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Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett's New Amazonia: Gender Equity, Science, Utopia Anita Rose Western Carolina University You are talking with no more perception of the advancement of science than if you really lived in that nineteenth century to which you so oddly claim to belong. —New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future WRITING UNDER the masculine pseudonym Ellis Ethelmer, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy wrote a thirty-page poem called "Woman Free" in 1893. One of the most remarkable features of this poem is its 150 pages of explanatory notes. There Elmy traces the history of woman's subjection up to the end of the nineteenth century. In the course of the poem, and in her copious notes, Elmy collapses the discourses of scientific authority, Victorian morality, and British Imperialism and examines in turn the ways that the conventional values associated with these discourses acquiesce to hold woman down unjustly. She redefines ideas about science and its effect on British sovereignty and social conventions as she argues that woman's oppression is a systemic, culture-wide problem. Elmj^s reconfiguration of scientific authority became an increasingly common and effective method for feminists to imagine an egalitarian, even female-dominated, Utopian future. Elm/s poem and accompanying text provide a useful way to begin thinking about the cultural authority that scientific discourse enjoyed at the end of the nineteenth century. Feminist Utopians perceived that science and the authority of scientific rhetoric could be their greatest ally, lending credence to their imagined societies; they also realized it could be their worst enemy, perpetuating the patriarchial, elitist, and racist ideologies. Science had to be transformed in Utopian literature into a means of bringing all classes and races and both genders into a more perfect community. One of the more inventive and quick-witted ROSE : CORBETT Utopians of the fin de siècle was Elizabeth Burgoyne (Mrs. George) Corbett. Unfortunately, today her work lingers in the shadows of more famous late Victorian feminist works. Corbett's New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future is an interesting and entertaining novel that engages the authority of science to reconfigure scientific values and employ scientific discourse in support of a new, feminist utopia.1 Certainly the 1890s provided an opportune moment to use the eminence science had acquired during the nineteenth century. Gradually traditional sources of authority and power—the Church, the extended family, the aristocracy—were losing popular influence. Science was at once a likely successor and the prime challenger to these traditions as a "locus of intellectual authority" because the rhetoric of science was associated with a kind of objective truth.2 Science, in a world of increasingly specialized knowledge, seemed a reliable and irreproachable doctrine .3 Depending on one's social-political orientation, scientific diction could alternately imply progress, a lively intelligence, curiosity, and an absence of harmful superstition. It could also suggest cruelty, inhumanity , arrogance and greed.4 The faith of the high Victorian period in Empire, commerce, and science and the belief that England itself would inevitably progress had given way in the last decade of the nineteenth century to doubt and anxiety about the world shaped by those high Victorian values. "New," as Holbrook Jackson notes in The Eighteen Nineties, became the decade's most significant adjective. The "New Woman," the "New Hedonism," the "New Voluptuousness" and other "new" ideas all signaled a sense that this decade was different than the ones preceding it, even within the context of a century marked by profound change. The much discussed degeneration of the fin de siècle can also be read as a "sane and healthy expression of a vitality which . . . would have been better named regeneration."5 This urge to regenerate and reshape society was apparent in the Utopian literature at the end of the nineteenth century. Segments of English society that had been nearly invisible, or at best, characterless stereotypes in mid-nineteenth-century Utopian thought— particularly independent women, the working classes, and non-English members of the Empire—became the subjects of fin-de-siècle Utopian fiction. The social upheaval implied as these groups became key actors in visions of the future profoundly affected ideas about the world to come. Corbett reveals...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 6-20
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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