The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, a Cornish Man (1750)

The imaginary voyage, from which a hero returns made wise through extraordinary experience, is at least as old as Odysseus. But the major inspiration for this 1750 iteration is Gulliver’s Travels (1726), with which it shares elements of early sci-fi.

Our hero is Peter Wilkins, a Cornish man who takes to the sea to escape a complicated life, only to be captured by a French privateer and sold into slavery on the African coast. Upon escaping this newfound captivity, and successfully navigating a course through snapping crocodiles and lions, he steals a Portuguese ship and sets sail once again — this time ending up grounded on a rock. He survives for several months there à la Robinson Crusoe, before being sucked into a subterranean cavern toward the beautiful land of Graundevolet. He manages to find plentiful fruit and veg there, and even to make his own bread, but cannot alleviate his deep hunger for companionship.

Salvation comes in the form of a woman called Youwarkee, who happens to have the power of flight. The pair fall in love and journey to Nosmnbdsgrutt, the island home of the Glumms and Gawrys (flying men and women), where Wilkins wins an audience with the king. Amongst other things he manages to bring about the abolition of slavery through fine reasoning: “Would not the king have been a slave but for the accident of being begotten by one who was a king?” His new friends are a lens through which to contemplate the customs of his old English ones, as the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians were for Lemuel Gulliver. When Youwarkee dies, the melancholy and now aged Wilkins decides to attempt a return to England. The success of this final mission is tempered by his death upon landing at Plymouth.

The only English journal to mention the romance on its publication was the Monthly Review which declared it “a very strange performance indeed”. Though it was reprinted on the cheap in Dublin (1751), translated in France (1763), abridged in Germany (1767), and reissued in England (1783) it only rose to prominence in the nineteenth century when the likes of Coleridge, Shelley, and Southey appreciated its utopian bent; it even became the basis for a number of melodramas and pantos.

Until 1835 the main clue to the mystery of its authorship was the initials R. P. printed at the end of the dedication. In that year the sale of a set of manuscripts which had belonged to Dodsley, the book’s original publisher, revealed an agreement for the sale of the copyright. The author was now revealed to be one Robert Paltock, an attorney at Clement’s Inn, London. The fact that Paltock, a father to seven children, was in financial difficulties by 1748 may go a way to explaining his decision to turn romance writer.

Above we are featuring the first volume (and second here) of the 1884 facsimile of the 1750 first edition (the only not to be abridged), including the original six engravings by Louis Peter Boitard, which we’ve separately embedded below. They illustrate probably the most sci-fi element of the book, namely the “graundee”, a membrane that encases Gawrys and Glums and when unfurled allows them to float as in a boat or fly as if a bird. Wilkins declares it “the most amazing thing in the world to observe the large expansion of this graundee when open”, and his detailed description of it on pages 199–203 of Volume I repays a read.