Research Blog Antarctica #108: Peter Wilkins

Fiction: Robert Paltock: Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, a Cornish Man (U.K. 1751)

Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, a Cornish Man has the distinction of being the first Antarctic novel ever written, by the English lawyer Robert Paltock. Unfortunately, it’s not very good.

Peter Wilkins loses his inheritance at an early age, and is forced to seek his fortune at the sea. After adventures in Africa, his ship is forced south and eventually wrecked on the coast of Antarctica. This was written before Antarctica was discovered, so some details, like the fact that Antarctica is pretty cold, are not there.

The descriptions of the shipwreck and of Wilkins’ life alone on the deserted shore are pretty tedious. Much of the material seems to be lifted from Robinson Crusoe, and feels like it’s been written by a simpleton. At his worst, Paltock uses his story to impart Christian morals on the reader.

Paltock’s claim to fame rests in the concept of the gawry, a winged woman who appears to Wilkins as he’s stranded on the coast. The gawry is called Youwarkee, and they marry, live together, and have a bunch of children. According to Paltock’s own introduction, the character of Youwarkee was drawn from his imagined idea of how a certain noblewoman he knew was like. Chaste, pious and so forth. It makes the whole thing feel like stalker fanfiction thrust through the centuries.

Youwarkee represents a whole civilization of bird people, and eventually Wilkins finds his way to them. He’s a savior who can do no wrong, a super smart man who solves every problem. The bird people love him because he’s so cool and not at all a Mary Sue character. The end.

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