“…for having nothing else to do, I had made me several arbors to sleep in with my women in the heat of the day. In these I and my women passed the time away, they never being willing to be out of my company. And having now no thought of ever returning home as having resolved and sworn never to part or leave one another, or the place; having by my several wives forthy-seven children, boys and girls, but most girls, and growing up apace; we were all of us very fleshy…”
— George Pine
To be fair to Henry Neville, it is quite clear upon examining The Isle Of Pines that he did mean more by it than merely to titillate the reader – or at least, it is when you read the final, cut-together version. Those people who only received the first pamphlet, George Pine’s account of life on his island, might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. No doubt they were eager to obtain the second instalment, when it was released – and no doubt they were very disappointed it in. (The disparate survival histories of the two pamphlets speak for themselves.) However, the framing of the first part of the story by the Dutch travellers’ own view of the island two generations later takes much of the ribald enjoyment out of the tale of George Pine and his “wives”.
As discussed by Kate Loveman, this was a time of literary hoaxes, and of wary, close reading of any text – particularly when the text in question contained some fabulous story. As we’ve seen, Neville’s hoax was recognised as such only weeks after the interpolated version was released. It is hardly surprising: there are a number of clues scattered throughout the story that indicate that it was indeed a sham – and that its author wanted it recognised as such. For one thing, the dates included don’t add up, and the geographical references are wrong. For another (as you may have noticed already from my own responses to it) the surname of the characters keeps switching from “Pine” to “Pines” and back again. This is a story told by a Dutch sailor, yet all of a sudden we hear that George Pine’s narrative was brought back to Europe by the French. There’s even a clue to the story’s authorship: hardly anyone in it is given a first name, but among those who are we find no less than three Henrys. In short, Neville went out of his way to make sure that his readers understood that there was a deeper purpose to his writing. The question is, what? This is the frustrating and tantalising thing about The Isle Of Pines. Various commentators have found a found a surprising number of hidden meanings in this short narrative, but how closely their interpretations meet Henry Neville’s purpose we have no way of knowing.
Briefly, The Isle Of Pines is an account of the life of George Pine, who is shipwrecked on an uncharted island to the north-east of “St Lawrence” (Madagascar) in the late 16th century. The only other survivors are four women: the daughter of Pine’s master, two maidservants, and a black slave. The wreck also casts up on shore enough essential items to tide the castaways over until they can examine their environment, upon which they find themselves in an earthly Eden. Food and water are abundant, the climate is perfect, the terrain is gentle, and there are no dangerous animals, only birds and small, goat-like beasts tame enough to be caught and eaten. There is, in short, no need for the castaways to exert themselves to survive – and so they don’t. Instead, Pine institutes a system of “rotation”, wherein he impregnates each woman in turn, over and over again. The babies are brought forth without difficulty and, when they stop breastfeeding, are abandoned to the elements; but so kind is this island that they all survive, growing up on their own while their parents busy themselves producing more. In time, the children are old enough to join the family business, and George Pine pairs off the half-siblings and sets them to work. By the time he was spent forty years on the island, he has five hundred and sixty descendants; another twenty, and the population of the island has reached one thousand, seven hundred and eighty-nine.
The most obvious reading of The Isle Of Pines is as a satire of Charles II, so busy filling his island with illegitimate children that he forgets to actually govern it, leaving it to degenerate into a land of sloth and helplessness. Hand-in-hand with this, we find a subject familiar from our earlier reading. As Mary Fissell pointed out in Vernacular Bodies, the mid-to-late 17th century was a time of “paternity anxiety”, stemming from uncertainty over the inheritance of the English crown, and reflected in the flood of lewdly-toned popular writings about deceitful women and cuckolded men. There are two echoes of this in The Isle Of Pines. Towards the end of the story, there is an odd digression when the Dutch sailors, having left the island, reach India. For no readily apparent reason, the captain then tells us about the local tradition of royal inheritance, wherein the king is succeeded not by his own children, but by his sisters’ – who he can be certain have at least some royal blood, as he cannot be certain of his own. In George Pine, however, we have a man, and an Englishman, who is in the apparently rare position of being quite certain that all of his children are his: he makes a point of telling us that it is four months before he begins to contemplate sex with his companions, and six before he acts on his urges; quite long enough for any pre-existing pregnancy to show itself.
Life on The Isle Of Pines soon becomes a rather one-sided wish-fulfilment fantasy, complete with classist and racist overtones. Alone of all the many shipwreck survivors of 17th and 18th century literature, George Pine never once thinks of trying to escape his island – for obvious reasons. George first initiates sex with the two maidservants, who are willing enough to accommodate him. They start out sneaking around, but soon, “our lusts gave us liberty”, and they start doing it in the open in broad daylight. In contrast, his “master’s daughter”, being better born, is not eager but submissive, “content to do also as we did”. Meanwhile, “my negro, who seeing what we did, longed also for her share”. George is not initially keen to gratify himself in that direction, but with the permission of the others the woman slips into his bed one night, hoping that he will not notice the substitution. He does, but proceeds anyway, being “willing to try the difference. [I] satisfied myself with her, as well as with one of the rest.” And George continues to sleep with “my Negro”, but, as he hastens to assure us, only at night, so that he won’t have to look at her. All four women fall pregnant; they deliver without complications or difficulty, and “were soon well again”. As so George institutes his rotation system, getting each woman pregnant in turns, so that in the end he has forty-seven children.
The lives of the five castaways are spent all together within a single shelter – “They never being willing to be out of my company,” George comments complacently. For all we know, it may be true: we hear not one word from any of them at any point in the narrative. We don’t even know their names until after they are dead, and then only because George has begun to worry about the social arrangements on the island. He divvies his descendants up into “tribes” and names each according to its mother: the “English”, the “Sparks”, the “Trevors” and the “Phills”, after Sarah English (“my master’s daughter”, natch), Mary Sparks, Elizabeth Trevor, and Phillippa, the negro – “She having no surname”.
There have been various attempts to interpret the way the story dwells upon its polygamous foundation and the necessarily incestuous arrangements of the subsequent generations. Some have read it as a belated slap at the Protectorate – to go along with the current slap at Charles – given that during Cromwell’s time there were at least two attempts to make polygamy legal in England, and several serious analyses of the subject, pro and con, published. (I hasten to stress, polygamy – never polyandry. George is careful to tell us that, conveniently enough, girls always outnumber boys on the island: crisis averted.)
Other analysts, much more versed in such matters than I, I’m afraid, have found a myriad of biblical references in the text, both overt and covert. We hear in time about “the 6 commandments”, instituted by George’s eldest son, Henry Sparks Pine, who has taken over as leader of the island. As Susan Bruce, the editor of one of the recent editions of The Isle Of Pines, points out, two out of the six are against blasphemy and sedition, both of which Henry Neville himself was arrested and/or jailed for. The tale has been read as a re-working of the story of Noah, with the children of Phillippa standing in for Ham’s son, Cush, who was “black and loathsome”. Among the items safely cast up upon the shore after the shipwreck is a Bible – of which we hear nothing for the next sixty years. However, as George Pine feels the end of his life approaching, he institutes a law forbidding marriage within the same tribe – “not letting any to marry their sisters, as we did formally out of necessity” – and also instigates regular Bible readings, thus introducing his descendants to the concept of “sin”. He informs his people of “the manners of Europe”, and in place of his own exceedingly laissez-faire system of rule, appoints his son Henry “King and Governor of all the rest”.
In short, George Pine introduces his people to Christianity, monarchy and European mores – and his island proceeds to go to hell in a handbasket.
[To be continued…]