No place like utopia

Utopian Imagination and 18th-Century Fiction
March 1, 1996

In the closing paragraphs of her introduction, Christine Rees describes a cluster of "theoretically universal" questions that occupy a central place in western utopian thinking and ensure a "fundamental continuity in utopian textual structures." The emphasis of her eight chapters is therefore on permanence rather than change, generality not specificity. Using the rites and practices of everyday life as her focus, Rees explores how the "genetic codes" of classical and renaissance utopias were absorbed into the 18th-century literary imagination.

The book is clearly aimed at the student market and discusses a range of canonical and lesser known texts such as Mary Hamilton's Munster Village. Chapters are efficiently organised into sections which highlight thematic parallels between works often considered generically distinct. However, students may find the reference system confusing and given Rees's evident distrust of recent critical trends it seems strange that she refuses to define her own use of terms for her audience. "Discourse", for example, is used with increasing frequency and imprecision towards the end of the book.

Rees's project is actually fraught with difficulty from the beginning, since the critical task she sets herself is both over generalised and narrowly conceived. Her focus on the thematic continuity of the imagination across time enables her to suggest that there is something quintessentially "literary" about the utopian impulse. This thesis is illustrated through readings of isolated narrative motifs that obscure the broader cultural and political debates with which 18th-century utopias are so obviously engaged.

She seems persistently troubled by the political content of 18th-century utopian writing, insisting that the "ballast" of political theory weighs down literary "freedom." She argues, for example, that Harrington's political concerns render Oceana imaginatively deficient. The texts she examines are located within a "literary lineage" where utopias "recall" and "anticipate" one another without negotiation with, or adaptation to, the requirements of cultures at different historical moments. The reader is given no sense of the cultural distance between Plato's Athens and Thomas More's England. Nor is there any indication of how the questions which preoccupied Mary Astell in 1706 might differ from the concerns of mid-century writers like Samuel Richardson and Sarah Scott.

Utopia seems, then, a literal no-place for Rees: a narrative blueprint in a historical vacuum. The final chapter closes with a celebration of Rasselas's "grandeur of generality". Like most utopian dreams of universality, though, this one ends merely by pointing to the specificity of its author.

Kate Davies is a PhD research student in English, University of York.

Utopian Imagination and 18th-Century Fiction

Author - Christine Rees
ISBN - 0 582 21412 2 and 21413 0
Publisher - Longman
Price - £40.00
Pages - 296

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