The New Atalantis and Varronian Satire
Santesso, Aaron, Philological Quarterly
What age of Varroes name shall not be told? Marlowe, Ovid's Elegies, 1.15.21
The initial sensation surrounding Delarivier Manley's pro-Tory allegory, The New Atalantis (1709), led to her arrest for libel; its continuing popularity prompted new editions to appear throughout the first half of the century. (1) The work is now familiar primarily from Pope's mention of it in The Rape of the Lock ("As long as Atalantis shall be read"), seemingly validating Anna Laetitia Barbauld's observation that "The Atalantis of Mrs. Manley lives only in that line of Pope which seems to promise it immortality." (2) Today, however, a growing number of critics are discussing The New Atalantis, often as part of analyses of women's writing or the "rise of the novel." A comment relevant to both of these projects which has been largely overlooked is Manley's own description of the book in her dedication to the second volume: "The New Atalantis seems, my Lord, to be written like Varonian satires, on different subjects, tales, stories and characters of invention." (3) To label a work a Varronian satire seems somewhat exotic, even pedantic, today. Most critical dictionaries simply offer the term as a synonym to its more familiar relative: the Menippean satire. (4) But "Varronian satire" and "Menippean satire" are not interchangeable, and Manley did not randomly choose the former term over the
latter. This essay will explore the reasons behind Manley's identification of her work as Varronian, and how this identification affects the current critical understanding of the work and its audience. Manley today is more often celebrated as a woman writer, an outsider, and even a rebel; ultimately, the mention of Varro reminds the reader of Manley's now less fashionable interests in Tory politics and classical learning.
A brief summary may be in order. The New Atalantis relates the experiences of Astrea, goddess of Justice, who has returned to Earth in order to gather examples of virtue and vice with which to educate a young, divine prince in her charge. She encounters her mother, Virtue, and later Intelligence, who recount various stories of earthly treachery, betrayal, and lechery, which are thin allegories for the misbehaviours of important Whigs. The work shifts early on from a more general social satire to personal attacks on familiar figures such as John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, as well as Halifax, Godolphin, and many others. Though infamous for its explicit representations of various sexual scandals, the book nevertheless played an important role in the propaganda war which led up to the defeat of the Whigs in 1710.
The New Atalantis is clearly not a "novel" in the modern sense: the characters are undeveloped, the experiences fantastic, the plot static. It also differs from contemporary works now treated as novels, such as Behn's Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684-7). This work is often compared to The New Atalantis because of its Tory slant and allegorical attacks on Whigs, but unlike Manley's work, it portrays realistic situations and relationships, features an active, omniscient narrator (particularly in Parts 2 and 3), and traces the emotional development of its characters. Behn's Silvia, for example, transforms herself from naif to sophisticate; Manley's Astrea undergoes no such changes. The New Atalantis, therefore, has more often been considered as part of other prose fiction genres, particularly the "secret history." Recently, Ros Ballaster has argued that it might be placed in a more "feminocentric tradition." (5) In her influential book, Seductive Forms: Women's Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740, Ballaster argues that "women's writing must be analysed within a history of genre if it is to find a satisfactory place in accounts of the `rise' of the novel" (21). She therefore links the work to "female" French forms (the romance, petite histoire, chronique scandaleuse, and epistolary novel ) and posits that the works of Behn, Manley, and Haywood ultimately act as "the early modern equivalent of . …