Pretty Much like Ourselves

Terry Eagleton

  • Modern British Utopias 1700-1850 by Gregory Claeys
    Pickering & Chatto, 4128 pp, £550.00, March 1997, ISBN 1 85196 319 7

Utopia is the most self-undermining of literary forms. If an ideal society can be portrayed only in the language of the present, it risks being betrayed as soon as we speak of it. Anything we can speak of must fall short of the otherness we desire. Utopias rebel against the unimaginativeness of the present, and in doing so find themselves simply reproducing it. All utopian writing is also dystopian, since, like Kant’s sublime, it cannot help reminding us of our mental limits in the act of striving to go beyond them.

The same problem is evident in descriptions of aliens, almost all of which are absurdly anthropomorphic. Beings who must have set out for Earth millions of years ago turn out to look pretty much like Paddy Ashdown apart from their dwarfish stature and sinisterly monotone voices. Spacecraft capable of negotiating black holes crash in the Nevada desert, while their occupants display an excited interest in human dentures and genitals. Their speech and bodies are inconceivably different from ours, except for the fact that they speak and have bodies. There can be no alien abductions, since any aliens who bothered to abduct us would not be aliens. UFOs, like utopias, are epiphanies of the beyond which bear witness to the fact that we can never attain it. The most mindbending of literary genres provide evidence of our incurable straightness.

Utopias from the 18th and early 19th-centuries, of the kind which Gregory Claeys has assembled in this handsome set of volumes, are outlandish precisely because of their ordinariness. What seems ‘utopian’, in the sense of extravagantly unreal, about them is precisely their incapacity to imagine a world significantly different from the one around them. In a bold-faced piece of bohemianism, the utopianists of Lady Mary Fox’s Account of an Expedition to the interior of New Holland (1837) hold casual buffets rather than dinner parties. In Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millennium Hall (1778), utopia is a country mansion in Cornwall, an anodyne English pastoral in which female midgets play the harpsichord and tend the shrubberies. For the English the ideal society needs to have an old orchard and a couple of herbaceous borders. The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751) locates its perfect society in ‘spacious vales and lofty mountains, pleasant verdure and groves of stately trees’.

This particular utopia smells good, whereas most of them are odourless, antiseptic places, intolerably streamlined and sensible, in which the natives will jaw on for hours about the efficiency of their sanitary arrangements or the ingenuity of their electoral system. Indeed talk seems all that is left to a people whose history has come to an end, and who are dependent for diversion on some alien visitor dropping in to have their theological doctrines explained to him. Charles Rowcroft’s ideal world in The Triumph of Woman (1848) is a drearily high-minded regime full of wholesome puddings, docile, state-funded artists and one pew per person in church. The space-travelling protagonist, who lands in Bavaria by meteorite, reports that there are no women in his world – a state of affairs which you suspect is the closest to perfection the patriarchal Rowcroft could get, even if his alien ends up falling for a female earthling. Douglas Jerrold’s The Chronicles of Clovernook (1846) – an insufferably arch narrative which becomes peculiarly excited at the prospect of little boys rending their trousers while climbing for apples – enthuses over an imaginary society which still has taxes, prisons and poverty.

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