Book review: The Revolt of Man

The Revolt of Man (1882) by walter besant

Now this is a strange find! Here is a Gynarchy of two centuries in the future, conjured up in detail by a Victorian mind. Unlike viscount ladywood’s Gynecocracy (reviewed elsewhere on these pages, and not recommended), there is no obsessive fixation on petticoats, boots or any other feature of the Victorian Lady’s wardrobe. Nobody gets laced into anything, against his will or otherwise. But there is a detailed social structure where Women rule and men work or do gymnastics (really), and a bit of historical explanation of the revolution that brought it all about:

As girls at school, everybody had learned about the Great Transition, and the way in which the transfer of Power, which marked the last and greatest step of civilisation, had been brought about: the gradual substitution of women for men in the great offices; the spread of the new religion; the abolition of the monarchy; the introduction of pure theocracy, in which then ideal Perfect Woman took the place of a personal sovereign; the wise measures by which man’s rough and rude strength was disciplined into obedience, – all these things were mere commonplaces of education.

Art, literature, science, politics, all belonged to the other sex. Only his strength was left to man, and that was to be expended by the orders of the superior sex, who were quite competent to exercise the functions for which they were born – namely, to think for the world.

besant, though, is not one of us. The small band of heroes and Heroines with whom we are invited to identify are a disparate group of deep souls whose burning spiritual clarity or somesuch nonsense punctures the unnatural bombast of Female Supremicist rhetoric as they seek to bring down the Matriarchy from within. They gather together in secretive places, flirt with one another, and say things like this:

‘We cannot now read the old books; we do not understand the old discoveries; we cannot use the tools which they invented, the men of old. Mathematics, chemistry, physical science, geology-all these exist no longer, or else exist in such an elementary form as out ancestors would have been ashamed to acknowledge. Astronomy, which widened the heart, is neglected; medicine has become a thing of books; mechanics are forgotten-‘

‘But why?’

‘Because women, who can receive, cannot create; because at no time has any woman enriched the world with a new idea, a new truth, a new discovery, a new invention; because we have undertaken the impossible.’

When these people finally make their move against the Gynarchy the people rally ardently to their banners, and eventually the Women of England (or the attractive ones, anyway) are left not only happier but more Womanly, as They stand around commenting to each other that They don’t know how They can have ever have been so silly.

Well. i am candid enough to admit that if The Revolt of Man managed to land a single blow against Gynarchy it would never have got any publicity on these pages. But that is not what happens. Whatever its gender politics, the book is (perhaps unwittingly) a critique of the society of besant’s own time. In a move that betrays his lack of imagination, besant takes aspects of the power relationship between Victorian men and Women, reverses them, and then assumes that the mirror image of the problems faced in 1882 would necessarily arise in a Gynarchy.

Here is one example. his characters repeatedly return to the issue of young men being obliged  – i won’t say forced but it is almost that – to marry much older Women. Outrageous and unnatural!  Well, maybe so, but this is simply the reverse of an issue that was bothering the young people of the 1880s (and who can blame them); the inability of young men to compete for young partners in the marriage market. Many Victorian men hit 40 before they could afford to support a wife, and then they looked around for a younger partner. No doubt the dangers of childbirth had something to do with it. The problem is that Revolt of Man fails to show why you would expect the opposite practice to arise from the nature of a Gynarchy, and so as a criticism it falls far wide of the mark. It is a cheap and unthinking shot.

Such fumbled attacks are characteristic of the book. Every fault of logic is set up carefully, and then knocked down with relish. In fact the whole thing is an elaborate straw man, for the principles on which besant attacks Gynarchy do not follow in any way from the nature of the society that he imagines. It’s a bit like watching someone baiting an inoffensive animal; you have to wonder what it ever did to them.

i had always assumed that our great-grandfathers’ angst about gender relations stemmed from the rising Women’s suffrage movement (see the image at the top of this post), but 1882 is a bit early for that. Perhaps it was the admission of Women into universities that lay behind besant’s discomfort; Oxford and Cambridge were establishing their Womens’ colleges in the 1870s, around the same time that University College London because the first English college to admit Women on just the same terms of men. Distaste for the intellect of Women is a niggling obsession that runs through the text:

Here the Duchess made a gesture, and slowly rose, as if about to speak. ‘A proposition of this kind,’ she said, in a clear and firm voice, ‘naturally brings with it, to any young man, and especially a young man of our order, some sense of embarrassment. He has been taught – that is’ (here she bent her brows and put on her glasses at the Professor, who was bowing her head at every period, keeping time with her hands, as if in deference to the words of the Duchess, and as if they contained truths which could not be suffered to be forgotten), ‘if he has been properly taught – the sacredness of the marriage state, the unworthiness of man, the duties of submission and obedience, which, when rightly carried out, lead to the higher levels. And in proportion to the soundness of his training, and the goodness of his heart, is he embarrassed when the time of his great happiness arrives.’

If you are going to make your characters talk like that, then you can mock at anything. To besant, I suppose, it was ridiculous to hear a Woman speak in this way. The implication is that if a Woman were to become serious or learned She would necessarily become unnatural, which justified Her oppression. A century later, when we can view Victorian pomposity from a distance, it seems little stranger in a Woman than a man. So once again the thrust falls wide of the mark, because it only reminds us what  a windbag the Victorian male was; this is how he spoke. It is against the patriarchs of our past rather than the Matriarchy of our imaginings that the satire bites.

Beneath all of this, besant’s subtext is the dread idea of the abandonment of Christianity in favour of the worship of the ‘ideal woman.’ he even suggests at one point that the historical spur for the Gynarchic revolution had been Roman Catholic Mariolatry (idolisation of the virgin Mary). The suggestion that the Roman Catholic Church might be responsible for a future Gynarchy now seems – well, entertaining, at least. But to besant it clearly smacked of paganism, and he assumed this would strike his immediate readers, too.

sir walter besant. This is not what a feminist looks like.

i suppose i ought to dislike sir walter, but i can’t help warming to someone who at least made the effort of imagining a Gynarchy, even if he was hamstrung by the lunacies of his time. And it’s heartening to know that all this was imaginable – even if only to be attacked – 130 years ago. If all this was in his mind, it was presumably in the minds of others too, who never wrote it down, and never ridiculed it.

For all the wrongheadedness of besant’s conclusions, this is the most entertaining of the Gynarchic utopias (or distopias) of our forebears i have found. It deserves to be read.

You can download The Revolt of Man at


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