J. D. Beresford’s 1913 novel about a global pandemic that kills mainly men—Goslings—has been republished by the MIT Press under its American title A World of Women, and it is a pretty good read. Beresford was clearly influenced by the Wellsian scientific romance and the novel shares similarities of style and plot detail with The War of the Worlds (1898). While it reads more lightly and less painfully than Wells’s cringe-making social comedies like Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr Polly (1910), it shares their engaging focus on domestic concerns. A World of Women also borrows from Ernest Bramah’s bravura set-piece adventures in his What Might Have Been (1907). This is a thoroughly Edwardian novel, then, which sets up the conditions to generate a feminist utopia—and then shows how human failings don’t allow the ideal to survive.
Like most Edwardian SFF novels, A World of Women begins in London and expands outwards. Journalist Jasper Thrale arrives back in London after a period of travelling in the “Far East,” considerably worried by a mystery plague originating in China that appears to only be killing men. He attempts to get the London papers interested in this as a world threat, but they won’t touch it because the Evening Chronicle has already covered the story. The Prime Minister, a man slightly faster on the uptake than his colleagues (they are all men—Una L. Silberrad’s alt-future vision of women infiltrating male bastions of power in the 1911 novel The Affairs of John Bolsover had clearly made no impact on Beresford whatsoever), unexpectedly resigns. His successor realises, appalled, that tackling the new plague has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with decisive and clear-sighted leadership, for which his political career has failed to train him. Thus we see how human preoccupations with money and power hobble our potential to do anything practical for survival when a seriously effective threat arrives. Overcoming this blinkered inability to adapt to wholesale change becomes a measure of those who will survive.
Before he went to China, Jasper Thrale used to be a lodger in the Gosling household. Mr Gosling works for a German-British provisions importer, and his suggestion, after hearing Jasper’s urgent warnings, of a mission to import extra supplies from Germany before quarantine is imposed becomes the direct cause of the plague’s arrival in Britain. As London shrivels in horror while men die in the streets and women are—inexplicably to this modern reader—incapable of finding food on their own and thus starving, the Goslings hole up in their Kilburn home. With secret supplies from Mr Gosling’s employer’s warehouse, they grimly wait things out.
Mr Gosling becomes a vicious domestic tyrant, enraged because Mrs Gosling refuses to leave the washing-up—since she cannot conceive of a world where there is no gas or running water, let along shops that do not open, or where money has no value. The Gosling daughters Blanche and Millie are quicker to catch on, but it takes their lone foraging trip into a deserted London to make Blanche realise that she must now take the lead. After Mr Gosling disappears, she forces Millie and their mother to leave London by foot, pushing their store of tinned foods with them on a handcart. They walk west, into new lands and a new existence.
Mr Gosling’s abandonment of his aggravating wife and daughters is deliberate: he encounters a pretty woman left to run her family farm and sees a necessary supply of food with an agreeable new companion; she sees a useful male body who can be made to tackle the heavy work that she is unable to do. The detail of the necessary exchange of sex for labour is skillfully elided by Beresford, writing in a climate where he and his publisher could be prosecuted for indecency. Yet he returns to this point again and again in the plot. Episodes in which women desire sex (and ultimately pregnancy) from the only man in the county, who can prostitute his labouring body in return for food and shelter, or hold sway as the priapic owner of a willing harem, become flash points of social unrest and horror. This most basic of human needs is turned into an economic exchange that mirrors the old exchange of women being trained from birth to please men, because their economic value was perceived to lie primarily in their bodies. This is a clearly feminist message, and Beresford explores it from a number of angles, bringing in religious resistance and idealistic, class-based visions of equality to let his characters argue it out.
As with many Utopian fantasies, there are plot holes. It is extraordinary that none of the women without existing farming knowledge visited their local libraries to find books on how to maintain agricultural machinery, or the processes for making flour. That a surviving man had to do that for them is thoroughly irritating. It’s also very odd that Cornwall seems to have been entirely depopulated. Beresford’s typology of women and their desires is rather caricatured.
Indeed, Beresford interjects authorial remarks into the narrative in a very Edwardian manner—but, in fairness, never too pompously. He doesn’t waste our time by discussing the exact mechanism of the bacillus (viruses were still in the process of being discovered when Beresford was writing), so leaves open the possibility that more men might have survived the plague, and that women are also at risk. The novel ends with a rousing but not entirely convincing call to Utopian perfection, in a new post-plague society that has removed gendered expectations at home and at work—and which demands equality for all, based on contributions to the community. This might be communist, or socialist, or a call for a cooperative society: it was certainly of the period, and identifies Beresford as a left-wing author just as his equally entertaining contemporary Ernest Bramah’s authoritarian SFF makes him right-wing.
This new edition of A World of Women was republished by the MIT Press in 2021 in their Radium Age series. Series editor Joshua Glenn, who describes himself as a “semiotician” rather than as a SFF fan or critic, has decided that because a thirty-five-year period did not have a name, he should define it:
There were the scientific romance years that stretched from the mid-nineteenth century to circa 1900. And there was the genre’s so-called golden age, from circa 1935 through the early 1960s. But between those periods, and overshadowed by them, was an era that has bequeathed us such tropes as the robot (berserk or benevolent), the tyrannical superman, the dystopia, the unfathomable extraterrestrial, the sinister telepath, and the eco-catastrophe … Inspired by the exactly contemporaneous career of Marie Curie, who shared a Nobel Prize for her discovery of radium in 1903, only to die of radiation-induced leukemia in 1934, I eventually dubbed this three-decade interregnum the “Radium Age.” (p. vii)
I don’t know if anyone has paid attention to this renaming of literary history. It’s not a bad premise but doesn’t seem necessary, except perhaps as a way of marketing a new publishing venture. The Radium Age series so far includes Wells’s The World Set Free (1913) and E. V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man (1923).
The documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor, who wrote the introduction to this edition of A World of Women, appears to have little or no professional interest in SFF. She says nothing about Beresford as a writer in her Introduction, which is mainly about her reflections on when she read the novel, during Hurricane Sandy and the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, and her views on the recent history of the USA. She says very little about the novel, its cultural context, or what it had to say. As a reader response this is an odd lacuna in the introduction to a new edition. Her remarks about the resonances between the plot of A World of Women and the COVID-19 pandemic of our day, a century later, are relevant, for sure, but was there really nothing else she had to say about the novel, to aid the reader, or comment on its style, setting, characters, or plot? Then I joined the dots: an earlier version of her introduction had been published by Glenn elsewhere.
Beresford is a good writer, and A World of Women (definitely a better title than the original Goslings) is highly readable. His prescience about the bacillic jump from an animal to a human contagion, the speed and effectiveness of transmission, and the importance of quarantine is quite humbling. We knew all this, and yet human society was still brought to a crashing halt by infection a century later, for the same reasons that Beresford had identified for us: money, power, and human failings.