Henry Neville lived through the extensive political, social, and cultural turbulence of seventeenth century England. He was a stalwart advocate of republicanism against the protectorate of Cromwell and the monarchy of Charles II, active in politics and noted for his writing, including acerbic pamphlets and an important republican tract, Plato Redivivus. He also wrote The Isle of Pines in 1668, a short pamphlet about a man and four women who are shipwrecked on a hitherto unknown island in the Indian Ocean and then discovered by a Dutch ship. Written in opposition to the tyranny of the 1660s, with its repression of political dissenters, internal problems of governing, and failing foreign policy towards (as well as military defeats by) the Dutch, Neville's Isle contains a republican treatment of rule and misrule, political pornography for a dissolute time of blatantly sinful sexual behavior by royalty, a re-examination of patriarchal rule in the Bible and the present, the portrayal of a state of nature, and a story of colonial plantation and reproduction, complete with issues of race and miscegenation.
This essay focuses on The Isle of Pines as a political and utopian text. As a political argument, The Isle of Pines engages in a discourse that addresses the contemporary philosophical arguments and popular polemics of Filmer, Harrington, Hobbes, and innumerable other pamphleteers on the origin, structure, and exercise of political power, the relation of politics to religion, the widespread arguments and concerns about monarchical rule, and the day-to-day issues of the morals and practices of the current king, Charles II, and his brother and heir apparent. As a utopian text, The Isle of Pines is arcadian, utopian, and dystopian. (1) The island is an arcadia when the five English survivors land an idyllic island where an abundant nature can supply their every want, with no need for them to labor, suffer, or plan. Soon, however--at least by the time that George Pines is imposing sexual rotation to fit his purposes--the inhabitants' attitudes and behaviors are such that they cannot successfully live in that bountiful setting without civil strife that must be suppressed by rules and constraints. Even though nature remains plenteous, arcadia gives way to utopia. Once George Pines imposes regulations on his wives--and especially when laws and government are established by Henry Pines after George's death and the Dutch use violence to suppress another revolt--the societies on the isle resemble early modern utopias: attempts to establish good or ideal societies that take into account the fallibilities of human beings by establishing institutions to accommodate, constrain, or render superfluous anti-social attitudes and behaviors. In early modern utopias as on the isle, human beings have needs and wishes that do not allow them to live peacefully within the resources of their locale but compel them to order their political life if they are to survive and flourish. On the isle, defective political arrangements decline into conflict, bloodshed, and civil war, as utopias dissolve into dystopias; and then new attempts are undertaken to establish different good societies.
The story's outline can be readily recounted. The ship India Merchant sails from England in 1569 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth but founders in a storm in the Indian Ocean. George Pines and four women--the ship's captain's daughter, two maidservants, and a Negro slave--by good fortune make it ashore on an obscure island. They settle into a luxurious and leisurely life. George eventually fathers 47 children; by the time he has been on the island 59 years, he has 1789 descendants. By George's own written history of the settlement, life in his little society appears easy and idyllic. (2)
George's eldest son, Henry, marries George's eldest daughter and half-sister, the child of the ship captain's daughter. To him, George gives his Bible, the written narrative of his experiences, his position as "chief Governour and Ruler," and his charge to remember the Christian religion and the customs of Europe (16). (3) But after George's death social disorder, licentiousness, and ultimately incest, rape, and other violence erupts. Henry assembles those near to him, marches on the worst offenders, and captures many. The "grandest offender of them all," John Phill, "the second son of the Negro-woman," is tried, found guilty, and executed; the rest are pardoned (17).
To prevent a recurrence of unrest, and with the aid of a few close advisors, Henry proclaims a code of law and established its administration. After Henry dies, his son William succeeds him. A Dutch ship lands on the island. A Dutchman named Van Sloetten learns about the Pines' history from William. The Dutch explore the island and are called upon by William to put down the violence of a second large-scale unrest, one revolving around another descendant of the Negro-woman, Henry Phill, who is charged with rape and executed.
After leaving the Isle of Pines, and despite storms, leaks, earthquakes, and unhappy natives, the Dutch continue their commercial activity, sailing to India where Van Sloetten encounters Brahmans. He eventually returns home to Holland with a rich cargo. George Pines' narrative and Van Sloetten's letter of his travels make their way to London where they are published. But the bare details of the story conceal the richness of Neville's text.
Verisimilitude, Veracity, and Imagination
The Isle of Pines appears to be realistic reports by George Pines and Van Sloetten, who observe and recount the facts of their travels. But the story is now known to be, as some suspected all along, a fiction of Neville's invention. (4) The gap between the reporters' narrative realism and Neville's fiction raises a tangle of issues about verisimilitude and the political uses of fiction, as well as about the reliability and character of narrators. Many pamphlet authors start by insisting on their credibility and many utopian authors parade their verisimilitude at the same time that they undermine it. For instance, More begins the text of Utopia by reporting about a real place at a real time, only gradually introduces Hythloday, and insists throughout on Hythloday's reality, even though, of course, Hythloday like Utopia is a fiction. Neville uses a similar approach.
Like Hythloday's claiming that he has in fact been to Utopia, Neville has his main narrators, George Pines and Van Sloetten, assert their veracity. George writes his history, at age eighty, so that, as he says, "the truth of our first planting here might not be quite lost" (6). Equally, Van Sloetten works to generate credibility: he insists that he has a "true Copy of [George Pines'] Relation itself" (2) and that he gives "a brief, but true Relation of [his own] Voyage" (30). Each bolsters his credibility with a plethora of historical facts and descriptive details. Each writes as a simple reporter: George is an accountant, and Van Sloetten refers to his own "blunt Phrases, as being more [those of] a Seaman then a Scholler" (2). George carefully notes when he sailed from England and tracks the growth of population on the isle as he ages; Van Sloetten dates his voyage meticulously, observes many details during his visit to the isle (from its funeral practices to its geography), and summarizes his travels after he leaves the isle. (5)
But Neville indicates that something is amiss. Careful readers can see that the dates for Van Sloetten's trip simply do not compute. Van Sloetten reports that he and his crew sighted Madagascar on June 14, 1667, where they trade for a few days before sailing into a fortnight-long storm that deposits them on the Isle of Pines (2-3). After "three weeks and two dayes" there, they sail for the East Indies, arriving on June 8 (26-27); they safely return home to Amsterdam on May 26, 1668 (30). (6)
In addition, Neville as author seems to pile up instances where the tone of the reporter's language seems at odds with the nature of the events. Van Sloetten writes of the execution of Henry Phill, leader of the Phills: "The Band of the Trevors who were joyned with us, hotly pursued [the Phills], and having taken their Captain, returned with great triumph to their Governour, who sitting in Judgment upon him, he was adjudged to death, and thrown off a steep Rock into the Sea, the only way they have of punishing any by death, except burning" (26). The tone seems brisk, incurious, and inattentive to such a striking event; (7) and the superfluous observation on methods of execution seems irrelevant or intentionally misleading, directing the reader away from the civil war and punishment. Language and significance engage and diverge in a playful, evasive way.
Neville undercuts his narrators' veracity in another important way: the four narrations (Keek's letters, Van Sloetten's letter, George Pines' relation, and William Pines' narration as reported by Van Sloetten) frequently present as true what later events or other narrations put in a different light? Most centrally, perhaps, George's relation presents what at first glance (or at first male glance) seems a "cheerfully happy polygamous utopia" (Hill, The Warm Turned Upside Down 314). But, William reports, civil disorder follows almost immediately upon his death. (9) Because George seems to have been unaware of the impending problems, his perspicacity and accuracy as a narrator are called into question. His reportorial misperceptions and blindnesses may indicate both that life on the island is different from what he reports it to be and that he is not as he presents himself.
Neville has ironically displayed the unreal in a realistic fashion, the imagined as true, and the incongruous as consistent. He is playing with the conventions of many utopian texts from More's to the present, where imaginary societies are presented as real, abundant detail testifies to the narrator's first-hand knowledge, and letter-writers and author vouch for the veracity of the text. This juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary can serve a variety of purposes for utopian texts.
Presenting the unreal as real aims to convince the reader not to dismiss the imaginary societies as fantastic inventions or mere fictions but to accept them as real (or as realistic) and useful. Political fiction can be legitimate political analysis. Neville's realistic approach follows that of More and Bacon in their utopias, Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci in their travel letters and tales, and many English pamphlet authors especially after the 1640s. (10) Neville's surface realism can draw in a reader who would reject the …