Henry Neville’s utopian travel narrative The Isle of Pines (1668) is one of my favourite pieces of literature. It tells the story of the shipwreck of an English trading vessel during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and of the subsequent survival of one man and four women on a lonely island near terra Australis incognita. The five survivors settle together on the island and create a new society from scratch like Adam and Eve after God’s creation of the earth, or Noah and his family after the Flood, except they keep some of their English ways and make a few new laws to maintain order in their ever-growing society. Several generations later, in 1667, the English Pines are discovered by the crew of a Dutch ship, whose captain publishes an account of the savaged English society he found stranded on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.
There is no reason why The Isle of Pines should stand out as a literary work. The prose is basic, the story is simple, and the description of the relations of George Pines and the four women worthy of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. But there are most of all two things that make The Isle of Pines such a fascinating work. First, it has so many layers that generations of scholars have not been able to agree whether the work is a utopia, a hoax, a work on polygamy, a coded political pamphlet, Restoration satire, or all of the above. And secondly, The Isle has a complex and highly successful publishing history, including numerous re-issues and translations in several European languages to make it truly one of the international bestsellers of the seventeenth century.
With large parts of the world still unmapped and the story appearing in the news sheets and gazettes, many contemporaries might have believed Neville’s account of the mysterious island was true, while his friends in the coffeehouses of London and Oxford soon smelt a rat and recognised it as the work of a disgruntled republican, who blamed Charles II and his corrupted court for the decline of English fortunes after the defeat in the second Anglo-Dutch war (1665-67). The story had a mixed reception in the seventeenth century, both at home and abroad, as contemporaries tried to work out what they were dealing with. The number of modern editions as well as scholarly works on the piece published in recent years shows that the mystery of The Isle remains unresolved.