Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a Gay Romance

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This chapter argues that Burdekin introduces sociopolitical enlightenment, ethics, and hope via queer desire, causing the reader to confront the damaging effects of homophobia as well as misogyny. Burdekin presents queerness as organic rather than situational, differentiating herself from a range of mid-century intellectuals who misunderstood homosexuality as a conscious choice, a disorder, or a circumstantial phenomenon. The chapter also addresses how Swastika Night anticipates key facets of both Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale, examining some of Swastika Night’s deficiencies, including its failure to acknowledge anti-Semitism and its idealistic conception of socialism, especially its favorable view of Stalin’s Soviet Russia. Equally troubling is Burdekin’s ambivalence toward English imperialism, which borders at times on apologism, revealing a jingoistic reverence for the English.

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The theme of this and the previous special issue has been a flashpoint in the interdisciplinary field of queer studies since Lee Edelman's influential No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). Edelman argues that to be queer is to oppose futurity, coining the term “reproductive futurism” to describe the tendency to define political value in terms of a future “for the children” and insisting that the power of queer critique inheres in its opposition to this narrative and therefore to politics as we know it. This assertion inspired extensive debate on relationships between queer artistic and political movements and discourses of futurity. This article argues that the conversation changes when feminist writings on the politics of reproduction and the genre of speculative fiction are taken into account, as they have not been so far. Drawing on Katharine Burdekin's dystopia Swastika Night (1937), the article suggests that the history of feminist speculative fiction offers a counter to twenty-first-century queer scholarship's sometimes reductive approaches to gender and reproduction. Burdekin's book is best known for its prescience in imagining the horrifying prospect of a Nazi victory before Britain's entry into World War II. It prefigures many concerns of queer studies in its disturbing depictions of homoerotic love among Nazi soldiers and women reduced to mindlessly reproductive bodies. Focusing on the significance of the women in her narrative, the article argues that Burdekin's speculative critique of fascist futurity turns saying no to the future into an effective form of feminist resistance — one that does not require a refusal of politics itself.
Writing to the sexologist Havelock Ellis in 1934, H.D. dished what she called the ‘“professional” dirt’ (Friedman, 2002, p. 501) on the author Murray Constantine, whose true identity was a mystery to the reading public and was subject to scrutiny in reviews.1 As H.D. reveals in this brief character sketch, taken from the same source: Well, to give you the ‘dirt’ on M.C. - she is about 40 - I remember now - 38 - tall, dark, very strange & clever - but with the most astonishingly un-charming voice I have ever heard out of (or even in) the Middle West. I imagine she is from Australia, but won’t tell me. She has rather taken to me - an American, of course, is not supposed to have the ordinary ‘complex’ about ‘colonials.’ But she is secretive, reticent, utterly un-English, yet keeps insisting there is no trace of foreign blood in her (with possible ‘hope’ as she says of a part of Jewish great grand-parent.) […] She has two daughters […]. The husband & she ‘parted amicably’ she says; she lives in Hampshire with a woman-friend, whom she is not in love with, a sort of Bryher, who helps her. (pp. 501–2)
Utopian visions have come increasingly under attack during this century of world wars, nuclear threats, capitalist and technological domination, poverty, genocide, and other horrors; dystopian visions have tended to replace them.2 Speaking from our postmodern moment, Seyla Benhabib clearly articulates the conflict between these modes of thought that I would like to explore in the works of three writers in England in the 1930s, a key decade for the shattering of utopianism. Benhabib asserts that, on the one hand, Enlightenment-inspired utopias of ‘the wholesale restructuring of our social and political universe according to some rationally worked-out plan’ to lead toward ‘human emancipation’ have ‘ceased to convince’.3 While numerous reasons exist for this shift in belief, I agree with those who see the impossibility of utopianism as due in part to the congruence of utopian and fascist-totalitarian thought most abominably displayed in the Nazi deathcamps. As a feminist, on the other hand, Benhabib is reluctant to give up wholly on utopian impulses, for feminist thought usually includes both a critical and a visionary project, and imagines a world transformed for the better; she declares: ‘utopian thinking is a practical-moral imperative. Without such a regulative principle of hope, not only morality, but also radical transformation is unthinkable.’4
George Orwell's 1984 bears a striking resemblance to a little-known anti-fascist dystopia, Swastika Night, that was published twelve years earlier. While the similarities between the two books are in some cases remarkable, of even greater interest is the different treatment of political domination and gender ideology in the two novels. Orwell's critique of power worship is inherently limited by his inability to perceive that preoccupations with power and domination are specifically associated with the male gender role. By contrast, Katherine Burdekin, a feminist writer who published Swastika Night using the pseudonym ‘Murray Constantine’, focuses her critique on the ‘cult of masculinity’ and the fascist dictatorship to which it can lead. Her novel is set 700 years in the future, after Hitlerism has been established in Europe as the official creed, and with it a ‘Reduction of Women’ to an animal level. This essay analyses the relationship between gender and power as understood by these two writers, one world-famous, the other forgotten.
This paper considers the political consciousness in evidence in texts published by Katharine Burdekin, Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf. It is proposed that, in addressing contemporary political landscapes and speculating about the future, the selected texts confront the institutionalised and discursive production of an English masculinity perceived as akin to a category of manliness mobilised by European fascism. Consequently, this paper begins with attention to tendencies concerned with mastery in both public and private spheres evident in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Processes of disciplining alleged irrational impulses gain centrality-and this can be read in relation to the desire of some English male modernists to 'discipline' the cultural domain with a reassertion of masculine dominance. In response to this, Burdekin, Rhys and Woolf variously manifest consciousness of the gendered nature of debates about English literary culture and its specific effects on the woman writer. Further, all express concern with evolved and prevailing definitions of bourgeois English manliness, and propose a link between this entity and the invasion of public and private domains by proto-fascistic dynamics. While attentive to differences among the three writers, this paper examines how they encourage critical awareness of formations of discipline and manliness in terms of impersonal forces focused in extreme and dehumanising rationalisation. These forces are most apparent in Europe, but all three writers insist on evidence of their aggressive presence in England. In this, selective accounts of early 20th century English culture which emphasise only progressive radicalism become significantly compromised.
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