Walter Besant (1836-1901) was one of those prolific Victorian writers who makes Joyce Carol Oates or Stephen King seem lazy and unproductive. Besant churned out dozens of novels, as well as a slew of nonfiction, including a survey of French humor, a biography of Captain Cook and innumerable books about the city of London. Today, he is virtually forgotten, though his last name may ring a faint bell: His sister-in-law Annie Besant was a pioneering socialist and prominent theosophist, almost as famous as Helena — “Madame” — Blavatsky herself.
While most of Walter Besant’s work lies moldering on the shelves of English bookbarns, his genre fiction is still worth rediscovering. "The Inner House,” for example, considers the stagnation that results when humankind discovers the secret of immortality, and "The Doubts of Dives” presents yet another twist on the 19th-century obsession with identity exchange (cf. Robert Louis Stevenson’s "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and F. Anstey’s humorous "Vice Versa”). However, "The Revolt of Man,” first published in 1882, now seems especially topical: In its pages, Besant imagines a future England in which once-traditional gender roles have been reversed.
After the Great Transition, “the higher sex” assumed all the offices of power, abolished the monarchy and established a new religion that worshiped the “Perfect Woman.” Men now behave with gentle submissiveness, remain at home with the children and are admired mainly for their brute strength and physical beauty. One particularly amusing page describes a visit to a contemporary art exhibition, where the majority of the paintings are of “athletes, runners, wrestlers, jumpers, rowers” and “cricket-players,” all subject to the critical and sometimes lascivious female gaze.
In this future England, single men of the upper classes are always carefully chaperoned. But the handsome Edward, Earl of Chester, regularly flouts the conventions, even boldly risking his reputation to spend time alone with his cousin Constance, Lady Carlyon. Once the star pupil of the formidable Cambridge historian Dorothy Ingleby, the 20-year-old Constance has already become a power in the government, though when the novel opens, she has recently suffered a legislative defeat in trying to pass laws granting more privileges to men.
On the same day as this political setback, Edward informs Constance that “No less a person than her Grace the Duchess of Dunstanburgh has offered me . . . the support and honour of her hand.” In this society, an ambitious woman can seldom marry before the age of 40, since she must first establish herself in a profession. This means that wives are frequently much older than their trophy husbands. Edward has just turned 22; the thrice-widowed Duchess of Dunstanburgh is 65. Still, as the religion of the Perfect Woman teaches, “it is man’s chiefest honour to be chosen: his highest duty to give, wherever bidden, his love, his devotion, and his loyalty.” As for the Duchess, she frankly tells a friend, with lip-smacking anticipation, that even though she’s growing old, “I am going to make myself happy with the help of this young gentleman.”
Unfortunately for her, the Earl of Chester is a headstrong, rebellious youth. “The meekness, modesty, submission, and docility which should mark the perfect man sometimes disappeared, and gave place to an assumption of the authority which should only belong to woman.” In fact, the Earl’s behavior reflects his bloodline: Had the monarchy not been abolished, he would be king of England. To save her cousin from the formidable Duchess, Constance confronts the authorities with a daring counterproposal: She wishes to marry Edward herself. Because of the rank of the people involved, the entire House of Peeresses will be convened in three months’ time to vote on the issue. Constance and Edward know that the Duchess possesses the clout to carry her to victory, but young women — who are tired of seeing their sweethearts plucked away by elderly dowagers — are on their side. And how do the men feel? At church services, the congregations are mostly head-bowing males. Morality has taught them the wickedness of expressing or even feeling a particular inclination for one woman over another. Forced marriage is the law, and no opposition to a woman’s sovereignty is acceptable before or after the wedding. One unfortunate husband was sentenced to 20 years of penal servitude because his wife claimed — without witnesses — that he swore and threatened her. Not least, “art, literature, science, politics, all belonged to the other sex.”
Given the title, “The Revolt of Man,” it’s pretty clear where Besant is heading. The Earl of Chester eventually finds himself enlisted into a conspiracy to restore men to their dominant position in society and himself to the throne. Meanwhile, the rebels secretly read the old books and learn about the old ways. Their own daughters and sisters — graceful, kind and obedient — lack the usual “hard lines” that political and professional combat “brings upon a woman’s eyes and brow.” Because farmers, gamekeepers and other rustics maintain a modicum of independence, as well as skill in arms, the Earl quickly recruits them as the nucleus for his army, then awaits the spark that will ignite the revolution.
While acerbic and consistently amusing, “The Revolt of Man” nonetheless bristles with tendentiousness in its second half: Let women rule, Besant argues, and they will just squabble endlessly while society grows static and decadent. Only when men take forceful charge can civilization advance. Plus, everyone will be happier.
Unpalatable as such a conclusion may be, Besant’s satire reminds us that today’s vexed issues of sexual politics and gender identity have long, long histories: Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” dates from 411 BC. Back in 1915, social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s lost race novel, "Herland," depicted a distinctly idyllic feminist utopia. Is her vision truer than Besant’s? Would the whole world be better off with female-dominant societies? And — think about it — if not, why not?
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.