify, can’t agree on a capital city, and the people come to regret the republic when they are under threat from China and almost at war.  People flee to New Zealand which has stayed with the British and prospered nicely.
  • We sat up straight when we heard the next title! The Battle of Mordialloc (1888) by Edward Maitland is set close to home for us, Mordialloc being only five minutes away by car.  In this story England is at war with Russia so Australia declares independence in order to remain neutral.  But without the Mother Country to defend us, those sneaky Ruskies invade on Melbourne Cup Day (when everyone is too drunk to notice!), landing at Mordialloc and presumably marching the troops up the Point Nepean Road (now the six lane Nepean Highway) to the city 25 kms away.  I might have to read this one to find out if the Brits rescue us.  Maybe the Kiwis do!!
  • Inspired by The Battle of Mordialloc, The Battle of the Yarra (1893) by An Old Colonist, is another cautionary tale focussed on the fear of invasion, but it’s from a utopian future.  Australia has become a great and powerful nation with a strong military by not getting in Britain’s wars.  In this one the people fight valiantly against the Russians and eventually they lose the war.
  • Again featuring war with Russia, The Yellow Wave (1895) by Kenneth Mackay features our troops being overseas leaving us vulnerable to invasion by China.  This one apparently merited a scholarly edition in 2003 and was also made into a satirical play…

Women wrote both utopias and dystopias on the theme of women’s rights.

  • Millie Finkelstein wrote The Newest Woman, the Destined Monarch of the World (1895), a satirical anti-Utopia revealing the dystopian nature of the world under the dominion of women.  Zachary read us its hilarious preface bemoaning the fear of women taking over the world.  He had thought at one stage that maybe it was authored by a man under a nom de plume, but no, there is a picture of Millie and she is its author!
  • In 1883, Henrietta Augusta Dugdale published A Few Hours in a Far Off Age.  It has a more positive view of women’s role, depicting better education, equality, and a happier and more stable society.
  • Catherine Helen Spence in 1888 penned A Week in the Future which showed Australia when gender equality was achieved, and (just squeezing into the C19th) in 1901 Mary Ann Moore-Bentley published A Woman of Mars, or Australia’s Enfranchised Woman. 

The themes of Secularism, Christianity and Spiritualism all explored the relationship between science and religion in the wake of Darwinism.

  • Melbourne was the hub of the Secularist movement, and it features in an anonymous publication from 1872 called Misopseudes, or the Year 2075, a Marvellous Vision.  The book attacks the Bible, Catholicism and predestination, and – common to many books in this era of the White Australia policy, it’s anti-Communist, racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic because it blames the Jews for all the derivative religions that its author despises.
  • Catherine Helen Spence got a second mention with her 1884 An Agnostic’s Progress from the Known to the Unknown.  It’s a rejoinder to Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress and is very critical of organised religion.
  • By contrast the anonymous ‘Acorn’ published The Future of Victoria in 1873.  It’s a utopia full of devout Christians, inspired by the literal truth of the Bible.  Science is only secondary and the book is critical of secular movements and other religions.
  • In 1885 The Great Statesman from the year 3000 by Joseph Broadbent Holmes attacks women’s suffrage and is in favour of very harsh penalties for crime.  It’s a very conservative utopia which showcases the unification of all the Christian churches and it’s the only religion in the world.  Holmes was another White Supremacist keen to see the triumph of his xenophobic view of the world and his hero is a fascist strong man.
  • Eugenics rears its ugly head in Visit to Topos by William Little.  In his utopia TB, alcoholism and other conditions have been eradicated and it’s the science of heredity that has achieved this, including through the exercise of telepathic prenatal education – in the womb!
  • Spiritualism was also centred in Melbourne, and it features in some remarkable books, rebuilding faith from the rubble of Darwinistic disbelief. William Bowley in 1892 produced Affinity, teaching from the spirit world, but this was surely eclipsed by A New Pilgrim’s Progress, (1877) published anonymously but revealed to the be work of no less than our second prime minister, the Hon Alfred Deakin!  This allegory of a spiritual journey to the City of Reason – a scientific utopia stripped of religious dogma – presents spiritualism as entirely rational and scientific … and what’s more, it purports to be by the Puritan John Bunyan himself (1628-1688) and the author specifically denies having written a word of it himself!

So there you have it: a comprehensive reading list of utopian writing, daft and dafter, but all at least thinking of what the future might be like and expressing their ideas about it with confidence.

Many thanks to Zachary for a fascinating presentation!


Responses

  1. Now this is something I would attend.

    • What I love about Rare Book Week is that there’s always some sort of idiosyncratic topic that you’d never get to know about any other way. Last year we went to a session about silk maps, you know, the ones that airmen had in their pockets in WW2 in case they got shot down over enemy territory. Today I’m going to one that’s called A Gentleman’s Library!

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. Am really interested in all this books since am interested in Australia rich literature

    • Me too, but I had never heard of these!

  4. Hi Lisa, what a fascinating event. It seems to me some people still have these weird ideas and beliefs. I didn’t know that Alfred Deakin was a believer in spiritualism.

    • Deakin is a man I need to get to know. There’s a new bio about him which I should get hold of…

  5. What a great overview, by you and by the speaker. I think though he takes an old fashioned view of meaning to claim it’s determined by greek roots and not by usage. I’ve read only CH Spence’s A Week in the Future but am amazed at the variety and number of works Zachary turned up. I must get hold of the anarchist Melbourne one.

    • Ah, (maybe I didn’t explain it properly) but you see, knowing the original meaning of utopia – and what it meant back then as distinct from now – explains in this C19th context why the worlds imagined were not perfect worlds. Logically, if a utopia were perfect, it would not fail, as utopias do in these stories.
      I first heard about Spence’s A Week in the Future when I went to a talk about her by Janine Rizzetti. I went down with a lurgie afterwards and never blogged it as I should have because it was excellent. I’ve got The Collected Works of CHS on kindle so I’m hoping this one will be among them. #NoteToSelf Must find where I’ve put the Kindle…


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