Monday, 24 March 2014

Review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Dover Thrift Editions (1998)
124 pgs

I've fancied reading this short novel ever since reading The Yellow Wallpaper at uni and loving it. It has been on my shelf for some time and I couldn't resist diving in when I noticed the March theme for the Classics Club Twelve Month challenge was feminist reading. This turned out to be the perfect feminist read and an unexpectedly good one, at that.

Herland is narrated by Vandyck Jennings, a sociologist who determined to discover the mythical place where only women lived, with a couple of friends. Discover it they do (more like stumble upon it), and after a tense beginning, the men are welcomed into the fold and spend years living with the women, learning their language and history and teaching their own. As they're men, things do eventually take a sour turn but not before they've been educated in the Utopian beliefs of these women. The men themselves fit into quite stereotypical roles - Terry is the man's man and is the one who is always complaining about their lack of femininity. Jennings would fit into the metro-sexual role. He gets on with the women better than his fellows and the women say they like him best because 'you seem more like us' (he didn't take this well).

Whilst this is a polemical novel with quite a strong socialist-feminist undertone, it never feels like you're being bashed repeatedly over the head with ideologies or opinions. Herland is funny. It is witty, imaginative, mischievous and really so very funny. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I first laughed out loud. It took me quite by surprise as I was expecting exactly the opposite (not that The Yellow Wallpaper does that, it is just much darker). I think having a male narrator is key to this level of humour. With a female narrator, particularly if it was one of the women of Herland, it would be too preachy. Instead, there are some interesting debates and exchanges alongside some hilarious responses from the men.

If you're in the mood for a quick feminist read that makes it's point without the politics becoming the story, then I'd highly recommend this. I am certainly going to look into some of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's other works. I'm not sure I'll tackle Women and Economics, the social critique that rescued her from obscurity after her death, but I think I'll go for some more of her short stories. By the by, Perkins Gilman is another female writer who took her own life when she was diagnosed with cancer and realised her ideas were 'no longer of service'. Depressing, huh? I think even now we can learn things from her writings so I'm glad she didn't remain forgotten.

I'm going to leave you with some of my favourite quotes:

''But they look - why, this is a civilised country!' I protested. 'There must be men.''

'I rather liked it myself [short hair], after I got used to it. Why we should so admire 'a woman's crown of hair' and not admire a Chinaman's queue is hard to explain, except that we are so convinced that the long hair 'belongs' to a woman.'

''Confound their grandmotherly minds!' Terry said. 'Of course they can't understand a Man's World! They aren't human - they're just a pack of Fe-Fe-Females!''

'we talk very fine things about women, but in our hearts we know that they are very limited being - most of them. We honor them for their functional powers, even while we dishonor them by our use of it; we honor them for their carefully enforced virtue, even whilst we show by our own conduct how little we think of that virtue; we value them, sincerely, for the perverted maternal activities which make our wives the most comfortable of servants, bound to us for life with the wages wholly at our own decision, they whole business, outside of the temporary duties of such motherhood as they may achieve, to meet our needs in every way...These were women [in Herland] one had to love 'up', very high up, instead of down. They were not pets. They were not servants. They were not timid, inexperienced, weak.'

I read this as part of the Classics Club Twelve Months of Literature Challenge.

Have you ever read anything by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? 



  1. I started reading this one when I was much younger, and for whatever reason I bailed on it. I need to try again!

    1. I think if I'd read it at any other time I wouldn't have quite 'got' it. Definitely worth trying again!

  2. I haven't but I plan to read this. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg a while ago, just haven't got around to it yet.

  3. Oh I read this YEARS ago. I was probably about fourteen/fifteen and I imagine an awful lot of it went way over my head. Maybe I should get it down from the shelf and reread it with my adult (ha!) mind.

    I do want to read The Yellow Wallpaper at some point too, but I resent paying £8.99 in Waterstones for such a teeny tiny book.


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