This is a little gem of a book. First written as a serial in 1915, it didn’t appear in book form until 1979. Make of that what you will.
Herland is a utopian tale. The nature of the subject precludes much tension, although Herland succeeds better than most. Gilman is an accomplished writer (The Yellow Wallpaper puts that beyond doubt) and a sharp social analyst and theorist.
In this book she tells of a group of three adventurers who, having heard rumours of a country of women, set out to find it. In this they succeed, and in their time there learn how the women became isolated and how, over a period of two thousand years, they developed a society. Parthenogenesis is used as a device to explain the long history, but this is not science fiction. It is social fiction and explains how, without the restraints and hardships caused by men, a society of women might develop.
Like many utopians and many early feminists, this book discusses issues only now coming into common consciousness – particularly population control, the environment, and food production (the women of Herland practise a form of Permaculture). Central to the book, however, are discussions of motherhood and child rearing around which all else revolves.
The tensions in the book are two-fold. The first element is provided by the culture shock experienced by the three men. They are somewhat stereotypical, but this serves an important purpose in showing how some men think of and treat women. This comes to a head at the close of the book and results in the expulsion of one of the men from the country. He is accompanied by one of his male companions and one of the women who is set the task of observing Ourland and reporting back on what she finds. And in this is the second tension – can Herland continue its near idyllic existence if its existence becomes widely known. (There is a sequel, With Her in Ourland.)
This is a short, intelligent and interesting book, shot through with wry humour and sharp commentary on the state of the male world. That it is not more widely known is a shame. It deserves to be read. And enjoyed.