Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This project uses the context of early modern English colonialism and empire building to examine five British authors whose fiction focuses on extraterrestrial spaces: Edmund Spenser, Margaret Cavendish, Francis Godwin, Aphra Behn, and John Milton. I frame the relationship between extraterrestrial settings and British colonialism through Jeffery Knapp’s conception of trifling, that even though early imperial England had little geopolitical power, the nation could differentiate itself as an otherworldly empire, both in origin and aim. Additionally, I build upon the connections drawn between colonialism and early modern literature by theorists such as Richard Helgerson, David Quint, and Stephen Greenblatt. I explore each text as the product of a specific moment in history, and use this foundational tenant of the new historicism to examine the primary texts in relation to the sociopolitical circumstance in England at the times of their writing. In addition, I compare each literary text with contemporary texts from other fields including, philosophy, science, theology, and history, which the authors either wrote, or in which they had a demonstrated interest. Applying this methodology, I find that the authors upon whom this study focuses represent a distinct pattern of possible ways early modern literature expressed colonial ambitions, anxieties, and ambivalences. Specifically, Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Cavendish’s Blazing World provide readings of British colonial ambition through the settings of faerie and parallel worlds. Godwin’s Man in the Moone and Behn’s Emperor of the Moon look to the lunar sphere as a method of questioning the plausibility and usefulness of an extraterrestrial empire. Finally, Milton’s Paradise Lost suggests that some forms of colonialism are more appropriate models of empire for a British audience than others. While Milton remains anxious about Satan’s conquest-based colonialism, which draws parallels to the imperial attitudes of the contemporary Spanish and Portuguese Empires, he also imagines the association between empire and Heaven or unfallen humans.