A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Pantaletta; or “High She-Dragon of the Imperial Order of Crowing Hens”

ImageFrom an author identified only as ‘Mrs. J. Wood’, Panteletta: A Romance of Sheheland (1882) is a feminist anti-utopia that can be interpreted as an antifeminist, satirical response to Mizora. Bleiler proposes that the writer was ‘probably a male journalist of the day’,[1] though gives no evidence for this supposition, nor has anyone else been able to find anything about the author’s identity. Not until recent years has the identity of the author been proposed to be a William Mill Butler (1857-1946), a newspaper editor from Rochester, NY;[2] his location gives some explanation for his association with Joseph Gilmore. The front cover of the paperback declares it to be ‘An American Satire’, and provides the following advertisement on the inside:

What Professor Gilmore says of “Pantaletta.”[3]

Joseph H. Gilmore, A.M., Professor Logic, Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of Rochester, a recognized authority upon literary matters, writes as follows concerning “Pantaletta:”

“The Public will find in ‘Pantaletta,’ under the thin disguise of fiction, a vigorous and effective satire on the ‘Women’s Rights Movement;’ and, if I mistake not, will be interested in the adventures of General Gullible, and in the pen-picture of the state of things which would naturally exist where he true relation of the sexes has been subverted. The Republic of Petticotia is but a humorous exaggeration of what any civilized country might become, in which the rights of woman (in the sense which is too often attached to that much-abused phrase) were assured.”[4]

From the outset there is no attempt at blurring the boundaries of fact and fiction; this is an obvious fiction, and a satirical one, with a distinct message for the ‘Women’s Rights Movement’, as told to the reader by a professor of Logic, Rhetoric and English Literature. Already the credentials for the narrative are being well established; the hollow earth may not be real, but votes for women may certainly result in a world like one being presented.

The protagonist, Icarus Byron Gullible, is burdened with a name to layer folly on folly; denied a career in aviation, he takes up the newspaper business, which quickly fails, ruining the family fortune. (This vocation – and the wry commentary made upon it – may have been what convinced Bleiler that the author was a journalist.) A good marriage and the rank of General during the American Civil War turns Gullible’s fortunes around, allowing him to pursue his first dream, flight. Constructing a mechanical aircraft called the ‘American Eagle’, Gullible flies to the Arctic, where he descends through a Symmes Hole. What he finds is the country of Petticotia, ruled by militant women who oppress men and force them to perform domestic chores while wearing women’s clothing. Even the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ have been outlawed in favour of ‘heshe’ and ‘shehe’, respectively.

In the beginning, Gullible’s descriptions read like most other terra cava narratives: ‘I alighted upon a stretch of country where I could discover no human habitation for miles in every direction – a spot which rivalled the garden of our first parents in beauty’ (p. 27). There is no internal sun, but ‘a’ mellow, subdued light that was like the bloom upon a ripened peach: a dreamy and poetic illumination’ (p. 28). This proverbial Garden is lush, fruitful, invigorating; the deviation begins with the arrival of the natives, ‘beardless, short of stature… a marvellous resemblance to the Assyrian eunuchs’ (p. 29); they are not the specimens of uniform beauty typically found, nor are they impressed by Gullible’s proclamation of bring a U.S. citizen. At one point he even goes so far as to raise the American flag in Petticotia, which, to his mind, signifies the ‘formal possession of the territory’, based upon the supposition that the native inhabitants have embraced ‘wholesale lunacy’ and must be ‘honestly cared for by [white Americans] as is [the] noble red man on the remnant of his native land’ (p. 58). This scene of futile imperialism must be interpreted with the same sense of irony as it the rest of the narrative, indicating the author’s anti-imperialist sentiments.

Captured by Captain Pantaletta, who led the emancipation of women – but lost the title of president, to her consternation (p. 34) – a woman with a ‘face…so ugly it seemed fresh from hades’ (p. 51). In the suffrage movement in the last nineteenth century, a variety of disparaging charges were levelled against the women who participated. Pantaletta is prone to multi-page soliloquies that combine a history of Petticotia with ego and madness, and bears the title ‘the high she-dragon of the Imperial Order of Crowing Hens’ (p. 107) – a designation as likely to induce a chuckle today as it did over a century ago.

Pantaletta’s chief rival is the President of Petticotia, Lillibel Razmora (surely meant to be interpreted as ‘Libel’), who also carries the extravagant titles of ‘Shah of Sheheland’, ‘Defender of the Shehes’, and ‘Mighty Battle-Maid’ (p. 62). The President, in love with Gullible, removes him to the Presidential residence, and comes to him ‘dressed in all a woman’s splendor’ (p. 81), and Gullible welcomes her as a lady. In all the instances of other terra cava narratives where the external male protagonist woos a woman of power, now a woman of power woos the external man, calling Gullible ‘handsome…like an angel from another world’ (p. 89). Lillibel desires him for a consort because he is not like ‘the degenerate puppies of Petticotia’, but ‘like the heroes of the old books’ (p. 90). This constant desire for Gullible, and smouldering distaste on the part of Petticotia’s women for the country they have become, is meant to undermine the female revolution. More than their satirical portrayal for trying to play the part of men, it is these remarks by the women betraying their own movement, which the author intends to be most damning.

As for the men of Petticotia, they wear ‘ridiculous, yet gaudy apparel’, care for children, gossip, ‘cast coquettish glances’, stuff themselves with ‘hip and breast pads’ and despondent unless they are wearing ‘the height of fashion’ (p. 70). All perceived deficiencies in women, the author shifts over to the men of the realm. It is the sight of this – and not his impending execution – affront to nature which causes Gullible to weep (p. 71).

Gullible is charged with breaking the ‘dress-laws’ (p. 39) for wearing the attire of a man, but every woman he encounters, despite trying to live up to the letter of the law, falls in love with him, ‘a perfect specimen’ (p. 52). He is sentenced to death for his audacious wearing of trousers, but bribes his way into making a public speech, which he claims was not just for his life, ‘but for science and for the discovery of the Pole’ (p. 71). Even in the midst of unremitting satire, the author occasionally recalls the reader to the Symmsian geography that made Petticotia possible. But what truly saves Gullible is his long description of the military might of the United States, raining down on Petticotia if they dare to execute him, and he is pardoned (p. 74).

Gullible finally meets a man of some learning, who delivers a history of Petticotia that, like Mizora before it, parallels the United States; it was a land of freedom, a republic that attracted immigrants from more repressive countries for a hundred years. Then an ‘unholy spell’ took hold of the ‘emasculated citizens’ in the guise of women ‘endowed with masculine minds’ (pp. 127-8). The downfall of Petticotia is related not just to the advancement of women, but to a country so progressive it would accept ‘every fanatical tenet, every visionary theory, every ism of the hour’ (p. 129). Almost the entire pretence of being a satire set in another world is dropped as Clarence’s history brings up the followers of Pantaletta as ‘christian and atheist, Jew and Gentile, spiritualist and materialist, orthodox and heterodox…communism and free love’ (p. 131). There has been no reason before this point – besides the odd profusion of the English language – to suppose any other relation to the outside world. This is not Petticotia the author is talking about; it is most certainly the United States.  One striking divergence from ecumenical practice is that Churches of Petticotia teach that the first sin was not Eve eating the apple, but man yielding his judgement to woman (p. 137). The consequences of female rule and male degradation is stagnation of the industrial arts (p. 163), the collapse of public building designed and built by women (p. 169), men who ‘devoted themselves to lives of voluptuous ease and fashion’ (p. 171), and women who ‘have inherited with the pantaloons all the vices and wickedness of men’ (p. 176). For three chapters the history of Petticotia’s turn to female dominance is elaborated upon; this is what the author was building towards, not the conclusion, but this history of a country’s downfall following the elevation of women to equal station with men under the law.

Gullible and his male friends compose an ultimatum for the women of Petticotia: restore men to their proper place in society, or every man in the country will defect to the United States (p. 218). His plan to profit from his trip to the interior is in the manufacture of more American Eagle flying machines and bringing them to Petticotia, netting ‘four or five hundred million dollars’ (p. 219) in the process. He finally manages to effect his escape by substituting another man for himself to be married off to the President. His closing lines to readers, in a manuscript to be delivered to the U.S., pleads ‘may the day never dawn when amateur world-builders, or vainglorious demagogues, shall, out of thy matchless civilization, shape abortions like the shehes and heshes of Sheland!’ (p. 239).


[1] Bleiler, Science Fiction, p. 828.

[2] ‘Wood, Mrs J’, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/wood_mrs_j

[3] Joseph Henry Gilmore (1834-1918), held a degree in Arts from Brown University, and theology from Newton Theological Institution. Is somewhat remembered for composing the Baptist hymn ‘He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought”.

[4] J. Wood, Pantaletta: A Roman of Sheheland (New York: The American News Company, 1882), p. 2. All other references cited in text for this edition.

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