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18th Century, Cultural Studies, Historical Studies, Humanities, Literary Studies, Postcolonial Studies

Fictions of Encounter

25.09.08 | Comment?

The “imaginary voyage” was an early form of the modern realist novel popular in Britain and France from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, set predominantly in the region of Australasia and the Pacific. As a branch of travel literature, it was linked intimately to the expansion of empire. Through repeated stories of successful colonizing schemes and heroic accounts of cross-cultural encounters between European travelers and the people of the antipodes, these texts allowed European readers to enjoy farfetched fantasies of colonization well before, and during, the period of actual colonial expansion. As in the case of the many better-known examples of literary fiction produced in the later period of European imperial dominance, imaginary voyage fiction helped embed social acceptance of colonial expansion by modeling cultural domination as natural, beneficial, and welcome.

Surprisingly, the genre continued to thrive when documentary accounts of actual voyages to the antipodes began to emerge. Now, however, the imaginary voyage receives little attention, and has all but disappeared from public awareness. This essay describes and explores some key aspects of this long-neglected genre, with the aim of showing that it played a more important role both in terms of literary history and in the history of colonization itself than has hitherto been recognized. More specifically, its deliberate exploitation of the shifting boundaries between reality and fantasy casts light on the development of literary realism and especially on the uneasy relationship between fact and fiction that continues to challenge historians and literary critics to this day. Intrinsically linked to this blurring of boundaries was the role of this forgotten genre in the shaping of the colonial imagination.

Typically, imaginary voyages are both utopian in their visions of fictional worlds and written in a satirical style that allows veiled attacks on contemporary political figures and practices. Critics trace the genre’s origins to forms of literary romance and utopian projection. Although its status as a prototype for the modern realist novel and precursor to the genres of science fiction and fantasy are well recognized, the genre has generally been marginalized or overlooked, mainly on the grounds that the imaginary voyage texts had limited truth value when compared with contemporary accounts of genuine travels. On this basis, the imaginary voyage was seen mainly as a fanciful precursor to documentaries of travel, and as having been displaced by them.

[extract]

Arthur, Paul Longley. “Fictions of Encounter: Eighteenth Century Imaginary Voyages to the Antipodes,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 49, no. 3 (2008): 197–210. doi: 10.1353/ecy.0.0014.

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