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Burdekin, Katharine

Entry updated 8 August 2019. Tagged: Author.

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(1896-1963) UK author, who was working in a military hospital during World War One when her husband was wounded in action; she signed some of her work Kay Burdekin in America and, in the 1930s, wrote what remains her best-known novel as by Murray Constantine, a pseudonym which was confirmed only in 1985 by Professor Daphne Patai. Neither of her first two novels explores the fantastic. Her third, The Burning Ring (1927), however, is a Time-Travel fantasy in which a self-centred young man, having been given magic powers including Invisibility, shapeshifting (see Shapeshifters) and temporary Identity Transfer, visits various epochs in various disguises, learning more about real life than he at first wished. The Children's Country (1929) as Kay Burdekin is a fantasy for children.

From this point, Burdekin increasingly made use of Fantasy and sf modes in her novels to express her increasingly explicit Feminist interests. The twelfth-century protagonist of The Rebel Passion (1929) is transported in a vision from his monastery to a twenty-first-century UK where women are equal, Eugenic sterilization of the unfit is normal, and the Western world – after a futuristic war with Asia – gradually turns to a William Morris-style medievalism. The Devil, Poor Devil! (1934), as by Murray Constantine, confronts the Devil with a killing spirit of secular sanity, against which he is helpless. Proud Man (1934) as by Constantine subjects a sample of contemporary humanity to the searching interrogation of a Telepathic Time-Travelling Mysterious Stranger from the future, a period when Evolution has transformed Homo sapiens into a species without sexual differentiation, clearly the source of all "subhuman wretchedness" (see Gender; Sex); this "Person" an Anthropologist who presents initially as a woman then changes to a male mode (see Transgender SF), disappears suddenly back into the future after long exposure to the human condition in London.

Burdekin's last published novels were the most explicitly didactic. Swastika Night (1937) as by Murray Constantine, her best-known work, and the first Hitler Wins tale of any significance, examines a Nazi-dominated Europe 700 years hence through a series of dialogues between a heterodox German Knight (see Medieval Futurism), who is a descendant of Rudolf Hess (1894-1987), and a free-thinking English visitor to whom von Hess eventually gives a precious ancient family manuscript – almost all books having been burned centuries earlier – which contains an early von Hess's story of a twenty-first-century ideologue's creation of the belief that Hitler was God and women were sub-human (see Apes as Human). This manuscript, and an accompanying photograph, reveal the true state of affairs: that Hitler was not a divine seven-foot-tall blond-bearded Siegfried-like creature "exploded" from the aether; and that females had not always been treated as repellent non-sentient animals properly penned away from humans (see Devolution; Women in SF), of use only as breeders (men's most intimate relationships are now homosexual). The Future History incorporated in the manuscript delineating the origins of this Dystopia also describes Germany's difficult but successful Invasion of Soviet Russia, and the extermination of the Jews, though the details of that genocide do not closely prefigure the Final Solution (see Holocaust Fiction). The English visitor is entrusted with the document, and leaves behind a fatally sclerotic Germany caught into an obsessive cultural mortis ("Blood is a Mystery, and a thing no non-German can understand"), and still unable to come decisively to blows with its Japanese foes.

The Feminist arguments in the text are cogent and vividly presented, and the condition of women in Nazi Germany is made moderately plausible through the argument that their degradation is not due to Hitler but to his fanatical descendants, who have what might be described as a Pauline view of the female sex (the despised Christians of Europe justify their similar brutalization of women through fragments of scripture from the Apostle Paul) (see Religion). The 1940 edition adds a "Publishers' Note" which appears only in this wartime version, patriotically affirming that the author "has changed his [sic] mind about the Nazi power to make the world evil ...; that Nazism is too bad to be permanent." The text of the novel itself (though reset) seems not however to have been modified; and Burdekin's 1937 nightmare is now recognized not only as a central imagining of the interbellum culture that within a few years would create World War Two, but as a significant work of literature.

The posthumous publication of Burdekin's feminist Utopia, The End of This Day's Business (1990), further helped to dissolve a pseudonymous obscurity which was at least in part self-afflicted, and to uncover a writer of such considerable interest. This tale, apparently written while Swastika Night was being composed, reverses the sexual arguments of its companion: in The End of This Day's Business it is men whom women cannot conceive of as human (see Gender). It has been claimed that at least fifteen novels remain in manuscript. Though Burdekin's work is at times couched too floridly, and her message is sometimes found embedded in romance-fiction plotting, she can now be seen as one of those twentieth-century figures whose absence from view during that century now seems very close to tragic (see Women SF Writers). Her continued exclusion from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where online searchers for her will be asked if they meant "burdening", may seem typical of that establishmentarian authority. [JC]

see also: Genre SF; Politics.

Katharine Penelope Cade Burdekin

born Spondon, Derbyshire: 23 July 1896

died Suffolk: 10 August 1963


as by Murray Constantine

  • The Devil, Poor Devil (London: Boriswood, 1934) as by Murray Constantine [hb/]
  • Proud Man (London: Boriswood, 1934) as by Murray Constantine [hb/James Boswell]
  • Swastika Night (London: Victor Gollancz, 1937) as by Murray Constantine [hb/nonpictorial]
    • Swastika Night (London: Victor Gollancz, 1940) as by Murray Constantine [containing "Publishers' Note" (see comment in text above): in the publishers Left Book Club Edition series: hb/nonpictorial]
    • Swastika Night (Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1985) as Katharine Burdekin [with introduction by Professor Daphne Patai, revealing her true name: pb/]
  • Venus in Scorpio: A Romance in Versailles, 1770-1793 (London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1940) with Margaret Leland Goldsmith, writing together as by Murray Constantine [hb/]


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