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Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Herland

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This is a difficult book to write about!

Publisher: Various
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1915
Date Reviewed: 12th February 2017
Rating: N/A (Historical value is significant but it’s not the best book out there)

Van and his friends are exploring new regions and during their travels they are told of a land bereft of men. Highly intrigued, they make for that country for different reasons. Terry thinks he’ll conquer the ladies, Jeff thinks it all sounds marvellous, and Van is simply interested. It might not turn out as they expect, particularly for Terry.

Herland is a science fiction utopia novella – a sociological text – that looks at what might happen if men were not around. Understandably based around early 20th century American society – and a lot of academia – there is much to recommend it today both in terms of the history of feminism and eternally relevant concepts. There is also a lot to be said for reading it in our modern day where, in our further cultural and scientific progress, some of the concepts are more poignant and relevant than they were in Gilman’s day.

Herland asks many questions under the umbrella subject of womanhood. What is a woman? What is femininity and how much is nature versus nurture? How much should motherhood (back then almost an inevitability) impact upon a woman’s life?

Gilman’s narrator is a man, Van, and he is joined by two others. In the trio, the author makes use of different personalities in order to be able to fully explore her ideas in the context of her fictional world as well as to pull it apart both in favour of it and not so. Van is somewhere on the middle of a scale; he’s critical of both his friends who in turn represent viewpoints at the extremes, one of them loving Herland a lot. Jeff doesn’t take long to align himself with the country, indeed he is presented, once the trio get there, as a major ally of it. Gilman, through narrator Van, questions the wisdom of falling completely for the female-only society, always leaning towards equality for both genders. Jeff takes Herland in his stride and as the novel continues you can see Gilman’s questions – is Jeff’s a complete submission, his almost ‘mummy’s boy’ approach a good one?

Then there’s Terry. Granted, Terry goes through a cycle of changes that’s in favour of Gilman’s ideas – which I’ll get to in a moment – but on the whole in Terry you have a ‘man’s man’ who thinks all the women will love him and submit to him. Gilman wants you to see that both Terry’s and Jeff’s views are problematic – Van, too – to various extents.

Terry’s change, from ‘man’s world’ to a bit more ‘woman’s and man’s world’ is never completed – Gilman does make him more amenable for a time but it’s in her continued decision to not change him completely (she shatters his good progression to major effect) that you can see her thought that equality is best – and in fact Gilman uses him to show the increasing realisation that women can do just as good a job in traditionally male work. It’s a slow development but there is a distinctive span of time between Terry’s reckoning that the female-only country will be ‘savage’ and his statement in which he terms the people ‘highly civilised ladies’.

On the question of what femininity is, there is much. Gilman builds it up, as she does her exploration of ‘people’, speaking of Terry’s description of ‘real women’ (those in his society) and using character development to say the following through Van:

This led me very promptly to the conviction that those ‘feminine charms’ we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity – developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfilment of their great process.

Gilman looks at the differences between Herland women and American women, the way Herland’s are the equivalent of American men. She doesn’t go too far into the idea that Terry, Jeff, and Van should do the housework, too, but the point is made: a woman doesn’t have to conform to societal expectations to be a woman.

Where Gilman looks most critically at her creation is on the subject of motherhood. She uses the real world expectation in her fictional one, taking it to the extreme so that becoming a mother is the absolute be all and end all of life, it’s just that they happen to live full lives otherwise. (She has by this stage built up your imagination of the world enough that you can see the patriarchy and western concept of manhood aligning perfectly with this taken-to-the-extreme concept of motherhood.)

The country revolves around motherhood. It’s the highest, best thing, a woman – a person – can live for; it’s a religion. It’s both a clever criticism of the west and a criticism of itself:

“The only thing they can think of about a man is Fatherhood!” said Terry in high scorn. “Fatherhood! As if a man was always wanting to be a father!”

Motherhood is where the novella meets its biggest present day opposition. The basic history of the land is science fiction – it might even disappoint you because Gilman takes a giant definite leap towards fantasy, away from real world concepts. Herland women started experiencing immaculate conceptions and this reproduction produces only females. The contention today is in the continual effect of that propagation (because it’s now natural) – in order to not become overwhelmed by overpopulation, the highest people in Herland decreed that some women must ‘suppress the urge’ to reproduce and leave it to a select number of chosen women. Some women are so favoured they have more than one child.

The criticism itself comes in where Gilman places what we would now call a cheeky child outside of the circle of those chosen to later be mothers. If you combine this concept with Herland’s success at eradicating disease, illness, harm, it’s not the happiest picture, despite that this eradication of suffering is for the benefit of everyone in the land.

(The interesting thing about the views of children, in general, displayed here is Gilman’s view of how the west treats them: ‘no Herland children ever met the overbearing rudeness we so commonly show to children’.)

So disability and mental illness become suspect, too. Gilman does not speak of it outright – the illnesses she mentions read as cold and flu – but it creates unease, particularly in the context of today. It’s much like the situation surrounding Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre – you have to consider where prejudice as we view it meets what were average societal thoughts back then and come to your own conclusion.

Gilman says little directly about race. Terry calls the people who reside next to Herland ‘savages’ but given his character in general, in the context of the book it’s hard to say that this is Gilman’s view. Gilman’s Herland could be ethnically mixed; again it’s down to the reader. (I will note here that the question of the author’s views on race are answered in the next book. Since I wouldn’t recommend reading the next book I’d propose you read essays about her instead.)

Herland is an enjoyable read on an entertainment level, at least in terms of being entertained by history and barriers being broken, but it’s not something to read to escape daily life. It demands you think – that is it’s very purpose – and it’s a book you’d be hard pressed not to take a thousand notes on. It has its faults, it has its dated aspects, but it is a triumph in terms of progressive thinking. The only thing really amiss is the ending – the book finishes almost mid movement, but there’s a sequel that continues where the flying machine takes off.

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Ricarda Huch – The Last Summer

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School’s not just out for summer.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 115
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67034-2
First Published: 1910; 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th February 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: German
Original title: Der Letzte Sommer (The Last Summer)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Russia: the students of the university are causing the governor hassle (they’re protesting) and he closes the place down. When he goes on holiday, a plot to assassinate him comes together and Lyu decides to help; under the pretence of security, Lyu joins the governor’s family where he hopes to carry out the assassination. It may prove difficult – the family rather like him, one daughter in particular, and where they assign good work to him he ends up procrastinating.

The Last Summer is a short and somewhat comedic epistolary thriller. Originally published in German in 1910, whilst the time period may have moved on, the sometimes light-hearted (yes, despite the subject) spirit of the book remains as fresh as though it were a new piece of writing.

This is perhaps aided by the translation. Translated into English for the first time, Huch’s book has been well rendered by Jamie Bulloch. The translator of a good few previous Peirene novellas, Bulloch’s language decisions have ensured the text remains steeped in its now historical context whilst being very readable for us today.

The letters – the detailing and wording, the characterisation – mean that you don’t just get to know the people writing, you get to know the recipients too. This is a book of correspondence purposefully lacking in written responses – the characters retort to replies you haven’t been privy to but whilst this may at the outset seem a setback it means the narrative is brisk without any losses. (And it’s interesting that on the whole it seems the receipts do a lot more thinking than our writers, showing the dynamics of the family.)

Because there is a lot of extra detailing beyond the crime at hand – of the good kind. The comedy comes in the form of the everyday quarrelling between the siblings, the responses to the responses of the aunt you don’t get to meet who seems to have suggested trouble afoot for the lovestruck niece who just wrote to her, and even, at one point, the failure of Lyu to come up with a believable reason for a threatening letter to have got past all the security. The comedy fits the time – if you like the classics and other well-known books about everyday life in this period, you’ll enjoy this book. The shortness means you may not get as much out of it but it’s a good couple of hours company.

As for the crime, there is enough if that’s the genre you’re looking for – the ending is rather super. It might often seem as though it’s more a novella of the family but Huch doesn’t forget her premise.

Seeming far from its age, The Last Summer is a novella to look out for. Do the thinking the characters should be.

I received this book for review.

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Irving Bacheller – The Light In The Clearing

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Social issues and politics inevitably blend together.

Publisher: Dodo Press (The Book Depository)
Pages: 260
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4065-0366-1
First Published: 1917
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2012
Rating: 3.5/5

Bart lives with his aunt and uncle in a modest house in a modest village. He befriends a girl from a higher social class, but her reciprocation of his flourishing love is marked by periods of disdain for his humble status. One day he meets a senator and his life begins to change. Wanting to improve himself, Bart looks up to Mr Wright and learns from him. And Wright is more than willing to aid him in both his learning and his transition from child to adult, seeing how much potential he has.

The Light In The Clearing is rather like an American version of Great Expectations, only where Dickens exaggerates his themes, Bacheller dampens each down so that the story is far less dramatic. This has the effect of bringing more attention to those elements he does not share with Dickens, the overall result being to show how people can live with falseness and goodness and still manage to come out well.

Though it does take a long while for the book to become more than average. A lot of time is given to the every day, and there are many dialogues that are littered with accents that can be hard to decipher. The time spent at home, with Bart living with his poor relatives and later going to school, does not have enough interesting episodes to make it worthwhile, and it’s peculiar that Bacheller puts all his eggs in one basket – putting the majority of the romance, politics, and opinion in the last few chapters. Because those last few chapters are excellent, but it’s difficult to get that far.

The differences between poverty and wealth are contrasted throughout. Bart’s family are poor but they do their best to give Bart everything he needs, and it is really only when he goes to school that he learns that he is at a social disadvantage. His family and friends protect him, and Bacheller uses the whole concept to show where richness lies in love and accepting what you have. He also demonstrates that wealth does not always make a good person, and indeed the richer characters are often false and deceitful.

This theme is intertwined with the romance as Sally, for a time Bacheller’s own Estella Havisham in the making, flits between liking and disliking Bart, depending on how he is being treated by others and what he is wearing. Bacheller shows the innocence of a boy brought up to feel equal to others and contrasts it with Sally’s feelings about his poverty. The relationship between the affluent Dunkelberg and Baynes families, with its changes of friends and foe, expresses the idea of fair-weather friends.

It is the senator, Wright, and his entrance into the story, that signals the first of the changes in Bart. Wright is well-off in society, but as a resident in the town he has no problem befriending Bart, and it is Wright’s influence that gives Bart his goal in life and reminds him that he is indeed equal in nature’s eyes. Wright teaches Bart to be an adult, and to follow his heart rather than follow what society suggests. Wright’s own decision at the end of the book is a surprising but very heartening action that ministers of present parliaments would do well to observe.

Some of the politics, especially near the end, focuses on the abolition of slavery, the story being historical in Bacheller’s own time. The focus is not huge, and it is used more to set the scene, but there is enough material to gather an overview of how people at the time felt about it all. Where social relations are concerned, the person of Old Kate, a woman who blends fortune-telling with regular premonition, shows what happens to bad people who con their neighbours, with a morbid element thrown in for effect.

Whilst the first two thirds of the book are rather like Great Expectations, and there is even the inclusion of a room left the way it was after a last meal – and described rather like Miss Havisham’s abode – the latter third moves away completely from the classic, heading in the opposite direction on all accounts. The romance thread is confusing and the quickened pace of Bart’s progression from poor boy to lawyer is too fast to keep up with. But the overall atmosphere, the positives in the way that Bart overrules higher society’s choices, and the ethical Wright, makes the end an outstanding piece of work. It is just a pity it takes so long to get there.

The Light In The Clearing was the number two best-seller in America, but while it is easy to see why, for it’s political and social messages, it has not stood the test of time as well as it could have, and that is a shame. The length of time it takes to get somewhere, and that the time is spent on not so interesting tales of home life, does indeed encourage comparisons to the older work of Dickens, and not favourable ones.

The Light In The Clearing is a book that is worth a read, but not so much for pleasure as for studies of history. For history it is a fantastic fictional source but for pleasure the dampening of themes and 180 degree changes are too irregular to invite particular acclaim. It’s a good book, but its purpose has been served better elsewhere.

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Frances Hodgson Burnett – The Secret Garden

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On the moor there is a manor house and at the manor house there is a garden. And in the garden there is a force beyond reckoning.

Publisher: (Numerous, but I’d wager Vintage would be a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
First Published: 1911
Date Reviewed: 9th December 2010
Rating: 5/5

I didn’t enjoy Julie Buxbaum’s After You but it ignited in me the want to read The Secret Garden. I went out and looked for a copy by Vintage, my favourite publisher of classics, which as it so happened, had published the book only days before. Upon starting the book the irony wasn’t lost on me; here, having just finished Wuthering Heights, I was reading another book set in a big house on the Yorkshire moors, and to add to the accidental theme of my winter reading there were mentions of a “wuthering” wind.

Mary Lennox was born in India, to parents who had no time for her. As a result she was spoilt and selfish and when cholera swept the land the servants appointed to look after her fled without a thought for their charge. Mary was found and brought to England to live in her uncle’s manor, but her uncle seeks the company of no one and is frequently away. In the manor many doors are closed, secrets are kept, and there is no lady to look after children. But there used to be a lady, and she had a beautiful garden. If Mary can find the garden surely all will be well?

This book is magic. It may be heralded as a story for children but you’d have to have standards reaching to heaven to not enjoy the story at any age.

I call the book “magic” well aware that magic is a subject greatly involved in the latter part of the book. Although for a long time the story is unquestionably straightforward, there comes a point at which it changes track and becomes heavily focused on spirituality and well-being. The magic described is not that which is seen in tales of fantasy, but the qualities we, as humans, possess along with nature.

To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever gem get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live.

The book deals with changes – obvious physical changes, obvious mental changes, subtle personal changes – which are spotlighted by the shifting of seasons. Hodgson Burnett makes good use of these to match the feelings of her characters. This is where one could agree with the initial publication of the story being targeted at adults, the wording being such that although the idea is comprehensible for children the composition of it can, perhaps, only be fully appreciated by adults. Yet the personalities in the novel are those that a child would find most compelling and it is children who are most likely to reassess themselves on confronting their fictional peers.

There are few main characters in the book but a whole host of supporting ones, each with a unique purpose. What’s interesting is the way Hodgson Burnett presents a person as bad but then gives you all the reasons why you should like them.

Something I absolutely loved was the way the servants were treated. Apart from the first few chapters, where we see first-hand how Mary has been brought up to treat servants as far below her, everyone is more or less on an equal footing. The very poor are respected by the wealthy, their words heeded.

The premise may seem unrealistic, that a garden can change people so much and in such a way, but these are children and this is a special garden. I began this book knowing the story and hoping, but not being certain, that I would be as blown away as I was by the film adaptation. I was blown, as deftly as the moor’s wind could propel me, and I know that the story will remain in my mind now as it always had before.

This is fiction at it’s best.

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