Burdekin, Katharine 1896-1963
BURDEKIN, Katharine 1896-1963
(Katharine Penelope Burdekin, Kay Burdekin, Murray Constantine)
PERSONAL: Born Katharine Penelope Cade, July 23, 1896, in Derbyshire, England; died, August 10, 1963; married Beaufort Burdekin, May 15, 1915 (marriage ended, 1922); children: two daughters. Education: Attended Cheltenham Ladies' College, 1907–13.
CAREER: Writer. Worked in a shoe factory, a printer's shop, and a flour mill. Military service: Served as nurse during World War I.
The Burning Ring, Butterworth (London, England), 1927, Morrow (New York, NY), 1929.
(Under name Kay Burdekin) The Children's Country, illustrations by Beth Krebs Morris, Morrow (New York, NY), 1929, published in England as St. John's Eve.
(Under name Kay Burdekin) The Rebel Passion, Morrow (New York, NY), 1929.
(Under pseudonym Murray Constantine) Proud Man, Boriswood (London, England), 1934, reprinted under name Katharine Burdekin, foreword and afterword by Daphne Patai, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 1993.
(Under pseudonym Murray Constantine) The Devil, Poor Devil!, Boriswood (London, England), 1934, Arno (New York, NY), 1978.
(Under pseudonym Murray Constantine) Swastika Night, Gollancz (London, England), 1937, reprinted under name Katharine Burdekin, Lawrence & Wishart (London, England), 1985.
The End of This Day's Business, afterword by Daphne Patai, Feminist Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Anna Colquhoun, J. Lane (London, England), 1922.
The Reasonable Way, J. Lane (London, England), 1924.
Quiet Ways, Butterworth (London, England), 1930.
(Under pseudonym Murray Constantine, with Margaret Leland Goldsmith) Venus in Scorpio: A Romance in Versailles, 1770–1793, J. Lane (London, England), 1940.
SIDELIGHTS: Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night was one of the first dystopian novels, portraying a terrifying future world years before George Orwell's 1984 was published. Written in the early days of the Nazi Party's rise to power in Germany, Swastika Night envisions a nightmarish world after seven hundred years of Nazi domination. Although her book did not achieve the fame of Orwell's, some critics have suggested that Brudekin's story influenced the development of Orwell's classic, and is equal or superior to it.
Burdekin was born in the late 1800s to an upper-middle-class family in England. She married and had two children, but eventually left her husband. She later became romantically involved with a woman who was to be her lifelong companion. Burdekin's first book, a realistic novel titled Anna Colquhoun, was written and published while she was living with her husband in Australia in the early 1920s. Another realistic work, The Reasonable Way, appeared two years later. With The Burning Ring, she moved into the realm of fantasy/science fiction, a genre in which she would achieve considerable acclaim. This story featured an introverted protagonist who takes possession of a magical ring, which gives him the power to enter the past. The Rebel Passion was also in this vein; the central character is a medieval monk, Giraldus of Glastonbury, whose body is inhabited by the soul of a woman. He has visions of the future, and Burdekin also looks backwards to reinterpret human history.
The Rebel Passion was the last novel Burdekin published under her own name. She later chose to issue her works under the male pseudonym Murray Constantine. Her first book under this name was Proud Man, the story of an androgynous space alien who travels from the future to England in the 1930s. The book explores his perceptions of British history and takes a look into the psyches of an elderly priest, a female novelist very much like Burdekin, and a murderer. In a review of Proud Man for Locus, Wolfe identified "Burdekin's real strength" as a "relentless and unsentimental analysis of a startling range of human behaviours." A Kirkus Reviews critic found Proud Man "vastly more readable than other Burdekin reissues, with frequently devastating—and remarkably skillful—feminist analyses."
The Devil, Poor Devil!, the next of Burdekin's writings as Constantine, relates the disappointing experiences of Satan when he visits the world and discovers that few people regard him as a real entity. The world's denial of his reality causes him to dwindle significantly. A writer for the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers called this book "a highly original fantasia on religious themes."
Swastika Night was the author's next publication. In this narrative, Burdekin expressed early feminist philosophy as well as numerous other philosophical ideas. The world depicted here has been divided between Nazi and Japanese rule for seven hundred years. The Nazi culture has developed a state religion worshiping "Our Lord Hitler," and promoting "masculine" values such as pride, brutality, and ruthlessness. Women are regarded with utter scorn and are kept illiterate, housed in cages, their heads shaved. They are approached only for abuse and procreative purposes; in the futuristic Nazi ideal, men reserve their noble, romantic feelings for each other, and have intercourse with women reluctantly. This society is, in fact, so misogynist that it is in danger of extinction. The essayist for the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers noted that "Burdekin does not only blame Nazism for this reduction of women, but traces its roots back to St. Paul, and even to the 'real tribal darkness before history began,' when women first failed to value themselves." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews described Swastika Night as "an inevitably talky and didactic but absorbing work, on the thin side as a novel—but, as an implicitly feminist analysis, frequently devastating."
One of the themes of Swastika Night that is a recurring thread in Burdekin's work is the idea that any kind of division based purely on gender is destined to lead to undesirable results. This notion was also expressed in The End of This Day's Business, which, though written before Swastika Night, was not published until after the author's death. The End of This Day's Business presents a mirror image of the world in Swastika Night—one in which women rather than men dominate the world. This world is considerably happier than the one presented in Swastika Night, and in some ways appears to be a true utopia. Although the men have no real power, they lead pleasant lives and are treated well. Still, Burdekin makes the point that no matter how benign their subjugation may appear, it is subjugation nonetheless and therefore inherently corrupt. When one woman, Grania, tries to help her son by revealing forbidden truths to him, mother and son are both forced to commit suicide by the woman-state. An essayist for the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers described the novel as "a forgotten masterpiece" and called it a "novel of genuinely terrifying import" and named Burdekin as an important forerunner of contemporary feminist science fiction writers.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Armitt, Lucie, editor, Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science Fiction, Routledge (London, England), 1991.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Patai, Daphne, editor, Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1993.
St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Belles Lettres, spring, 1991, p. 43.
Booklist, October 15, 1993, Whitney Scott, review of Proud Man, p. 417.
Choice, April, 1991, p. 1305.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1985, p. 881; October 1, 1989, p. 1420; September 1, 1993, p. 1089.
Library Journal, January, 1990, p. 145.
Locus, July, 1990, p. 52; March, 1994, p. 29.
Ms., January, 1994, p. 68.
off our backs, April, 1994, Angela Johnson, review of Proud Man, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly, November 17, 1989, p. 46; October 4, 1993, p. 69.
Science-Fiction Studies, Volume 17, 1990, Carlo Pagetti, "In the Year of Our Lord Hitler 720: Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night"; Volume 21, 1994, George McKay, "Metropropaganda: Self-Reading Dystopian Fiction: Burdekin's Swastika Night and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four."
Village Voice, June 19, 1990, p. 110.
Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1993, p. 21.
Women's Studies International Forum, Volume 7, 1984, Daphne Patai, "Orwell's Despair, Burdekin's Hope: Gender and Power in Dystopia."
Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Utopia, http://www.feministsf.org (August 30, 2004), reviews of Swastika Night, The End of This Day's Business, and Proud Man.