30 June 2016

Review: Utopia Ltd. by Matthew Beaumont

Trade paperback, 214 pages
Published 2009 (originally 2005)
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2013
Utopia Ltd.: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England, 1870-1900
by Matthew Beaumont

Beaumont's monograph examines the appearance of utopian ideas in late-nineteenth-century British writing, both fiction and not. I was looking for discussion of the creation of utopias, but didn't find a whole lot here, which probably does not speak ill of Beaumont's book. There are little glimpses of it, though; Beaumont discusses Karl Marx's take on Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, which he condemned as "transform[ing] the real social movement which, in all civilised countries, already proclaims the approach of a terrible social upheaval into a process of comfortable and peaceful conversion, into a still life which will permit the owners and rulers of the world to slumber peacefully" (qtd. in Beaumont 78-9). I think Bellamy's utopian fiction is characteristic, however: many utopian stories elide or obscure the violence necessary for the realization of utopia, in favor of a vague, "progress happened."

Beaumont also discusses the appearance of "cacotopias" in Victorian fiction. These are kind of like dystopias, but worse. Cacotopia (at least as Beaumont puts it) isn't interested in the parameters of the "corrupt power structures of the putative socialist state" like an anti-utopian novel would be; a cacotopia is written to "portray[ ] revolution as a sexual and political apocalypse" (132). Beaumont argues that it "depicts the working class, in corpore, as dystopian" and thus having a "grisly fascination with chthonic insurrection" (132). Beaumont seems to mark it as an inherently classist form: the working class will not carry out reform in a socially acceptable because they are incapable of doing so. Beaumont's discussion of the form was the part of the book that was the most interesting to me, though I wish he had developed his idea that George Griffith's Angel of the Revolution was "a parodic reappropriation" of the cacotopia (149), as Angel is too complicated and too weird a work to be summed up so quickly (the novel gets only a paragraph) if one wants to be compelling.

One very praiseworthy feature of Beaumont's work is the sheer depth of reading he's done in his genre of choice. Some of the works I went on to read in the Eaton Collection, like Fergus Hume's The Year of Miracle (1895) and Charles Gleig's When All Men Starve (1897), but there are many many more I would still like to read.

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