Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Discussion: Millennium Hall

by Patrick Smyth, PhD

  1. “Hares and all sorts of game likewise abound here; so that with the help of a good dairy, perhaps no situation ever more amply afforded all the necessaries of life.” Consider Millennium Hall from the perspective of an eighteenth-century improver such as Repton. How are the grounds emblematic of “improvement” in this period? How do they attempt to improve on improvement?
  2. “… so that instead of feeling the pain one might naturally receive from seeing the human form so disgraced, we were filled with admiration of the human mind, when so nobly exalted by virtue, as it is in the patronesses of these poor creatures …” Consider depictions of disability in Millennium Hall. How are the disabled servants and “dwarfs” instrumentalized? Are there parallels between depictions of the disabled and depictions of women?
  3. What genres does Millennium Hall draw on outside of the Utopian tradition? Consider the novel in light of the gothic and the pastoral. What genre conventions are visible in Millennium Hall, and which are only present in vestigial form?
  4. Consider Millennium Hall from the perspective of later movements driven by women, such as suffrage, temperance, and feminism. How does the novel prefigure these movements?
  5. “Humble piety rendered her indifferent to circumstances which she looked upon rather as snares than blessings, and like a person on the brink of a precipice could not enjoy the beauty of the prospect, overawed by the dangers of her situation.” Beauty in the novel is, more often than not, a danger rather than a blessing. What function does beauty serve? How does it influence the heterosexual and female platonic relationships in Millennium Hall?
  6. “As the ladies’ conduct in this particular was uncommon, I could not forbear telling them, that I was surprised to find so great encouragement given to matrimony by persons whose choice shewed them little inclined in its favour.” What is the role of matrimony (and heterosexual relationships in general) in Millennium Hall? If the novel is a condemnation of marriage, why does Scott defend the institution in certain passages? (”We consider matrimony as absolutely necessary to the good of society …”)
  7. “If we had been inclined before to fancy ourselves on enchanted ground, when after being led through a large hall, we were introduced to the ladies … [O]ne was drawing figures, another a landscape, a third a perspective view, a fourth engraving, a fifth carving, a sixth turning in wood, a seventh writing, an eighth cutting out linen, another making a gown, and by them an empty chair and a tent, with embroidery, finely fancied, before it, which we afterwards found had been left by a young girl who was gone to practise on the harpsichord.” How do eighteenth-century conventions of female accomplishment legitimate the proceedings at Millennium Hall? What images—classical, Christian, mythological—serve to introduce the ladies? What is the atmosphere at the Hall, and what influences sustain it?

Discussion Questions for Sarah Scott’s Millennium Hall

by Amber Chiac

1) The women of Millennium Hall are obsessed with cleanliness, purity and virtue. The women’s clothes are described as having “the same neatness and the same “cleanliness.” The girls’ clothes are described as “extremely white and clean” (13). Even the architecture is depicted as “perfectly clean.” For instance, the narrator describes the chairs as made of “wood as white as possible” and states that “perhaps there was never a garden so neat” (141). One of the peasant women tells the narrator, “there never passes a day that one or other of the ladies does not come and look all over the house… [it is] all for our own good, for we cannot be healthy if we are not clean and neat” (19). Is there a connection between cleanliness, orderliness, rationality and control? How might this be related to traditional views of the female body (and the disabled body) as dirty, leaky, chaotic, contaminated and existing within the realm of nature? How does Scott alter the god/man/woman hierarchy by presenting woman as logical, clean, contained and passionless? How is this related to the fact that Millennium Hall is a “reversal” of the traditional conduct book and a “concrete” rather than an “abstract” utopia?

2) Building off the last question, why does Miss Maynard know everything about the women of the house? Is there privacy at Millennium Hall? The biographies of the women are riddled with deception and betrayal but such vices do not seem to exist at Millennium Hall. Do the women renounce privacy in order to live a peaceful existence? Or are women so pure in the company of other women that privacy is unnecessary?

3) According to Wilson’s introduction, some critics have noted an “undercurrent of lesbianism” in A Description of Millennium Hall.  In her article, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich conceptualizes lesbianism as involving much more than only sexual relations. Rich suggests we use the tools of “re-vision” and the “lesbian continuum” to detect homoeroticism in places where it did not or could not find articulation. Keeping this in mind, let’s examine the following:

The women of Millennium Hall sincerely care about men but they never really “fall in love” with them. The female characters never feel the passion or the lust that the male characters feel. In the novel, men have more to gain from heterosexual relationships than women do. Heterosexual relationships render female characters poor, stupid and sad while female friendships bring them peace, enlightenment and happiness. One could argue that the closest thing to a genuine love story in the text is the friendship between Miss Morgan & Miss Mancel. Miss Maynard describes their friendship as one that brings the women “infinite joy” (105) and suggests that they were reunited by providence. Their friendship is sometimes described in erotic terms. Referring to Miss Morgan and Miss Mancel, Miss Maynard says, “who from their childhood have been so connected, that I could not, if I would, disunite them in my relation; and it would be almost a sin to endeavor to separate them even in idea. (76) Scott clearly naturalizes same-sex intimacy between women and may be suggesting that it is godlier than heterosexual intimacy.

There is no normative concept of family at Millennium Hall. As Johns states, “form follows function” at Millennium Hall: “there is no master plan” and women “tackle each problem and project according to the needs and circumstances of the moment” (14). Scott subverts the traditional family structure and the institution of heterosexual marriage on the ground of irrationality. For instance, Miss Mancel and Miss Morgan act as mothers to the inhabitants of Millennium Hall and this turns out to be a particularly rational and effective mode of domestic/economic organization.

4) Millennium Hall is populated entirely by women except Mr. D’vora (when he was alive) and some “disabled” men. Miss Maynard describes Mr. D’vora as “a man of great understanding” and a man with an “incomparable heart.” Speaking of Mr. D’vora, she says, “misfortunes had softened common humanity into a most tender disposition” (44). One of the disabled men that live in the hall is described as having led a “wretched life…in the hands of one of those monster-mongers” and as having an “extreme weakness of body” (73). Why did Scott choose to include these men in the story? Is she saying that victimized men are akin to women? What does this suggest about Scott’s representation of women as exceptionally (essentially?) empathic and benevolent?

5) What aspects of this novel are prescient of contemporary feminist practices and ideas? What aspects are regressive?

In this novel, Scott critiques systematic oppression through richly detailed biographical information about each of the women who founded Millennium Hall. This supports the feminist epistemological approach of privileging partial perspective and demonstrates that the personal is political. Scott illuminates the ways in which “the social contract obscures the sexual contract on which it depends” (Johns, 92). Female emancipation is associated with the empowerment of other marginalized people, such as the poor, the sick, the disabled and people of color (the latter in The History of Sir George Ellison). However, Millennium Hall is not an equalitarian community: there is a firm class hierarchy and the disabled inhabitants are kept in an enclosure and referred to as “monsters” and as “wretched.”

Scott depicts men and women in very essentialist terms. Miss Maynard declares, “Every thing to me loses its charm when it is put out of the station wherein nature, or to speak more properly, the all-wise Creator has placed it.” Women in this novel have no sexual agency and their worth is based primarily on their “virtue.” Their happiness and wellbeing is important but only because it renders them good Christians. Women are still subservient but instead of being subservient to men, they are equal with men in their subservience to god.

6) Who is the intended audience of this novel? To answer this question we should examine why the women decided to create Millennium Hall. What was the major motivating factor? To passively escape the influence of evil men or to actively set up an experimental community with other women?

The obvious answer is that this novel was written for men. The novel ends with Lamont (described by the narrator as a “coxcomb”) reading the New Testament. He tells Miss Maynard that he is “convinced by the conduct of the ladies of this house that their religion must be the true one” and his thoughts are “engaged in a scheme to imitate them on a smaller scale” (191). In Sir George Ellison, the narrator goes on to implement the principals of Millennium Hall in his slave plantation.

Another possible answer is that the text is written for women. When Lady Emilia explains to Lord Robert that Miss Selvyn does not wish to marry him, she says Miss Selvyn is “so entirely happy in her present situation, nothing in the world should induce her to change it.” When Lord Robert inquires as to whether Miss Selvyn has “any particular objection to him,” she “shrewd the uselessness of this question, since the reason of her refusing the honor he intended her, would have made her reject the addresses of every man in the world” (ebook, 207). Scott chose a woman (Lady Barbra Montague) as her life partner and she wanted her readers to know this was a viable and pious option for them as well. Scott advocates consciousness-raising among women and valorizes the virtuousness of female friendship.

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