Book Review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


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Herland 1915

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I first heard about Herland a couple of years after I wrote my first NaNoWriMo in 2009, resulting in the basis of my novel, Life in Slake Patch. The premise of my speculative novel, Life in Slake Patch, is a future matriarchal society forced by a global war’s destruction of the planets civilization and a large proportion of the male population, to take control. This developed a segregated lifestyle maintaining men and women into defined roles. The population is bound by strict rules on activities, living quarters and parings (marriage).

So when I discovered the Herland story, I was curious to read it. Maybe it was my naivety but I assumed the book would be the usual novel length, however it is only 124 pages, so more novella than novel. Due to a series of writing activities – writing a further four novels, publishing two children’s books and an adult fantasy and launching my freelance career, I never seemed to get the time to buy Herland. Well until a couple of weeks ago!

It is surprising how Gilman formed the concept of an all female land in an era when women were seen as delicate housebound wives. Although, Gilman was hardly typical of her time as she was a turn-of-the-century social critic and lecturer. Her short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is probably more widely known than Herland. The style of Herland is of course a reflection of the era’s writing style but even so fascinating and enthralling. Gilman tells the story of a feminist utopia from the viewpoint of a trio of men, who discover it by chance. This was my first surprise as my novel, Life in Slake Patch; written I hasten to add with no knowledge of Herland; from the viewpoint of a young man living in the male compound, Slake.

Gilman’s verbiage can distract the flow of the story, which in itself does not have the modern trait of increasing action and concluding climax. In truth it is monotone rather than stereo, devoid of suspense. However, it has beautifully written exposition giving the reader a real feel of the land and its inhabitants. I feel Gilman must have had an expansive imagination not only because she created a woman only land, but also she obviously thought of the ‘perfect’ woman world, cut free of the stereo type she personally experienced. Gilman goes into great detail on how the fruit trees were cultivated, the traditional meat animals were foregone and the garments the women wore were practical and comfortable. She writes in great detail of their psyche and how the population works together and abides to a thoughtful and exacting structure of life.Her explanation of their history is also creative.

The male narrator explains throughout the book how he and his companions try to impress the women of their male dominated civilization. Over time two of these men find that Herland has a much better way of life, utilizing forethought and planning, which over the generations made the utopia. One man is, however, not convinced and is determined to ‘show’ the female leaders, how they should be mastered.

In our modern age it is probably thought of as a naive story but at the time I would think it was shocking. Women ruling their own world and equal to men! The women of Herland were strong, capable and fearless of the men. Their interest was purely educational, a thirst for  knowledge of the world beyond their fortified enclave. The woman’s way of life was based on motherhood. This was their governing and abiding focus in everything they did, from nurturing the female only babies to caring for each other to sustaining themselves.

The second surprise was Gilman’s explanation of how the women managed to reproduce without men. It is a kind of immaculate conception, (actually a parthenogenesis process), which occurred several generations after all the men were killed and the women cut off from the outside world. One woman gave birth and her daughters also carried the genetic ability to reproduce. In our modern day of science fiction and fantasy rich environment, where anything is possible this seems fanciful but in 1915, I would think it was inconceivable (pardon the pun!) to most of the population.

Although, I bore in mind the era in which it was written whilst reading, Herland is quite exceptional in its concept. Gilman was a woman before her time and I’m sure if it were written today in our accepted style, it would be a great hit with speculative and fantasy lovers.

Charlotte

Charlotte Perkins Gilman  1860-1935

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