Dystopian Futures: Time-Travel and Millenarian Visions in the Poetry of Anna Barbauld and Charlotte Smith[Notice]

  • Penny Bradshaw

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  • Penny Bradshaw
    St Martin's College, Lancaster

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. 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'. 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 turn of a century is often marked by literature which evokes this sense of crisis and uncertainty, but the fin-de-siècle which occurs in the middle of the Romantic period, is unusual in that it coincides with a set of cataclysmic political events, which seemed to make the sense of crisis more real and imminent. The French Revolution was widely interpreted as one of the first signs of the end of the age as prophesied in Revelation, and was thus figured in terms of the biblical apocalypse. Barbauld's lifelong friend Joseph Priestley, delivered a farewell sermon in Hackney on 28 February 1794, in which he reminds the congregation that the 'language of prophecy' tells us that 'great calamities, such as the world has never yet experienced, will precede that happy state of things, in which "the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ'". He claims that it 'appears to me highly probable….that the present disturbances in Europe are the beginning of those very calamitous times'. Coleridge, taking Priestley's lead also described the Revolution in terms of the biblical apocalypse, writing in his Unitarian poem 'Religious Musings' that 'the day of retribution is nigh:/The Lamb of God hath opened the fifth seal', and in a direct allusion to the conflict in France, warns that 'Even now the storm begins'. Even after the century had turned this apocalyptic mood continued, and the literary marketplace was flooded by a deluge of visionary writing. Stuart Curran, in his discussion of this trend in Poetic Forms and British Romanticism, argues that in the early years of the nineteenth century 'the visionary mode' had become so popular, that it was 'threatening to become …

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