“One of Berrian’s Novels: Beauty, Domesticity, and Revolution (of Narrative Form)”

One of Berrian’s Novels: Beauty, Domesticity, and Revolution (of Narrative Form)”

Amid the aftermath of the Victorian era, the last thirty years of which were the Gilded Age, and numerous labor strikes and riots including the Haymarket Riot of 1886, late nineteenth century America was ripe for utopian novels. Over one hundred utopian novels were published in the United States between 1886 and 1896 (Pfaelzer 3), some of them a response to Edward Bellamy’s 1887 novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887. Among the responses to Looking Backward is One of Berrian’s Novels, written by Mrs. C.H. Stone (otherwise known as Margaret Manson Barbour Stone) and published by Welch, Fracker Company in 1890. Though One of Berrian’s Novels is said in the introduction to use “in part,” Looking Backward as its setting (Stone vi), the similarity to the setting of Looking Backward is only that One of Berrian’s Novels is also a future socialist utopia. The setting of One of Berrian’s Novels is St. Louis, Missouri. The year is 1997 (Stone 15, 209). The story revolves around a young woman, Lys Standish, and her circle of close friends, acquaintances, family, and colleagues. A further conceit is that the novel was written not by Stone in the late nineteenth century, but by Berrian, the famed twenty-first century novelist of Looking Backward (Stone vi-ix)The only novel-length response to Looking Backward to be published by an American woman at that time[1], One of Berrian’s Novels received considerable contemporaneous reviews[2].

One review states that Stone’s “temerity … exceeds all praise”, though it must be acknowledged that Stone is also credited in this review by The Unitarian as the member of a local congregation (“Reviews and Magazines” 546). Another review notes that in One of Berrian’s Novels, “some of the problems of life are treated in an original way” (The Book Buyer 70). Yet another credits the novel as “a great story” and suggests that anyone who disbelieves “step forward and pay a half crown” (“Fiction” 89). Why, then, is Margaret Stone is known to history not as the author of One of Berrian’s Novels, but as a speaker on and reformer of domestic service[3]?

One of Berrian’s Novels is now but a brief entry in various bibliographies of women’s utopian fiction[4], as well as in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Though Stone’s 1892 treatise on domestic service has been digitized, as has her 1901 nonfiction parapsychology book, One of Berrian’s Novels is available only on microfilm. There is no comprehensive published scholarship on the novel. Perhaps One of Berrian’s Novels has been lost to time because it is in many ways a standard depiction of gender and marriage within the latter years of the cult of true womanhood, and because the romantic ways in which it treats the United States are fairly standard as well. Perhaps it is because in some ways the novel is trite, with one reviewer describing it as “involved and stupid, morbid and without force” (“Recent Fiction” 659) and another stating that Bellamy “should beware of his new disciple” (The Critic 234). The most scathing of the critiques comes over fifty years later, in American Dreams: A Study of American Utopias by Vernon Louis Parrington, Jr. (1947):

Perhaps the least effective of all the [Bellamy] enthusiasts is Mrs. C.H. Stone. Her volume, One of “Berrian’s” Novels, 1890, is an attempt to answer those who insist that life in utopia would be extremely dull…. The novel is an extremely incompetent example of writing. If we are to accept Mrs. Stone’s fiction, she would prove the opposite of what she intended—not that life would never be dull in the new world, but rather that it would be all dullness. (89-90)

Despite the (some of it quite valid) criticism, One of Berrian’s Novels is significant for its depictions of Darwinian beauty and vanity in the Gilded Age; its nuanced treatment of domesticity and public work, particularly within the context of Stone’s public statements on domestic service; and its re-conceptualization of the utopian novel.

By the late nineteenth century, the domestic and public work of white, middle class American women in the United States was extolled as necessary and virtuous. Known as the “culture of True Womanhood” and the “culture of domesticity” and shortened to “the cult of True Womanhood,” this set of values constructed an ideal woman who was pure, pious, submissive, and domestic. According to Barbara Welter, these were the values “by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, neighbors, and society” (151) and “[i]t was the fearful obligation, a solemn responsibility, which the nineteenth-century American woman had – to uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand” (152). American culture was changing, and changing quickly; beset by industrialism, materialism, and long working hours for men in a “new land” that had become “one vast countinghouse,” women were expected to protect religious and domestic values (Welter 151-152). Another major source of support for the Cult of True Womanhood was found in Godey’s Lady’s Book, which had a readership of 150,000 by 1860 (Okker, qtd. in Sommers, 44-45), and whose publisher, Louis Godey, believed in the power of “the beneficial influence of a woman’s cultivated intellect” to improve American culture and society (Brown 178). The True Woman changed over time, however. As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg notes, “True Women” began to move into more and more public roles beginning in the 1850s (173). They were more likely to work and less likely to get married. They were extremely active in public works, including education, clubs, and public services (Smith-Rosenberg 175). In One of Berrian’s Novels, in keeping with the expectations for women in the latter half of the nineteenth century, there is no conflict between private and public roles. The women of the novel’s utopian future manage both with ease:

[O]ne of the crowning achievement[s] of the age is the sight in every city of these interesting bodies of women, able to conform to the strictest artistic requirements of dress and home keeping, and yet equally able to manage, with keen intelligence and executive ability, the questions pertaining to their [political] department” (Stone 70).

Just as Godey’s Lady’s Book emphasized the Cult of True Womanhood by featuring both “fashion” and “household management” (Sommers 43-44), the women of One of Berrian’s Novels are simultaneously useful and aesthetically pleasing. Lys – and, indeed, a number of the other female characters – meet the criteria that Carol Farley Kessler sets in her 1984 account of feminist utopian novels, Daring to Dream: Utopian Stories by United States Women, 1836-1919. Of utopias by women which were written between 1836 and 1920, Farley Kessler writes that “feminist eutopias of this period suggest several possibilities: paid work, education, suffrage, and co-operation” (Farley Kessler 11). Stone, like Sarah Josepha Hale, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Louisa May Alcott, portrays women as having “moral guardianship of society” (Farley Kessler 10). What is particularly interesting, however, is the way in which the female characters uphold Darwinian models of attractiveness while critiquing the Victorian trend of ostentatious wealth and beauty.

Beauty is a central trope in One of Berrian’s Novels, but certain types of beauty are clearly valued much more highly than others. The highest standard of beauty in the novel is represented by the protagonist, Lys Standish. Lys is “so beautiful a girl,” possessing the type of beauty “that gladdens and surprises each time as though it were the first.” She wears “[a] little confection of black velvet upon her head, which … heighten[s] the effect of the curls over her perfect brow,” and a “misty veil” blown by the wind both conceals and exposes “the sunshine of her face” (Stone 41-42). Lys also represents the culmination of various achievements in a time “when achievement, in some direction, is the only insignia of rank,” and her accomplishments are reached “without thought or effort” (Stone 51). Lys says that she “’deserve[s] no more credit than the rose for blooming,’” but is the “’admiration and envy’” of her friends for her effortless achievements (Stone 58) and adored by friends and relatives for her beauty (Stone 41). Lys receives adulation for her beauty. Other women do not fare quite so well. Lys’ friend Theo is attractive, but Theo’s is a dark beauty, “tinged with the sad passion of an ancestry that had fought its way up in the sultry march of earlier ages … The struggle had left its indelible mark upon her nature in a passionate love for the highest, which looked ever longingly out from the hopeless web of restraint, that ancestry, with its follies and weaknesses and crimes, can weave around its innocent posterity” (Stone 51). Beauty, then, is intricately linked with ancestry, and not just in a physical sense. Rather, beauty is the result of ones spiritual development, and spiritual development is dependent on heredity:

Though at first the myriad essences would appear in one monotonous form, ages later they were to declare themselves in all the bewildering phases of human nature; but the translucent life of the diamond, set free in this supreme moment, would lead to a life set apart […] climbing each step in evolution with a power – caught from the gem – of unconquerable beauty and strength. And thus, singing on through the ages, never knowing the only degrading serfdom, slavery to weakness, this bright spirit reached its culmination in this priceless gem of womanhood – Lys. (Stone 50)

Concepts of beauty in One of Berrian’s Novels follow a Darwinian model, in which “variations […] [decidedly evince a tendency to become hereditary], when not so become simple variety, when it does a race” (Darwin). As Smith-Rosenberg notes, the latter part of the nineteenth century was “the golden age of scientific determinism, of social Darwinism and eugenics” (267), and such a preoccupation with essentialism is manifest in One of Berrian’s Novels. Because beauty is hereditary and “the physical form we behold is evolved by the Ego preceding” (Stone 48), beauty is effortless in One of Berrian’s Novels. Dress is important – and, indeed, Lys’ dress is absolutely perfect – but dress serves as a foil for revealing the “authentic” beauty at the core of a woman. Lys’ beauty is described as emanating from the soul:

Her eyes were blue, not as the sky, for that lacks sentience; her hair was far beyond the gold of sunbeams, which never had the charm—so full of meaning—of light and shade; her rose-leaf skin could flush and pale as no rose-leaf ever can, and all were but tantalizing glimpses of the Pysche within.” (Stone 50)

Similar romantic and naturalist language is utilized throughout the novel. Lys’ pale pink dress evokes a radiant “flower through its bursting sheath” (Stone 182), Madame Lascours calls Lys “’a grand, white lily [and] brilliant’” (Stone 92) and Theo says to Lys, “’You always suggest the sun. As you stand now I fancy it gleaming through you’” (Stone 52). Dress is important, but a woman is either truly beautiful, or she is not, as evidenced by Sibyll Denham. Sybill Denham is certainly “’worth looking at,’” as she claims, and the other characters agree (Stone 76), but it is not the policy of the utopian government to support “’gild refined gold, and paint the lily’” (Stone 77). Sybill’s character is a clear critique of the consumerism which ran rampant in the Victorian era, with the wealthy class’ “penchant for fashion and home décor” (Holden and Rothenberger 139). The other characters may admire Sibyll’s beauty, but they also dismiss it as flawed:

“I never thought her particularly beautiful, Rita,” Fred declared, loftily. “She reminds one of a gorgeous flower without any perfume. It is no use, a girl who has no more originality than to think life means just fun and a good time, lacks flavor. (Stone 126)

Sibyll is not only representative of Victorian era consumption practices of the rich, but also, perhaps, of “the New Woman.” According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, the New Woman, while initially conceived as a literary trope by Henry James, belonged to “a specific sociological and educational cohort of women born between the late 1850s and 1900” (176). While Sibyll’s figuration of the New Woman is a more speculative claim than is her representation of Victorian era consumerist practices more generally, Sibyll’s emphasis on her appearance and her “short, red gold curls” is indeed reminiscent of Smith-Rosenberg’s depiction of New Women as being very much concerned with “flamboyant presentation of self” and as wearing “mannish bob[s]” (177). Moreover, Sibyll certainly fits Rosenberg-Smith’s description of the second generation New Woman as “plac[ing] more emphasis on self-fulfillment, a bit less on social service.” Sibyll does not fight for “absolute equality” as did the New Women of the late nineteenth century (Smith-Rosenberg 177). Rather, she fights for the ability to do exactly as she pleases. Thus, Sibyll does not fit in the utopia which One of Berrian’s Novels presents, for women in this utopia do what is best for their society. Often their duties involve domestic work, which is glorified in the novel. Nevertheless, Stone’s portrayal of domesticity and domestic service service is also complex, and complicated by her later public statements on domestic service.

Domesticity is integral to the plot of One of Berrian’s Novels, a concern which seems incongruous for a utopian novel, but fits well within the framework of the utopian society’s concern with the well-being of the average citizen as well as of the whole populace. Perhaps the most telling statement on domestic service is that in addition to being well-dressed and politically active, women are also expected to pass “’a perfect examination in all the details of house-keeping and the care of children’” before marriage. Such a law has reduced “[d]ivorce and intemperance” as well as poverty,” and “’left all occupations less crowded for women who had to work, and for men also’” (Stone 89). Most of the women in One of Berrian’s Novels are well suited to domestic work. Theo’s mother has “’such domestic tastes’” that she need not ever hire domestic workers and Theo escapes “’her three years at manual labor in the house-work of her home’” (Stone 65). Lys’ mother is “’the loveliest of her sex’” and yet wields “’the weight of … domestic machinery’” when it comes to managing Lys (Stone 18). Lys herself “’make[s] these delicious croquettes’” (Stone 66). However, One of Berrian’s Novels also interrogates the use of domestic service. After all, the examination in house-keeping and caring for children has meant the elimination of the need for domestic service:

[T]he question of domestic service drooped its hydra head forever … now all women became ambitious to be at the head of a home [… and] they grew far more critical of any seeming necessity for leaving it to work out in the world. (Stone 89)

The predominant elimination of domestic service – the exception being Lys’ mother’s use of domestic service outside of her home because to employ a domestic worker within one’s home would seem like “servitude” and be “an act of irreverence to the ‘spark of divinity’” in that person (Stone 65) – is complicated in the context of Stone’s public statements on domestic service throughout the 1890s. Rather than arguing for the abolishment of domestic service, Stone appeared at women’s clubs meetings such as the one in Boston, Massachussetts in May 1894 (“Discussed by Working Girls”) to argue that all young women should be trained in “the rudiments of house and home keeping” because it was “one of the crying needs of every girl and woman, no matter what is being said to the contrary by many intelligent people” (Murolo 59). “In One of Berrian’s Novels housework, though but “a few hours of work daily” (Stone 72), is considered a profession, and those who would shirk a duty to some sort of a profession are “a useless drag upon the efforts of others” (Stone 69). Because of the emphasis on the importance of domestic work, domesticity becomes more than a trivial matter, subordinated to love and revolution in One of Berrian’s Novels. Instead, domesticity and domestic work are valued equally with other sorts of work. Thus, the women of One of Berrian’s Novels present an alternative to the economic situation inherent in marriage of the late nineteenth century. Women in the utopian society do not rely upon a husband to provide for them. Though Sibyll would wish it so, women of this future utopian society are not allowed to “’live in idleness at their [husband or father’s] expense.’” The necessity of work is a freedom rather than a burden, as an indignant woman of the ladies’ division of the government notes in response to Sibyll’s plea that she be allowed to avoid manual labor: “’[E]very woman in the world has a chance to be herself, instead of the slave of circumstances’” (Stone 74). Each woman has the opportunity “to be herself” because each person is paid exactly the same amount for his or her term of service, as the government “’think[s] it much easier to see that there is enough for all, and then share evenly, … It is certainly better to give some too much than to give any one too little, as much have been the case when those in power set the prices’” (Stone 113). As such, no woman is “slave of circumstances.” These women avoid the situation Charlotte Perkins Gilman decries in “Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution” (1898), a situation in which women are economically dependent on men at all times:

From the day laborer to the millionaire, the wife’s worn dress or flashing jewels, her low roof or her lordly one, her weary feet or her rich equipage,— these speak of the economic ability of the husband. The comfort, the luxury, the necessities of life itself, which the woman receives, are obtained by the husband, and given her by him. And, when the woman, left alone with no man to ‘support’ her, tries to meet her own economic necessities, the difficulties which confront her prove conclusively what the general economic status of the woman is. None can deny these patent facts,— that the economic status of women generally depends on that of men generally, and that the economic status of women individually depends on that of men individually, those men to whom they are related. (9-10)

Perkins Gilman disproves the claim that “women earn their share of it as wives” (10), because though women’s “labor in the household has a genuine economic value” (13), “[t]he women who do the most work get the least money, and the women who have the most money do the least work” (14-15). Since women do not always demonstrate a relationship between domestic work and pay, and since women’s childbearing years are relatively few, Perkins Gilman concludes that women need not be “unfit for any other exertion, and a helpless dependant” (18-19). In One of Berrian’s Novels, women are not “unfit for any other exertion,” nor are they “helpless dependant[s].” Though it is most common for women to work in the home for their three years of manual labor, not all do. Lys, for instance, has “been excused from [her] third year of manual labor” in order to assist Madame Lascour in efforts to cure young people of too much “Ego” at the “College for Physical Regeneration” (Stone 18). In One of Berrian’s Novels, women avoid reliance upon their husbands if they are married, but they also represent an understanding of the societal and economic worth of keeping a home. Therefore, the utopian society may be seen as a refutation of Perkins Gilman’s later claim that, though “the labor of women in the house, certainly, allows men to produce more wealth than they otherwise would” (13), that to remove male laborers from any given community “would paralyze it economically to a far greater degree than to remove its female workers” (8). In her novel, as in her public work, Stone makes a case for domestic work as absolutely necessary, contributing to the smooth functioning of society as a whole. Stone’s representation of the necessity of work for all, as well as her depiction of the nature of the 1927 revolution, is perhaps the most compelling aspect of One of Berrian’s Novels.

In One of Berrian’s Novels, Stone offers an intriguing alternative to the conditions of Bellamy’s Looking Backward. The character of Sibyll as well as other “throwback characters” is a way to further critique the prevailing societal conditions of the late nineteenth century. More importantly, Stone’s significantly different presentation of details such as women’s work and the utopian revolution critiques Bellamy’s conceptions of the same. In Looking Backward, a character from the year 1887 (Chapter 1), Julian West, explores the year 2000 (Chapter 4). West soon learns there are many differences in the future. His guide in the year 2000, Dr. Leete, tells him that women have “’been relieved of the burden of housework,’” and that they “welcome their riddance.” Moreover, Dr. Leete says that women work only because they want to work:

“I suppose,” I said, “that women nowadays, having been relieved of the burden of housework, have no employment but the cultivation of their charms and graces.”

“So far as we men are concerned,” replied Dr. Leete, “we should consider that they amply paid their way, to use one of your forms of expression, if they confined themselves to that occupation, but you may be very sure that they have quite too much spirit to consent to be mere beneficiaries of society, even as a return for ornamenting it.” (Chapter 25)

In contrast, as noted in the section on domestic work, domestic work is seen as central in One of Berrian’s Novels. Moreover, though it is all the men expect in Looking Backward, it is not enough for women to be decorate society in One of Berrian’s Novels. Each and every woman is expected, just as is each and every man, to work at least three years of manual labor (31). Sibyll’s chief failure is not that she lacks a desire to work in the home, but that she lacks any desire to work at all. However, it is clear that Stone argues specifically for the importance of domestic work. The tension between women’s work in the home and public views of such domestic work is seen in Stone’s comments at the May 1894 women’s clubs meeting, in which Stone said that keeping one’s house “was not drudgery and was worth the careful attention of [… women’s] clubs” (“National Convention of Working Girls’ Clubs” 180).

Stone also presents a new model for utopian novels, both in her narrative form and in her refashioning of the revolution that makes the utopian society of 1997 possible. Instead of the standard “utopian plot” of “dislocation, education, and return of an informed visitor” (Baccolini and Moylan 6), Stone employs “throwback” characters who do not quite fit within the utopia and thus serve as a critique of the sorts of people who keep late nineteenth century America from being the ideal society described in One of Berrian’s Novels. Such characters critique the government of 1997 as “despotic” (Stone 93) and “paternal” (Stone 170), with one character, Mr. Gilder, suggesting that he should make more money than other citizens (113). Mr. Gilder, whose name alludes to his pretentiousness, is also the sort of man who prefers that women display “flattering subservience to his masculinity,” are “perfect dancer[s], and disinclined to talk” (Stone 129). Stone links arrogance and masculinity with dangerous individualism, writing that “on occasion, [women] criticize discriminatingly the work of the men in corresponding councils, who, true to old traditions, are still somewhat inclined to take things easy” (Stone 70-71) and that “young men […] are sanctioned in being extremely particular and critical about selecting a wife” (Stone 126). Stone’s throwback characters, however, also evoke less of the alienation associated with a visitor from the past. Indeed, women especially display solidarity in surprising ways, with Theo supporting Sibyll (Stone 126) and Sibyll speaking up for Lys (Stone 128), even though they do not get along (Stone 126). Female characters who are supportive of each other rather than critical are representative of Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten’s understanding of women’s utopias as “question[ing] the binary oppositions that infuse much of the popular literature written by men, … [and] eliminat[ing] the one good and one bad woman of the sentimental romance” (14).

Placing the characters in a future time and government, removed entirely from late nineteenth century America, also allows for a critique of those in nineteenth century America “’who could not work, those who would not work, and a smaller, but more powerful class, which lived in idleness, from a mistaken idea that money alone could cancel the bill of their indebtedness to this world” (Stone 85). As Sherryl Vint notes of science fiction generally, “[a]though set in the future or elsewhere, [… it] is commonly understood to be about the moment contemporary to its production, the anxieties and anticipations that form that moment” (22). Stone is more able to critique late nineteenth century government, the upper class, and Victorian era extravagance because her critique comes from the safe distance of a speculative future.

Stone also challenges Bellamy’s concept of a “bloodless […] revolution.” Looking Backward’s Dr. Leete claims that the citizens simply set aside their differences and in one generation formed the utopian society which West sees in the year 2000 (Chapter 26). The reform is not nearly so simple in One of Berrian’s Novels. Stone asserts that the revolution of 1927 was a “terrible upheaval of society” (Stone 81) and that though there was a “constantly increasing interest in humanity” that could have been enough “to bring about a change without violence,” the upper class selfishly “blocked the wheels of progress” (Stone 81-82). Indeed, the revolution involved “the strictest criticism of the dynamic power of thought, […] the abolishing of all nebulous standards of success” (Stone 84), and the outrage of the middle class” (Stone 85).

In One of Berrian’s Novels, Stone clearly critiques Victorian era materialism as well as the upper class more generally while reproducing Darwinian concepts of nature, presents a troubled view of both housekeeping and domestic service which challenges nineteenth century notions of the economic value of domestic work, and consciously revises Bellamy’s portrayal of the division between the classes and the necessary solution. While Stone’s prose in some cases leaves something to be desired, and her characters are admittedly not very interesting, One of Berrian’s Novels is still a valuable addition to the canon of utopian novels. It deserves to be more than a footnote, and to be critically considered both as a response to Bellamy, and on its own merits within the context of its time.

Works Cited

[1] Mary H. Ford’s short story “A Feminine Iconoclast” (1889) is a response to Bellamy (Farley Kessler 240).

[2] In addition to the reviews explicitly discussed here, another appears in The Writer.

[3] Stone is cited, in addition to the works discussed later in this paper, in A Bibliography of Female Economic Thought up to 1940 by Kirsten K. Madden, Janet A. Seiz and Michéle Pujol and in an essay on Irish domestic workers by Diane M. Hotten-Somers in Kevin Kenny’s New Directions in Irish-American History.

[4] These include Urania’s Daughters: A Checklist of Women Science Fiction Writers, 1692-1982, by Roger C. Schlobin (1983), Jean Pfaelzer’s The Utopian Novel in America, 1886–1896: The Politics of Form (1984), and Carol Farley Kessler’s Daring to Dream: Utopian Fiction by United States Women.