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Radical Utopias: History and the Novel in the 1790s

April London, University of Ottawa

Volume 16, no. 4, July 2004

©McMaster University, 2015. All articles published on the Eighteenth-Century Fiction website are protected by copyright held by Eighteenth-Century Fiction, a journal published by the Faculty of Humanities at McMaster University.


In their highly speculative engagements with alternative forms, utopias deny the determining power of history in ways that often serve as a rich source for the study of historical consciousness in literature. This is especially true of utopias written in the 1790s, a decade in which the revolutionary crisis made the meaning and uses of history key subjects of debate, and the conversion of readers an issue of fundamental concern to both reformers and conservatives. Reformers of the period attempt to disavow the influence of the past by representing historical narrative not as transparent or disinterested, but instead as determined by partisan defence of elite privilege. To convince their audience that a genuinely different future could be secured through social change, they embed this mistrust of history writing within texts that propose more discretionary and private models for interpreting the past and anticipating the future. Utopian novels met the radicals’ need for a form that could help them both to question the value of history (as event and record) and to alleviate the problems they encountered in arguing the merits of the unknown over the familiar. Despite such compelling reasons for its rapid development in the 1790s, radical utopian fiction is very nearly a moribund form by decade’s end.

Other ECF articles on the topic of “Utopia” include:

Sarah Scott and America: Sir George Ellison, The Man of Real Sensibility, and the Squire of Horton
by EVE TAVOR BANNET (ECF 22.4, Summer 2010)

Utopian Voyeurism: Androgyny and the Language of the Eyes in Haywood’s Love in Excess
by ELIZABETH GARGANO (ECF 21.4, Summer 2009)

Secretaries of the Interior: Narratorial Collaboration in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall
by WILLIAM H. WANDLESS (ECF 21.2, Winter 2008-9)

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