David Fausett. Writing the New World: Imaginary Voyages and Utopias of the Great Southern Land. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse UP, 1993. x+237 pp. ISBN 0-8156-2586-3.
Gabriel de Foigny. The Southern Land, Known. Trans. and ed. David Fausett. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse UP, 1993. l+152 pp. Cloth ISBN 0-815625715.
James R. Burns
Oriel College, Oxford

Burns, James R. "Review of Writing the New World: Imaginary Voyages and Utopias of the Great Southern Land and The Southern Land, Known." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 11.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/rev_bur1.html>.

  1. In his recent monograph, Writing the New World, David Fausett provides a thought-provoking introductory and interpretive guide for readers of early modern utopias. By exploring a variety of movements that fostered the rise of utopias as a distinct and common literary genre, especially during the seventeenth century, Fausset draws attention to the inadequacy of purely literary studies of early modern utopias, and advocates a mixture of anthropological and historical methods of analysis. What makes his work a significant contribution to the study of real and imaginary travel books is its particular geographical focus. Many have discussed utopias and their significance, but few have paid attention to the importance of Australia in the imagination of utopists. While there is general agreement among critics that the rise of world commerce and travels of discovery made writings about real and imagined cities a familiar genre that was eagerly devoured by the reading public, not much has been made of the burgeoning number of reports from the Southern Hemisphere, or of the accounts of shipwrecks, maroonings, and discoveries which fueled the enthusiasm and imagination of readers and writers alike throughout seventeenth-century Europe. It is this attention to Terra Australis which makes Fausett's work most valuable, for he offers a convincing argument that Australia, or stories of travels to and near Australia, provided a rich resource for writers who wished to posit a world of imagined wonders. Its exotic and dangerous attributes, its forbidding reefs and unmapped shores, allured readers and provided fictional writers with what seems an unlikely means of establishing verisimilitude in their stories. In Australia, astonishing circumstances invite credence; wonder itself becomes a condition of plausibility. The more outlandish, horrifying, or astounding the tale, the more the reader finds her -- or himself engrossed in the story and compelled to accept the seemingly impossible.

  2. Fausett, of course, does not suggest that seventeenth-century readers accepted these accounts ("true" and "fictional" alike) at face value, but he makes a convincing case for the reasons why writers chose to adopt Australia as a setting and the outlandish as a vehicle for laying out their utopic visions. To explain this, he turns to stories of seabound passages to the continent found in various travel accounts, particularly those "eyewitness" reports of mutinies and shipwrecks that caught the fancy of readers throughout Europe and that served to inspire later, purely "fictional," writers. Among the accounts, he tells of the wrecking of the Batavia in 1629 and the Vergulde Draek in 1656. In the case of the Batavia, its shipwrecked crew turned mutinous, murdered most of its male passengers, and "organised the rest into a castaway society based on sexism and brutality" (25). The Batavia story gained notoriety back in the Low Countries when members of the crew were discovered, tried, and either marooned or hanged. Accounts of the adventure included fantastic, scarcely credible details about the arrangement of the castaway society which provided later writers with fuel for the imagination. Such writers could model their own creations on "fact," enhancing their accounts with features which, as a consequence of the Batavia wreck, could not be accused of implausibility.

  3. Fausett also uses the Vergulde Draek incident to explore the inherent difficulties presented by "true accounts," particularly as he compares several reports of the incident made by survivors, members of "search and rescue" teams sent to salvage its bullion, and other investigators. He describes notable discrepancies between accounts of the wreck and events in its aftermath, especially between the stories given by Schouten, Volkerson, and Leeman, who provide notably different descriptions of acts of treachery among the survivors; the wonders and marvels to be seen on Australia's west coast; and, significantly, what followed in the weeks after the wreck. That one account tells of a helpful hermit who lived along the coast and that another leaves him out entirely is just one of the notable differences Fausett mentions (108ff). The accounts of the Vergulde Draek differ so greatly, and each narrative incorporates so many fantastic elements that other overtly fictional accounts Fausett discusses, such as the Isle of Pines, seem almost credible by comparison.

  4. The strongest vindication of Fausett's argument, however, is found in the second of his two offerings, The Southern Land, Known, the first complete English translation of Gabriel de Foigny's La Terre Australe connue (1676). Here Fausett has not only resurrected a minor classic of utopian literature (its only other English translation is based on a heavily bowdlerized French edition of 1692), but he has also shown how a Huguenot idealist used the largely unknown and uncharted land of Australia as an imagined setting to indulge his political and sexual preoccupations -- to create a brave new world filled with wonder and governed by an order at once alluring and terrible. From the outset, Foigny lures his reader into accepting the plausibility of his story by telling us that he came into possession of the manuscript in Livorno as its author lay on his death bed (4). In a port like Livorno, sailors would be expected to bring back fantastic tales of far-flung places and remarkable circumstances. Such is the story Foigny delivers, based on the text "left him" by Sadeur.

  5. The tale itself is quite astounding: its narrator is an orphaned hermaphrodite, who finds himself shipwrecked on the coast of Australia, a land peopled by hermaphrodites who have arranged themselves into a curious society. Sadeur describes the landscape and climate of the new land, the social customs of the new people, as well as their religion, habits of exercise, education, and military arts. In chapter five, which was almost entirely cut from the 1692 edition, Sadeur discusses such issues as public nudity as a means of ridding people of dangerous preoccupations, male tyranny over women, and sexual equality. Despite his noble pretences in this chapter and throughout the work, it is clear that Foigny, who was run out of several French towns for bigamy and other sexual crimes, used the landscape and society of his Austral world to indulge imaginatively in less wholesome practices. We glimpse the sexual appetite that got the author in trouble when Sadeur discusses his participation in a battle against the Fundians and his attempt to rape two female prisoners of war (116-17).

  6. In Sadeur's discussion of religion (chapter six), we see more clearly the influence of other travel writers, particularly Garcilaso de la Vega and his history of the Incas. Likewise, the Australian's daily "exercises" remind one of the practices to be found in the House of Solomon in Bacon's New Atlantis (chapter eight). In addition to these clearly borrowed elements, which Fausett points out in the introduction and in notes alongside the text, Foigny creates a unique mythology of human origins. While Thomas More includes similar descriptive passages in his Utopia, when Hythloday describes the rule of King Utopas and the golden age of his No-Place, Foigny creates a myth for the beginnings of his distinctively Australian Utopia. This mystical and troubling story suggests much about the mind of its creator. Sadeur's tale is a curious mixture of the plausible and implausible; Foigny uses Australia as a setting to explore an order that could not exist in the Europe he knew. Moreover, his work has the quality of unfinished thought: his escape from Australia (on the back of a great bird) takes him only as far as Madagascar.

  7. The only critique I have to offer involves occasional editorial choices of phrase and idiom. Expressions like "the best laid plans of mice and men" in a utopian account of 1676 are unnecessary and interruptive (15). Yet, while there is the rare hiccup, more often than not Fausett deftly plays upon Foigny's language, especially in his translation of the passage where Sadeur describes the circumstances surrounding his birth at sea: "I was conceived in America and born upon the ocean, a too-telling presage of what I would one day become" (9). Here Fausett carries the sense of the original passage, which the bowdlerized 1692 edition radically changes (see note 3, page 9). In these lines, Sadeur describes his effort to turn himself from a man into a text, tracing at once his physical and literary origins; the passage also suggests the wealth of literary sources from which Foigny put together his portrait of the Austral world. This and other passages, as well as the numerous detailed notes added to the margins of the text, show Fausett to be a sensitive and capable translator and suggest that this work, and the commentary in his monograph, are suitable both for serious investigators of travel writing and teachers who wish to introduce students to the genre.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(August 21, 1996)