Henry Neville’s The Isle Of Pines is a fairly obscure but very worth reading utopia of the seventeenth century. It was written by Neville, an important contemporary political figure, in 1668. He was an MP and a prolific author of pamphlets before the restoration. Here’s a discussion of whether the text is straightforwardly positive in authorial intention or not.
Henry Neville’s The Isle Of Pines appears in a collection called Three Early Modern Utopias. Like Thomas More’s work, and Francis Bacon’s, and Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, and indeed other travel narratives which might be considered Utopian like Gulliver’s Travels, it begins with a storm. Like More and Swift, an explanatory note is provided which seems to suggest the factual accuracy of the account. Like More, Neville wraps one narrative inside another. Like Swift, his narrator brings gunpowder to the islanders. Like Bacon, his visitors are warmly welcomed by the natives. Like every one of these texts, a different framework for society to the 17th century European model is mooted.
And yet The Isle Of Pines is not really Utopian at all. The closest it comes to Utopianism (understood to mean an ideal society, rather than like More’s fiction,w hich raises similar questions of authorial intention) is a kind of sexual wish-fulfillment which is itself difficult to pin down precisely in terms of tone.. The society formed on the Isle of Pines is one that is divided, prone to sexual violence, materialistic, heavily hierarchical, and racist. Even Utopia, which is a deeply flawed society by most twenty-first century indices, contains many positive aspects. Utopian leaders are incorruptible; Utopians are pacifistic except in the last resort; Utopians live in genuine communities; Utopians very rarely commit crime; Utopians respect all law-abiding members of society. Van Sloetten and his companions build their host a primitive palace and give him things ‘which we thought would any ways conduce to their benefit’ - not corrupt by European standards, perhaps, but notably different to the attitude of the Utopians or the residents of New Atlantis who ‘must not be twice paid for one labour’; violence erupts between the Phills and the Trevors; the Island is divided into seperate tribes which do not apparently mix, and which are based on initial parentage, creating a hierarchy based on both social status and race; rape (including incestuous rape) is a problem on the Island, and ‘whoredoms, incests, and adultery’ led to the establishment of a system of punishment based on Mosaic law in a form still more primitive than that written of in Utopia , published around a hundred and fifty years earlier. In other words, it is very much like the European societies which it supposedly betters.
This should not be interpreted as an attack on Neville’s work; rather, an acknowledgement that he has a fundamentally different opinion of human nature to that put forward by More or Bacon. Whereas, on some level, both of their Utopias contain elements of positive moral instruction (even if a strong case can be made against More’s work as a straightforward ideal society), Neville provides a much less convincing ‘paradise on earth’. The positive qualities of this society are largely the result of either ignorance or chance; very little that could be seen as an improvement on European society arises from the islanders’ innovations. One suspects that the islanders would be only too willing to use gun powder once they became accustomed to it - their reaction is tellingly different to the King of Brobdingnag’s in Gulliver’s Travels, who takes moral issue with the principle behind gunpowder rather than being frightened of its physical manifestations - and their instinctive dislike of alcohol having only tasted water cannot convincingly be portrayed as a moral decision given their ignorance of the consequences of drinking. Both of these objections arise from unqualified instinctive fear or dislike of the unknown rather than the more complex considered moral objections which are suggested in other utopias: unless we believe that Neville is suggesting that these people are superior to Europeans not because of the moral choices they make but because of some innate superiority - and remember they are all from European stock - we cannot really view them as an ideal. On the other hand, the society which they have developed, theoretically from scratch, does not really come up with any radical or inspirational solutions to the problems which have always existed within European civilisation. Those which they avoid, the reader cannot help but feel, will surely turn up soon enough: if the warfare they have is on a fairly small scale, for example, it is only because their population, their island, and their technological capacity for efficient violence are all significantly smaller than their European counterparts’. The island itself is certainly an extremely pleasant place to live, but they make no notably revolutionary uses of the abundance of their habitat - as Susan Bruce suggests in her introduction to Three Early Modern Utopias,
when George Pine arrives on the island, he essentially goes to sleep, devoting his life to pleasure and idleness. When the Dutch arrive on the island, they engage in the labour which Pine avoids, mapping the island, charting it, and working out exactly where it lies. One only has to compare Pine’s behaviour with that of the Dutch to realise how far short he might be thought to fall of the ideal colonist.
Whilst there is no moral imperative for him to be ‘the ideal colonist’ - he never sets out to be, and is never told to be by any higher authority - it certainly reduces his and his descendants claims on our admiration for their endeavour and wisdom.
So, even though they are no longer in Europe, they are still essentially European. If More or Bacon or Swift or Voltaire (in the section of Candide which deals with El Dorado) or Cavendish believe that, if you displace it, and start entirely afresh without the adverse historical influences hanging over European society, human nature might take a different path, and evolve a superior society, Neville seems to suggest that human nature is largely unchangeable. In his world, even if you take a cross section of society - rich and poor, black and white, educated and ignorant - to a new island and there let them start again, you will ultimately come back to the same basic failings:
But as it is impossible, but that in multitudes disorders will grow, the stronger seeking to oppress the weaker, no tie of religion being strong enough to chain up the depraved nature of mankind, even so among them mischief began to rise, and they soon fell from those good orders prescribed them by my grandfather.
In this respect it is a distinctly pessimistic fiction.
The failings of the Island’s society can not all be blamed on the arrival of Europeans, either. The above quotation, for example, predates their arrival in the narrative, and if they exacerbate some of the problems, they certainly do not create them. Whilst they become involved in the battle between the Phills and the Trevors, they had nothing to do with its genesis. They are also, as Bruce points out, much more diligent and hardworking than their hosts, with a far greater intellectual curiosity.
It is true that most 21st century readers would agree that literature does not inherently need a didactic ‘reason’ to exist, in the most basic, cause-effect conception; but given the era in which Neville was writing was one in which a moral purpose was seen as a necessity for any invented world, without which it would be both pointless and immoral, it seems reasonable to look for one in The Isle Of Pines. If there is not a straightforward moral imperative being suggested by the text, then, what is its ‘point’? When considering this question it is important to bear in mind what the original meaning of the word ‘utopia’ is: no-place. This is not an attempt at an ideal society but rather at a kind of parallel satiric world which provides meaningful contrasts and similarities with our own - or, at least, the author’s. If More’s Utopia sets out at least in part to demonstrate the flaws of European society by opposition, The Isle of Pines works much more by imitation. Human nature, in Neville’s world, is unchanging; by demonstrating the errors which human being perpetrate in a new environment, then, he has, perhaps, a better chance of making a memorable critical point than in, for example, a straightforward journalistic pamphlet. If art works, as is so often suggested, by making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, then satire is arguably the form which relies most on this combination.
Thus, Pine’s thirst for sexual gratification above the good of his companions - he pays very little attention to the possibility of trying to get them home, a feature noticeable by its absence from what is after all fundamentally a story of the aftermath of a shipwreck - broadens to a criticism of the general priorities of colonists. And his sexual appetites and consequent insistence on being the ‘father of a people’ results in incestuous relationships, which, if never precisely condemned, are notably unpraised by any save Pine - we hear disturbingly little from his first generation of children.
Similarly, if racism was acceptable in the 17th century, elements of Neville’s portrayal of the relationship between the white master and black servant reach the absurd - culminating in her death, which is entirely dealt with in the carelessness of
After we had lived there twenty-two years, my negro died suddenly, but I could not perceive anything that ailed her.
There is also an inconsistency to the racism which is surely deliberate: though she bears him ‘white children’, Pine insists, we later hear in Van Sloetten’s version of black descendants, which would suggest that Pine is not able to deal with the fact that his progeny are not white.
There is a caveat to all this: it is necessary to bear in the mind the seventeenth century moral and social context in which Pine was working. But nevertheless, there is an overwhelming case for The Isle of Pines as a savagely critical version of the kind of colonial establishment which Britain and other European powers were trying to establish at the time. This is much closer to a dystopia than any kind of ideal society.