Marina Leslie. Renaissance Utopias and the Problem of History. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1999. viii+200pp. ISBN 0 8014 3400 9.
Rachel Warburton
University of Alberta

Warburton, Rachel. "Review of Renaissance Utopias and the Problem of History." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 19.1-4 <URL:

  1. Informed by two of the most important strains of criticism of early modern utopian writings -- New Historicism and Marxism -- Marina Leslie's new study of the genre interrogates the various negotiations of both history and historiography in/between three early modern utopias, their historical moments, and their modern readers. Leslie rejects the nineteenth-century opposition of history and utopia and seeks instead "to consider history not as the answer to or antithesis of utopia but as a question explicitly posed by and in Renaissance utopian fiction" (8). To that end she reviews and engages each text's critical history and then moves on to examine the historical moment of the text's writing.

  2. Leslie proceeds through three widely divergent utopian narratives in chronological order. The first three chapters are devoted to More's Utopia (1516), and one chapter each to Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627) and Margaret Cavendish's Blazing World (1666). Leslie begins her discussion of Utopia by interrogating Greenblatt and Jameson's well-known readings of More's multifaceted narrative. Arguing that New Historicism and Marxism are the two critical practices most interested in history (and Marxism in utopian political ends), Leslie sets out to examine possible reasons for the attraction between Utopia and two of its most famous readers. Jameson fares better here but this section involves a complex discussion of "ideology," a concept not made use of in subsequent chapters. The methodologies of New Historicism come under closer scrutiny. Greenblatt in particular is taken to task for failing to adequately explain his use of Holbein's The Ambassadors to elucidate his otherwise compelling discussion of self-fashioning in a variety of early modern texts. Holbein's painting, after all, belongs to both a different mode of cultural production and a different historical moment from More's utopian fiction. Despite her criticisms of Greenblatt's and Jameson's theoretically informed readings, Leslie insists that she "does not offer a retreat from theory but a theoretical interrogation of what we mean when we talk about history in readings of early modern utopian fiction" (24). This goal is best achieved in her excellent analysis of the maps and alphabet included in the first (Louvain 1516) and third (Basel 1518) editions of More's narrative.

  3. Since Arthur Morgan's controversial, and unsubstantiated, claim that More knew of the Inca Empire and Utopia was his attempt to offer an account of that empire, several critics have made attempts to locate More's fictional account within burgeoning imperialist politics. This endeavour can sometimes be reduced to anachronistic claims that have More predicting colonial exploration. Leslie resists precisely such symptomatic historical readings in her positioning of Utopia within the context of early modern cartography and Humanist attentiveness to language.

  4. The greatest strength of Leslie's analysis is also its greatest weakness. To her credit, she refuses to collapse utopian fictions into a uniform genre. This point is made forcefully in two important ways. First, Leslie insists that More's Utopia, far from being the quintessential utopian narrative from which others descend, is in many ways exceptional. Second, in her criticism of modern feminist readers of Cavendish who posit her Blazing World as a feminist (or female) response to a putatively uniform male tradition Leslie rejects precisely such a unified tradition. Leslie avoids easy generalisations about early modern utopias as a genre, even in relation to their respective historical specificities. The downside of this careful approach, however, is a reluctance to draw any conclusions at all about the relationship between the three texts under consideration, about the function of historicism in utopian texts and utopian criticism, or about the development of historicism. This is most clear in the absence of a conclusion. Even if such artificial closure were quite rightly rejected, the book would benefit from an epilogue that summarizes its various arguments without capitulating to a teleological History. Ultimately, Leslie is correct in her assertion that even critics attuned to historical specificities have too often read utopian fictions symptomatically. Her study does not so much offer a way out of that trap as it engages that critical tradition with attention to the development of historicism.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).