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Over the last few weeks I’ve done something like three reviews for Strange Horizons and two for SF Site, so I’ve not really had occasion to write much about books here. But as we were going to the Utopia Conference (about which more elsewhere) on Friday and Saturday, I took the opportunity to read one of the utopias I didn’t know before. Though I have to say that reading it is not such a big deal, since it occupies only about 20 pages of Three Early Modern Utopias (Oxford, 1999).

Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines (1668) has a quite extraordinary history. In June 1668 an anonymous pamphlet was published which purported to be the story of George Pine who, in the late 1590s, was shipwrecked on an unknown island off Madagascar with four women (two servants, his master’s daughter, and a slave woman). It is the story of how, with their willing involvement, he produced a progeny of thousands by the time he was in his 80s. A month later a second pamphlet appeared, which was the story of Cornelius Van Sloetten, a Dutch mariner who happened upon the Isle of Pines, met George’s descendants, and helped to put down a revolt. A couple of weeks after that, in late July or early August 1668, a new pamphlet put these two stories together (van Sloetten’s manuscript forming a framing narrative around Pine’s story) with a couple of short letters from a real Dutch dissenter added. It seems to have been readily known that the author of this work was Henry Neville, one-time MP, prisoner in the Tower, exile, and notorious hoaxer, but he never officially put his name to it. The central story of George Pine was widely disseminated throughout Europe (and a lot of people appear to have taken it as true), and there are still modern critics who refer to this section alone in their discussions of the Isle of Pines.

This is a book where practically all the critical attention has been focussed on its sexual content. It has been described as a ‘pornutopia’, and every comment I have seen on the book notes that ‘Pines’ is an anagram of ‘penis’. And yet, there is nothing in the book to make any reader blush. Coming from Charles II’s most libertine era, a time when explicit sexual descriptions were included in the poetry even of churchmen like John Donne, it strikes me as remarkably tame. George says how he takes the two servant women to his bed, at first secretly then openly; then he tells us his master’s daughter wants more of the same; then he says that the black slave comes privily to him at night. And that is the extent of the sexual explicitness. And yet it sold like hot cakes as a dirty book.

Actually, what it is clearly, when you read the whole thing with it framing narrative in place, is a ferocious satire on the libertine age and how it has sapped the moral will and effectiveness of English settlers in contrast to the matter-of-fact Dutch. It is also witty, sly, and a delightful contrast to the rather earnest works that accompany it in this volume, More’s Utopia (1516) and Bacon’s New Atlantis (1625).

First published at Livejournal, 11 December 2005.

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