Book Review – Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
And welcome to the second book review for this new website which focuses on reading, writing and positive thinking to help you write and share your own stories with confidence.
Whereas the first book review was a must-read masterclass on writing by Stephen King, this time round I wanted to get closer to my intention of reading and recommending more literature produced by women, queer folk and/or people of colour. There must be loads of that around, right? Does one really need to make it an “intention” to find that kind of stuff? Well, maybe I do. Indeed, up till now I have (unknowingly?) built up an extensive worldview through books from a straight, white male perspective. And fascinating as that is, I’m thinking it might be nice to learn what’s going on in other people’s heads!
<Insert appropriate woke hashtags here>
<Or a cool GIF>
Alright, you’ve got the idea now. Strap in. Here we go!
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915) is a utopian novel written by an American feminist during a particularly ripe period of history. No doubt influenced by her family members, which included a Suffragist, author and educationalist, she developed her own strong views on the role of women in society, particularly in the home, linking the lack of independence to bad mental health. She wrote many poems, articles and short stories on these issues, including The Yellow Wallpaper, which follows the main character’s descent into madness & depression, following her husband’s demands to stay confined to the home in order to get better. (Doh!) Later Perkins Gilman went on to develop a concept for the ideal home – a communal living space where both men and women could live together, allowing you to live singly, but with companionship. And what with the kitchen being removed (!), with plenty of space for personal and emotional expression. I guess it is from these ‘radical’ ideas that her baby Herland was born. Minus the men.
Wait. You’ll see!
Herland follows 3 young men, each representing different strands of masculinity – Terry the chauvinist, Jeff the romantic and Van (the narrator) the almost woke one – heading off on an expedition to confirm the existence of a lost, or I’d like to propose, ideal, society composed entirely of women.
No, it’s not a joke. It’s real. Or at least it’s real in the book!
Anyhoo, so these guys think they know it all, and cannot possibly believe that an all-female society can exist, let alone thrive. Until they see it with their own eyes.
The imagery is brilliant. First the women themselves are good-looking, athletically built, and wear the most comfortable and attractive clothing ever designed. They live in and amongst nature where everything is green and lush, their homes being pimped-out treehouses. Trees over-hang with fruit, plants yield voluminous vegetables. And with all that you know they are very, very smart!
So, in a nutshell, this is paradise. No conflict. No hunger. No jealousy. 100% equality. Indeed, it’s very much “we are family” in Herland, with a big emphasis on motherhood. Talking of family. What about reproduction? No men, right? Well, these cool ladies even have that under control, literally ‘doing it for themselves’ thanks to parthenogenesis. Yup, that’s real too. Google it!
OK, so I don’t want to give too much away. You can probably guess it’s not ALL roses. But I’d like to encourage you to read the book yourself and let me know whether you are happy with Yourland, or if you are ready to jump ship and swim towards Herland.
I loved so many of the ideas contained in this book: that our world can really be aesthetically-pleasing. That we can live more in step with nature. That growing up and learning can be fun & practical & serve the community at the same time. That our laws can be reviewed on a decade to decade basis to ensure they are still relevant. That the nurture & educational development of children is the responsibility of everyone in society, not just the birth mums. I could go on and on.
However, the book was also sprinkled with some not-so-nice ideas. There was talk of savages and the preference for “whiteness”. Herlanders also seem to be anti-abortionists. The central role of religion was also questionable for me. Alas, Perkins Gilman is not the intersectional shero I was hoping her to be. But you know what? In fiction, you can’t have it all, can you?!
Overall, I do recommend this book for those looking for a fun first foray into western feminism. It’s quite short, coming in at around 100 pages. Perkins Gilman’s concepts of ideal living are vividly and colourfully described. And reading the novella is like being on a real rollicking adventure, slowly discovering new layers of this amazing could-be society, chapter by chapter. It certainly leaves you with food for progressive thought.
That said, here are a few other books related to feminism that might appeal to you:
The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter is for those who like to mix their fantasy with transvestitism and sadomasochism. It is visually rich, full of difficult words, and touches on gender, power and sexual identity. For strong stomachs only!
Dear Ijeawele A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a handbook which contains practical ideas for empowering your female child to become strong and independent all while discussing what it means to be a woman today.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge is a no-holds-barred history review and impact analysis of British colonialism. Yes, the core of this book is race. And it’s focused on Britain. But there is a hefty chapter on feminism which I think is very relevant to everyone, pretty much everywhere, today. So if you want a quick, but thorough update on the intersectionality of race and feminism – this book is for you!
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