Dystopian futures: time-travel and millenarian visions in the poetry of Anna Barbauld and Charlotte Smith

Bradshaw, Penelope (2001) Dystopian futures: time-travel and millenarian visions in the poetry of Anna Barbauld and Charlotte Smith. Romanticism on the Net, 21 .

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.7202/005959

Abstract

Science-fiction and fantasy writing have always been, and continue to be, literary genres to which women writers are particularly attracted. In her study of women's science fiction, Sara Lefanu argues that among other things providing an appeal for women writers, is the fact that 'SF offers a language….for the interrogation of cultural order', an order in which they usually inhabit a maginalised position. [1] Within the various categories usually grouped together under the heading of science fiction, are two sub-genres which she identifies as being of particular interest: Utopias and Dystopias. In her discussion of feminist re-workings of these genres however, Lefanu concentrates on contemporary texts. In this essay, I want to examine the way in which these genres have previously been appropriated by women writers, by revisiting futuristic texts by two female poets of the Romantic period. The two poems that I am going to focus on, Charlotte Smith's 'Beachy Head' and Anna Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, both use the fantastic device of time-travel to provide a vision of the ruins of British and European civilisation, and in my analysis of these texts I will be drawing on the theories of fantasy writing put forward by Rosemary Jackson in her critical study, Fantasy: A Literature of Subversion. Jackson points out that 'a literary fantasy is produced within, and determined by, its social context' and consequently, 'though it might struggle against the limits of this context, often being articulated upon that very struggle, it cannot be understood in isolation from it'. [2] The dystopian visions of Smith and Barbauld are linked by a number of key features, which suggest that they are products of shared historical moment. In particular, both women tap into what might be termed the millenarian anxiety at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This kind of anxiety is not in itself wholly confined to this particular fin-de-siècle, as Malcolm Bradbury observes: "the turning of a century has a strongly chiliastic effect; it helps distil men's millenarian disposition to think about crisis, to reflect on history as revolution or cycle, to consider, as so many fin-de-siècle and aube-de-siècle, minds did consider, the question of endings and beginnings, the going and coming of the world." [3]

[1] Sarah Lefanu, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: The Women's Press, 1988) p.23.
[2] Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981) p.3.
[3] Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (eds), Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976) p.51.

Item Type: Article
Journal or Publication Title: Romanticism on the Net
Publisher: Université de Montréal
ISSN: 1467-1255
Departments: Humanities
Depositing User: Insight Administrator
Date Deposited: 05 Nov 2010 11:54
Last Modified: 01 Nov 2018 13:02
URI: http://insight.cumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/390

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