Historians of the Enlightenment have studied the period’s substantial advances in world cartography, as well as the decline of utopia imagined in geographic terms. Literary critics, meanwhile, have assessed the emerging novel’s realism and in particular the genre’s awareness of the wider world beyond Europe. Jason Pearl unites these lines of inquiry in Utopian Geographies and the Early English Novel (University of Virginia Press, 2014),arguing that prose fiction from 1660 to 1740 helped demystify blank spaces on the map and make utopia available anywhere. This literature incorporated, debunked, and reformulated utopian conceptions of geography.
Reports of ideal societies have always prompted skepticism, and it is now common to imagine them in the future, rather than on some undiscovered island or continent. At precisely the time when novels began turning from the fabulous settings of romance to the actual locations described in contemporaneous travel accounts, a number of writers nevertheless tried to preserve and reconfigure utopia by giving it new coordinates and parameters.
Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and others told of adventurous voyages and extraordinary worlds. They engaged critically and creatively with the idea of utopia. If these writers ultimately concede that utopian geographies were nowhere to be found, they also reimagine the essential ideals as new forms of interiority and sociability that could be brought back to England. Questions about geography and utopia drove many of the formal innovations of the early novel. As this book shows, what resulted were new ways of representing both world geography and utopian possibility.
Akash Ondaatje is a Research Associate at Know History. He studied at McGill University (B.A. History) and Queen’s University (M.A. History), where he researched human-animal relations and transatlantic exchanges in eighteenth-century British culture. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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