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No Place for Women? Anti–utopianism and the Utopian Politics of the 1890s

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The word ‘utopia’ can mean both good place and no place, and the common–sense meaning of ‘utopian’ is unrealistic. This article argues that common–sense assumptions of the impossibility of utopia are ideological, and constructed in part by the way experiments in utopian living have been represented. Historical accounts suggest utopias are doomed to inevitable failure. In fiction and autobiography, committed participants in such experiments as well as outside observers use narrative structures which distance utopian spaces from ‘real life’.

Using historical research and textual analysis, this argument is illustrated by discussing several women involved in utopian politics in 1890s England. Four of them, Helen and Olivia Rossetti, Edith Lees, and Gertrude Dix later wrote novels which re–created but also distanced their experiences. This distancing is partly a function of gender: for them utopia was no place for real women. This paper analyses the construction of utopian spaces in their novels, particularly the gendered relationship between domestic and political space. Narrative structure, imagery and humour are all used to undermine a sense of the possibilities of utopian living. These fictionalised accounts are compared with Nellie Shaw’s more positive non–fiction account of life in the utopian community Whiteway. Although writing as a committed utopian, she, too, creates an account that distances readers. The critical analysis of such representations can begin to challenge anti–utopianism.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: University of East London

Publication date: January 1, 2002

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