In 1830, a few months before he died in a Soho rooming-house, Hazlitt published a lengthy essay on a new biography of Daniel Defoe in the Edinburgh Review, where he remarked that in Robinson Crusoe Defoe abandoned the political and religious subjects he addressed in his pamphlets, and confined himself to ‘unsophisticated views of nature and the human heart’. Hazlitt’s misreading is not uncommon. The novel is seen as the archetypal Puritan adventure story, a self-sufficient fiction which transcends the controversies Defoe addresses in his journalism. This is rather like saying that TV programmes such as Castaway and Big Brother tell us nothing about the social moments that created them. Although some recent scholars have noticed that Crusoe’s rhetoric of absolutism and submission ‘places the right and might of sovereignty in the office of the monarch’, as Manuel Schonhorn puts it in Defoe’s Politics (1991), his rather lopsided, overly monarchist study, critics tend to link the novel only intermittently to the historical period it covers, and have not succeeded in offering a critical view of the text as a historical allegory or parable. If Hazlitt – one of Defoe’s heirs and like him nourished in Dissenting culture – missed the point, it is not surprising that later readers have also failed to grasp that Robinson Crusoe is an epic account of the experience of the English Dissenters under the Restoration.
Defoe was born on about 30 September 1660, a few streets from where Milton lived in St Giles Cripplegate. In the course of his career, he often quoted Milton, and though he was careful to criticise the Commonwealth and Protectorate – a necessary journalistic strategy – he emerges in Maximilian Novak’s powerful account of his life and career as a principled radical whose seemingly protean changes of direction and allegiance were always in the service of the polity founded by the Glorious Revolution. Defoe boasted of wearing a mourning ring that had been given at the funeral of Christopher Love, a Presbyterian minister beheaded in 1653 for his part in a plot to overthrow Cromwell. Defoe mentions Love in his 1704 pamphlet The Dissenters Answer to the High-Church Challenge – it is reprinted in W.R. Owens and P.N. Furbank’s excellent eight-volume edition of his political and economic writings. With cleverly recessive irony Defoe says that Love was beheaded ‘for the horrid fanatic plot, contrived for the bringing in, as they then called him, Charles Stuart, and the restoring of monarchy.’ This remark functions mainly as an alibi for his loyalty to the post-Protectorate political structure, and is intended to shield him from the charge of being a closet republican, or a classical republican like John Toland. He believes in a ‘legal limited monarchy’, and has a humane idea of consensus and national unity within such an arrangement. He is an active, adept pragmatist, a revolutionary moderate.
In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe speaks of Crusoe’s ‘life of anxiety’ after he sees the footprint on the beach, and although Novak doesn’t draw this parallel, the atmosphere of anxiety which suffuses the novel can be traced to the ‘feeling of conspiracy’ which dominated Dissenters’ thinking during the Restoration – G.M. Trevelyan calls the years 1678-85 ‘the reigns of terror’. As Defoe noted in his remarkable periodical, the Review, there was a moment early in the reign of Charles II when London Dissenters feared they would be forced into the Catholic Church and have their Bibles confiscated. They decided to copy the Bible in shorthand, and though he was only a boy, Defoe ‘worked like a horse, till I wrote out the whole Pentateuch, and then was so tired I was willing to run the risk of the rest.’ As Novak shows, these feelings of anxiety went well beyond the Dissenting community – Catholics were supposed to have started the Fire of London, and there was a justified suspicion that there was a secret clause in the Treaty of Dover, which Charles made with Louis XIV in 1670, agreeing to restore Catholicism to England. Dissenters were also suspicious of Charles’s Declaration of Indulgence, which in 1672 suspended the penal laws against both Catholics and Dissenters. Many Dissenters preferred the risk of prison to state toleration of Catholicism, which they regarded as the real enemy. Defoe, however, though a firm Trinitarian Protestant, was committed to religious toleration, and in Crusoe, his hero establishes ‘liberty of conscience’ in his island kingdom – Catholic, Protestant and pagan are all tolerated.
Defoe, who claimed a knowledge of five languages, was educated at Charles Morton’s Dissenting Academy in Newington Green. Morton was a distinguished teacher and educationalist who was incessantly harassed by the Anglican Church till he left England for North America, where he became Vice-President of Harvard. The American connection can be sensed in Crusoe, and it is wittily glanced at by Mark Twain as he rewrites the novel with a tender and mischievous irony (Huck’s account of the contents of the catfish’s stomach – a brass button, a round ball ‘and lots of rubbage’ – is pure Defoe).
At Morton’s Academy, students were taught science and other subjects in English, not in Greek or Latin, a radical idea at the time, and they were also instructed in the art of writing good English prose, an enduring subject in the curricula of Dissenting academies (Hazlitt also studied prose composition). Defoe’s emphasis in his journalism and pamphlets on ‘easy, plain and familiar language’ is the direct result of Morton’s inspired teaching. Defoe praises Morton’s Academy in his 1712 pamphlet The Present State of the parties in Great Britain:
There was, some years ago, a private Academy of the Dissenters not far from London, the master or tutor of which read all his lectures, gave all his systems, whether of philosophy or divinity, in English; had all his declaimings, and dissertations in the English tongue. And tho’ the scholars from that place were not destitute in the languages, yet it is observ’d of them, they were by this made masters of the English tongue, and more of them excelled in that particular than of any school at that time. Here were produced of ministers, Mr Timothy Cruso, Mr Hannot of Yarmouth, Mr Nathaniel Taylor, Mr Owen and several others; and of another kind, poets Sam. Wesley, Daniel De Foe, and two or three of your Western martyrs that, had they liv’d, would have been extraordinary men of that kind, viz. Kitt. Battersby, young Jenkins, Hewlin, and many more.
The mention of Timothy Cruso and the ‘Western martyrs’ is, as I hope to show, central to the novel Defoe was to write five years later.
In his first full-length work, An Essay Upon Projects, which was published in 1697, Defoe asserted that there is a ‘direct signification of words, or a cadence in expression, which we call speaking sense; this, like truth, is sullen and the same’ (here sullen means ‘stubborn’). When Crusoe tells us that ‘accordingly I victualled my ship for the voyage, putting in two dozen of my loaves (cakes I should rather call them) of barley bread, an earthen pot full of parched rice,’ we can see that Defoe the conscious stylist has pitched in that explanatory parenthesis in order to give another turn to the vernacular cadence of his prose – we can hear and believe the quick authenticating drop in Crusoe’s voice. Praising Morton’s genius as a teacher, Defoe said his pupils were taught to write in a style ‘all equally free and plain, without foolish flourishes and ridiculous flights of jingling bombast’ – the implication being that they were not taught what he called ‘Oxford modern dialect’. This Puritan aesthetic and egalitarian ideology – plain style – can be felt in Defoe’s every sentence. Morton also contributed a paper to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on the use of sea sand containing organic compounds for fertiliser. The essay includes a ‘project’ for the increased use of such sand and, as Novak points out, is very much in Defoe’s projecting mode.
There was an anti-monarchical bias in most Dissenting academies, and the struggle between Puritans and the Stuart state resulted, according to Defoe’s figures, in eight thousand Dissenters, captured at illegal religious meetings, dying in filthy prisons. Defoe was particularly upset by the death in jail of Thomas Delaune, his wife and two children, and he blamed his community for not supporting them.
When the Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis on 11 June 1685, to begin his rebellion against his uncle, the new Catholic monarch, James II, Defoe left his young wife, Mary, whom he had married eighteen months before, to join the rebels. Novak notes that some of his former schoolmates at Morton’s Academy lost their lives in the rebellion, but he does not name them. This is a pity, because as I’ve recently discovered, a source other than Alexander Selkirk’s narrative stirred Defoe’s imagination, and points to the crucial effect which the Battle of Sedgemoor (6 July 1685) had on Defoe and on what is effectively his coded spiritual autobiography, Robinson Crusoe. In a book called The Western Martyrology, published in 1705, the Whig writer John Tutchin – a former rebel and friendly pamphleteering rival of Defoe’s – described how two brothers, William and Benjamin Hewling, who had fought at Sedgemoor, fled by sea but ‘were driven back again, and with the hazard of their lives got on shore (over dangerous rocks), where they saw the country filled with soldiers, and they being unwilling to fall into the hands of the rabble, and no way of defence or escape remaining to them, they surrendered themselves prisoners’.
William Hewling, who was 19 years old, was hanged at Lyme Regis on 12 September 1685, and Benjamin Hewling, aged about 22, was hanged on 30 September – he is probably the ‘Hewlin’ Defoe remembers as one of the Western martyrs in the passage I quoted from The Present State of the parties. Both were former pupils at Morton’s Academy, and their deaths must have been in Defoe’s mind as he described Crusoe’s miraculous escape from drowning:
I was now landed, and safe on shore, and began to look up and thank God that my life was sav’d in a case wherein there was some minutes before scarce any room to hope. I believe it is impossible to express to the life what ecstasies and transports of the soul are, when it is so sav’d, as I may say, out of the very grave; and I do not wonder now at that custom, viz. That when a malefactor who has the halter about his neck, is tied up, and just going to be turn’d off, and has a reprieve brought to him: I say, I do not wonder that they bring a surgeon with it, to let him blood that very moment they tell him of it, that the surprise may not drive the animal spirits from the heart, and overwhelm him: For sudden joys, like griefs, confound at first.
Crusoe lands on the island like a reprieved convict, and he keeps the date of his landfall as a sacred anniversary, inscribing it on a post: ‘I came on shore here on the 30th of Sept. 1659.’ The date is mentioned a total of six times in the novel, and it stands both as a commemoration of Benjamin Hewling’s death day, possibly of Defoe’s birthday and of his miraculous survival of the slaughter and the notorious Bloody Assizes which followed the battle.
Eking out his ink, Crusoe remarks that ‘by casting up times past: I remember that there was a strange concurrence of dates, in the various Providences which befel me; and which, if I had been superstitiously inclin’d to observe days as fatal or fortunate, I might have had reason to have look’d upon with a great deal of curiosity.’ This tells us that the dates in the novel are to be attended to closely, and the dates of the execution of the Duke of Monmouth (15 July 1685) and his fellow rebel the Duke of Argyll (30 June 1685) are both silently memorialised – the days of the month, not the years – in Crusoe’s journal. On 7 May 1660, the House of Lords proclaimed Charles king, and so signalled the end of England’s republican state, and on 7 May Crusoe records in his journal: ‘Went to the wreck again, but with an intent not to work, but found the weight of the wreck had broke itself down, the beams being cut, that several pieces of the ship seemed to lie loose, and the inside of the hold lay so open, that I could see into it, but almost full of water and sand.’ A ship is a traditional symbol of the state, and I think, too, that the Spanish wreck may be associated with the wrecks of the Armada which, Milton says, ‘larded our seas’.
In her meticulously detailed biography of Defoe, which was published in 1989, Paula Backscheider says that at least four of his schoolmates from Morton’s Academy were executed in the wake of the rebellion. They were Kitt Battersby, William Jenkyns and the Hewling brothers. Another former schoolmate, John Shower, was pardoned on 5 November 1686. He would have gone through the same legal processes as Defoe, who was pardoned a few months later, on 31 May 1687. (Crusoe’s name is based on that of another pupil – Timothy Cruso – who became a Dissenting minister and whom Defoe mentions next to the Western martyrs. Backscheider states that Defoe’s luck in remaining uncaptured after the battle ‘was simply amazing, at best a one-in-fifteen chance’. Defoe had a relative who ran a free school at Martock, fifteen miles from Sedgemoor, and he may have hidden there. His lucky escape haunted him for the rest of his life – the shadow of the gallows, images of executions and, as in the case of Moll Flanders, sometimes of reprieves, fall across all his writings. Like his maker, Crusoe is a deeply anxious as well as courageous personality, describing at one point how he feels in ‘great perplexity and anxiety of mind’, at another mentioning what he terms, in a significant phrase I quoted earlier, ‘the life of anxiety’. It is a constant and deepening theme in the novel, and it has to be connected with what I can only call survivor’s guilt, an ontological condition which kept Defoe in permanent proximity to the scaffolds on which his courageous schoolmates perished (over a hundred Falklands veterans have committed suicide because of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the very high incidence of suicide among Vietnam veterans is well known – there is no reason to think earlier generations did not endure similar mental suffering).
Although critics and biographers have made sporadic links between Crusoe and Defoe, so far as I can tell none has thought the novel and his other works to be crucially defined by a type of Dissenting anxiety rooted in Stuart persecution, and particularly in Sedgemoor and the Bloody Assizes which were presided over by the notorious Judge Jeffreys, who was to die in the Tower after William of Orange landed.
In The Plague Camus perceived and employed the allegorical structure of A Journal of the Plague Year, though that novel is usually regarded as an early example of uncomplicated literary realism. Camus’s epigraph is taken from Serious Reflections … of Robinson Crusoe: ‘It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists, by that which exists not!’ For example, we can see allegory in Crusoe’s resolution to move his tent from ‘the place where it stood, which was just under the hanging precipice of the hill, and which, if it should be shaken again’ – by an earthquake – ‘would certainly fall upon my tent’ is both actual and symbolic of his social anxieties. The hanging precipice in poetry, Christopher Ricks has shown, is an image of civil war, and it has a similar significance in Defoe’s prose. Here he is also alluding to Hosea: ‘they shall say to the mountains, Cover us; and to the hills, Fall on us’ (10.8). The chapter insists on Israel’s ‘sin’, and this is part of the fabric of Defoe’s anxiety. He is, as the Irish phrase has it, always ‘nationally minded’. He makes a grim joke of those anxieties three paragraphs later when he remarks: ‘And though I had a grindstone, I could not turn it and grind my tools too, this cost me as much thought as a statesman would have bestow’d upon a grand point of politics, or a judge upon the life and death of a man.’ Defoe, who saw writing as the production of saleable commodities, is ironically creating an image for the writing of his pamphlets – he grinds innumerable axes in them. Commenting on a passage where he talks of ‘we Writing Manufacturers’, Novak suggests that he was aware of the materials of the writer’s craft ‘as no other writer of his time’ – and Crusoe is here symbolically imaging those materials and that dogged deployment of technical skill. He is also brooding on Sedgemoor again, because after constructing the grindstone Crusoe kills three birds and ‘as we serve notorious criminals in England’ hangs them ‘in chains for a terror to others’. The public world of law and politics is always in Defoe’s consciousness, and his descriptions of Crusoe working with tools captures both what Heidegger terms the ‘transparency’ of equipment in use, and the active participation of his journalism in the public sphere – Judge Jeffreys’s cruelty haunts both these passages.
As Crusoe and the ship’s crew row towards the island, they work the oars ‘with heavy hearts, like men going to execution’. Defoe is imaginatively gripped by his memories of the Monmouth rebellion and by a fealty to his dead comrades. Earlier in the novel, when he is recounting his first experience of sea travel, Crusoe twice uses the casually revealing word ‘hurry’ to describe his thoughts and the first storm he encounters. He speaks of ‘the hurry of my thoughts’, and two paragraphs later says that during the ‘first hurries’ of the storm, he lay still and ‘stupid’ in his cabin. The word ‘hurry’, in the 17th and 18th centuries, had a meaning beyond ‘speed and commotion’ – it meant ‘social or political disturbance, tumult’. In The Present State of the parties in Great Britain he speaks of ‘war, and the various hurries of the time’. This is the sense of the term in Coriolanus (the populace are ‘in wild hurry’), while in Ireland the 1798 Rebellion was colloquially called ‘the hurry’. Defoe wants his readers to make a subliminal connection with rebellion, and he again uses the hanging metaphor – closely connected with it – in the sixth year of Crusoe’s ‘reign’, when he undertakes a difficult journey in his canoe and is carried back to the island on an eddy. ‘They who know what it is to have a reprieve brought to them upon the ladder’ may guess his ‘present surprise of joy’, Crusoe tells us.
But while Defoe wants to align Crusoe with the anti-Stuart rebels, he adds a complicating, deliberately distracting detail to Crusoe’s first landfall on the island, which would have been familiar to his readers, particularly his Tory readers. Crusoe is scared that the island contains ‘ravenous beasts’, so he spends his first night in ‘a thick bushy tree like a fir, but thorny’. Another rebel, Charles Stuart, is famously supposed to have hidden in an oak tree to evade his pursuers after the Battle of Worcester, and Defoe the devoted builder of consensus politics wants to draw both parties of readers into his narrative. The same consensual outlook is cunningly expressed in Memoirs of a Cavalier, where the benign monarchist narrator disinterestedly praises Fairfax, the commander of the Parliamentary Army (and political moderate), as ‘a complete general, strict in his discipline, wary in conduct, fearless in action … of a modest, noble, generous disposition’. The narrator also frequently praises Defoe’s hero, Gustavus Adolphus, who is meant by association to remind the reader of his supreme hero, William of Orange. As Novak points out, Defoe noted several times that Gustavus Adolphus would promote common soldiers to officers on the battlefield. Defoe’s egalitarianism is expressed succinctly in what we would now call his anti-racist – and hugely popular – poem The True-Born Englishman: ‘Fame of families is all a cheat/‘Tis personal virtue only makes us great.’ Though he points to the allegorising of national unity – another term for consensus – in Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Novak does not argue that the original novel is an autobiographical and historical epic, but he does seek to refute those scholars who doubt whether Defoe fought at Sedgemoor. He adduces a passage in Defoe’s short biography of the Duke of Marlborough, where he writes of the miseries of a soldier’s life: ‘in a rainy season, when the whole country about them is trod into a chaos, and in such intolerable marches, men and horses dying and dead together, and the best of them glad of a bundle of straw to lay down their wet and weary limbs.’
‘He was there,’ Novak tersely insists. Describing soldiers in the rain in this short biography, Defoe speaks of ‘the ugly sights, the stinks of mortality, the grass all withered and black with the smoke of powder’. The last detail is unusual and authentic, and as Defoe remarks earlier in the Life of Marlborough, ‘matters of fact are the best arguments.’ This assertion might stand for his realist or concrete aesthetic – no ideas but in things, as another generous puritan pragmatist stated. Reading Defoe’s idealised portrait of the temperate, sober, careful, courageous, politic, skilful, courteous, mild, affable, humble Marlborough, one also sees the heroic figure of Crusoe emerge from the common man by dint of his own innate, solitary talents. Defoe hopes to shape opinion by eulogising the Duke, and in the novel he is also keen to show a rebellious, wayward son metamorphose into a military engineer, inventor, farmer, soldier, governor, country squire and admiral. This can-do philosophy is North American in its energy, although it lacks that distinctive North American confidence: there is an underlying sense of trauma in Crusoe’s narrative, both wary and serious, because Defoe is trying to settle accounts with his experience of war, fear, prison, bankruptcy and persecution. He wants to represent the darkness and the chaos he came through as the survivor of a terrible battlefield and a hanging assizes, but part of him is wedded to secrecy, so he cannot, or will not, talk directly to his readers. The dei inferni, the gods of kinship and tribal solidarity, speak in his fiction, while in his journalism the daylight gods, as Hegel called them, of free, self-conscious, social life speak spryly of reform and progress. But the anxious pull of piety and the enduring aftershock of the rebel defeat cannot be ignored.
Monmouth’s campaign was undertaken in the heavy rain which fell on the West of England in June and July 1685, and when Crusoe complains that the rain which fell on his island in July was ‘much more dangerous’ than the rain that fell in September and October, Defoe must have been thinking of that doomed rebellion in the lashing summer rain 34 years earlier. The July rain theme – another ‘concurrence of days’ – also evokes his experience in the pillory, to which he was sentenced for publishing The Shortest Way with the Dissenters in 1702. An entry in Evelyn’s diary for July 1703, which Novak cites, records ‘great and long continual rain’ for the month when Defoe stood three times in the pillory: men could die in the pillory when stones were thrown at them, but Defoe was fêted, so popular were his writings.
One of Crusoe’s favourite emphatic words is ‘deliverance’, and William of Orange’s landing at Torbay on 5 November 1688 was to Defoe a miraculous and – another favourite word – ‘glorious’ event, which he celebrated directly in his journalism, and more obliquely in his fiction. (The sudden south wind which brought William and his fleet, it was thought miraculously, into Torbay, is mentioned approvingly in Crusoe.)
On 29 October 1692, Defoe found himself in Fleet Prison after two business schemes failed. He had invested in a diving-engine to search for treasure from wrecks (Crusoe has more luck here), and also in a civet cat farm to make perfume. His debts totalled £17,000, and he had already lost the dowry of £3700 that his wife Mary Tuffley brought on their marriage on 1 January 1684 – less than three weeks after the execution of his hero Algernon Sidney for his alleged part in the Rye House Plot. Defoe’s life after his imprisonment for debt in 1692 must have been uncomfortable, Novak suggests. He speculates that the ‘secret kind of life’ he had to live in order to evade arrest for debt may have ‘introduced him to various other forms of secrecy’. He was to become a government spy when Robert Harley was Lord High Treasurer (effectively Prime Minister) and he uses the word ‘secret’ obsessively in Crusoe (it occurs five times on one page). Novak sees his experience of prison and the survival strategies to which it led as crucial to his personality, commenting that he was to be imprisoned several more times during his life but ‘it never ceased to be the nightmare that haunted his soul.’ Crusoe’s remark, ‘I was a prisoner, locked up with the eternal bars and bolts of the ocean, in an uninhabited wilderness,’ obviously expresses this nightmare, as well as reflecting the Dissenters’ experience of oppression and internal exile under the Stuarts. The Exodus theme in Crusoe is a version of this exile, and there is an allusion here to the long and weighty Psalm 78, which Crusoe has quoted earlier: ‘Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?’
Psalm 78, which praises God who ‘brought in the south wind’ and celebrates the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian bondage, is one of English Puritanism’s master tropes, and Defoe must have drawn a particular inspiration from its opening verses:
Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter
dark sayings of old.
Crusoe is a dark parable or ‘allegoric history’ (a phrase from the preface to the second sequel which Camus quotes) which catches the existential risks of business and political life, or what Defoe in his journalism calls ‘the unbounded ocean of business’, or ‘amphibious politics’. One of the high points in his life was 29 October 1689, when he rode in the Lord Mayor’s Show to which William III had been invited. The troop of volunteer cavalry, made up of eminent citizens, was led by Monmouth’s son, and Defoe must have tasted victory in this Whig civic pageant. Crusoe’s occasional moments of exhilarating power and authority – feeling that he is ‘prince and lord of the whole island’ – reflect Defoe’s sense of liberation and his intimacy with state power, first acquired in William’s reign.
Crusoe is particularly ebullient after he establishes what he terms ‘my country-house’ on the western side of the island. At one level, he is rewriting the country-house poem in democratic prose (his enemy Pope, who nevertheless admired Crusoe, also revises the genre in his ‘Epistle to Burlington’), but on another level Defoe is again thinking of Andrew Marvell:
I descended a little on the side of that delicious vale, surveying it with a secret kind of pleasure (tho’ mixt with my other afflicting thoughts) to think that this was all my own, that I was king and lord of all this country indefeasibly, and had a right of possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in inheritance as completely as any lord of the manor in England.
This is a moment of significantly bourgeois, not aristocratic joy (note the legal term ‘convey’), and it returns to a moment in Defoe’s 1713 pamphlet An Answer to a Question That No Body thinks of, VIZ But what if the QUEEN should die?: ‘The Queen raises no money without act of Parliament, keeps up no standing army in time of Peace, dis-seizes no man of his property, or estate, but every man sits in safety under his vine, and his fig-tree; and we doubt not but we shall do as long as her majesty lives. BUT what if the Queen should die?’ Defoe would have associated the vine with a verse in Psalm 80, whose Exodus theme is close to that of Psalm 78: ‘Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt; thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it.’ But this association would have been added on to the primary allusion to a verse in 1 Kings: ‘And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all the days of Solomon’ (4.25). P.N. Furbank’s notes to this pamphlet are helpful and detailed, but he misses this Biblical allusion and its link to Crusoe on his fruitful island.
In the Review Defoe provocatively remarks that Queen Anne has ‘no more title to the crown than my lord mayor’s horse’ – a strategic reduction of the power of monarchy in order to develop the argument for national autonomy, popular sovereignty, property rights and freedom under the law which his sensuous images of fruitful gardens embody. As well as drawing on the struggles of the Israelites to achieve freedom, he is also alluding to Marvell’s country-house poems and to ‘Bermudas’ – really a poem about England – where God
hangs in shades the orange bright
Like golden lamps in a green night,
And does in the pom’granates close
Jewels more rich than Ormus shows.
He makes the figs our mouths to meet,
And throws the melons at our feet,
But apples plants of such a price,
No tree could ever bear them twice.
Marvell’s Puritan mariners are safe, like Crusoe, ‘from the storms, and prelate’s rage’, and I am sure that Marvell’s verse is deeply embedded in Defoe’s imagination.
Crusoe’s country-house joke also opens up a parallel between Crusoe, the gifted soldier and general, as he becomes, and Fairfax, on whose estate in Yorkshire Marvell wrote some of his finest poetry, and whom Defoe, as I’ve noted, compared in adulatory terms to another hero, Gustavus Adolphus. Echoing Marvell, he describes how the ‘delicious vale’ contains an
abundance of cocoa trees, orange and lemon, and citron trees; but all wild, and very few bearing any fruit, at least not then: However, the green limes that I gathered were not only pleasant to eat, but very wholesome; and I mix’d their juice afterwards with water, which made it very wholesome, and very cool, and refreshing.
Both Defoe and Marvell express the ideas of individual liberty, property rights and equal citizenship through the imagery of fruit and gardens. The abundant clusters of grapes in Crusoe – often eaten dried – must partly symbolise the enjoyment of freehold. Defoe must also be thinking of the manna or ‘angels’ food’ which the Psalmist says God rained on the Israelites in the desert.
Some biographers have noted that Defoe is so politically insistent and argumentative that he must have been the real force behind William of Orange’s public utterances, writing speeches for him and orchestrating propaganda for the monarchy. My feeling is that his friendship with William and with Robert Harley, who like him was educated in a Dissenting academy, and who came of a Presbyterian family, is reflected at moments in Friday’s relationship to Crusoe. Harley dominated the Government of Queen Anne and directed the War of the Spanish Succession. He was outmanoeuvred by his dangerous rival, the Jacobite sympathiser Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, and dismissed from office by Anne on 27 July 1714, five days before her death. On George I’s accession he was imprisoned, and acquitted only in July 1717. Just as Crusoe rescues Friday from cannibals, Harley effectively rescued Defoe from prison to give him a social position as a leading government propagandist. As Novak shows, throughout the 18th century the Whigs lived in ‘continual fear’ of a successful counter-revolution by the Jacobites, and Crusoe’s fear of the cannibals must reflect that pervasive social anxiety. Defoe’s language in the novel is Hobbesian: ‘I was reduced to a mere state of nature,’ Crusoe tells us, while the twice-used adjective ‘brutish’ echoes the famous state of nature passage in Leviathan.
Crusoe is either anxious and fearful or exultantly confident, just as Defoe is one moment in prison with men destined for the gallows or else prospering from the brick factory he established in Essex. In a letter to Harley, he says of this wealthy period: ‘I began to live, took a good house, bought me coach and horses a second time.’ He speaks of William’s ‘bounty’ and is proud, like Friday, to call him ‘master’. William needed a strong standing army to back up the central aim of his foreign policy, which was to prevent France and Spain being joined as a single nation, and Defoe disagreed with republicans like Toland over this issue, running against a principle that is deeply embedded in English political culture. As Novak shows, everything Defoe wrote in 1701 was directed towards involving England in what was to be called the War of the Spanish Succession. This was the year he published The True-Born Englishman, his first popular success and the most frequently reprinted poem of the reign of Queen Anne. The evidence for the mixture of nationalities in England is revealed, Novak suggests, in the syntax, vocabulary and grammar of the poem:
From this amphibious ill-born mob began
That vain ill-natur’d thing, an Englishman.
The customs, sirnames, languages, manners,
Of all these nations are their own explainers:
Whose relics are so lasting and so strong,
They ha’ left a Shibboleth upon our tongue;
By which with easy search you may distinguish
Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.
His attack on English insularity, xenophobia and ‘absurd pride in purity of descent’ was part of a larger scheme to make the English see not only that their national affairs were tied to those of Europe but that they were ‘connected to the Continent by a historic pattern of immigration’.
When Crusoe tells us that his father was ‘a foreigner of Bremen’, he is reminding his readers of Defoe’s robustly furious attack on the idea of racial purity. Defoe chose Bremen, I would guess, because it was an independent city-state, a Hanseatic free town with ancient legal privileges, and he is probably implying that Crusoe’s father was a refugee from the Thirty Years’ War. Crusoe’s original name, Robinson Kreutznaer, reminds us also of England’s historic connections with European Protestantism, and perhaps in ‘Crusoe’ we are also meant to discern the word ‘crusader’ clipped and attached to the last two syllables of Defoe’s name (the ‘crusadoe’ coin, mentioned in the text, is also relevant). Crusoe’s inventor most definitely was a crusader – he is as copiously opinionated as Shaw, but intellectually more flexible and less self-promoting. Crusoe’s father left Bremen for Hull, and it is from Hull that Crusoe sets off on his first voyage. Hull is an unexpected city for a London-born writer to choose – why, as a famous story has it, should he or anyone take a ticket to Hull? The reason, I would guess, is that Defoe associated Hull with its famous radical MP Andrew Marvell, who may have been poisoned by his political enemies in 1678, when Defoe was 18. Hull is therefore the embodiment of quasi-republican principle and also of a heroic maritime adventurousness. Somewhere in British or English culture, Hull occupies a special, if seldom visited position, as a gateway to Holland and Protestant Europe, as well as to the high seas. Or in Larkin’s version of Yeats’s version of Milton, Hull is a lonely tower, vigilant and visionary. Defoe, it must be recognised, is one of the most influential architects of the British national consciousness.
Novak shrewdly points to a Hobbesian current in Defoe’s political thinking. The state dissolves into the ‘promiscuous crowd’, which comprises all members of society, and the revolution that occurs uses the mob as its agent, though in England the people who possess property will become the heirs of the revolution (Crusoe steering his canoe over dangerous eddies is a metaphor of crowd theory and political manipulation). Defoe is the prose laureate of classic bourgeois revolution, and in the chaos of Crusoe’s landfall he is representing that revolution, rather as Blok seeks to give images of the Russian Revolution in ‘The Twelve’. In 1702, when he published his great polemic The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, Defoe was forced to go into hiding. By adopting the persona of a fanatical Tory High Churchman, he scuppered the passage of a Bill outlawing occasional conformity. The Government was angry at Defoe, who in Novak’s phrase ‘slipped over the edge of the abyss’, and it announced a reward of £50 for the apprehension of ‘Daniel de Fooe’, the author of a ‘scandalous and seditious’ pamphlet:
He is a middle-sized spare man about 40 years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown coloured hair wears a wig, a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mould near his mouth, was born in London, and for many years was a hose factor in Freeman’s-yard, in Corn hill, and now is owner of the brick and pantile works near Tilbury-fort in Essex.
He may have gone to Holland, but remained for the most part in London, aided by the radical Whig underground of tradesmen and craftsmen. His pamphlet was burned by the common hangman in New Palace Yard, and after several months on the run he was captured at the home of a French weaver named Sammen in Spitalfields (it was an appropriate hide-out: Defoe was devoted to the cause of the Huguenots and argued strongly in favour of their rights as asylum seekers). He was sent to Newgate prison, where he was examined by the Earl of Nottingham, who was Secretary of State for the southern region. When Defoe was sentenced to stand in the pillory for three days in July 1703, the Government intended him to suffer a ‘memorable humiliation’ – his enemies never let him forget it – but he turned it into a public triumph. A contemporary painting shows him being toasted and surrounded by flowers on a bright, not a rainy, day. It shows, in Pope’s phrase, ‘unabashed Defoe’.
Defoe is a risk-taker, an opportunist, a hired pen, a showman, an at times dubious businessman who cheated his mother-in-law and believed in the slave trade, but he is au fond the journalist as civic hero, the master polemicist of his age. To be fair, Novak argues that Defoe believed that slaves should become indentured servants, but in his pamphlets he lists ‘negroes’ along with other commodities like tobacco, copper, almonds, wax. He is a master list-maker, but these catalogues are unsettling in their narrow businesslike confidence. He nonetheless has Crusoe’s power over Friday evolve into a relationship of equals – then again he is careful to point out that Friday is not a ‘negro’. His dark skin perhaps alludes to Defoe’s ‘brown complexion’, but he is ideally handsome in ways the wedge-chinned Defoe with the ‘mould’ near his mouth was not.
Harley kept Defoe in jail for many months in order to wear down his resistance to working for him. His affairs were now, Novak says, ‘as thoroughly wrecked as Crusoe’s ship’, but on his release he expressed a Friday-like devotion and obligation to Harley as his ‘so generous and so bountiful’ benefactor. He was to work very closely with Harley – both men viewed the Bills against occasional conformity as attempts to diminish or destroy the political influence of the Dissenters; both were intent on bringing about a Union between England and Scotland, and both enjoyed secrecy. Crusoe’s pride in what he terms ‘the whole island’ reflects Defoe’s Unionism, as well as his deeply topographical historical imagination, which finds its fullest expression in his prose equivalent of Drayton’s Polyolbion, that benignly patriotic travel narrative A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain. Defoe the brick and pantile manufacturer has a sense of place, of earth, clay, light, locality and atmosphere – a radical chthonic nativism similar to Cobbett’s. Always in haste, he was characterised as ‘the briskest and most scurrying genius in the annals of English literature’. In his characteristically firm handwriting he could compose a pamphlet a day. Writing to Harley, he compares himself to a man lost at sea who found the distance to the shore too great for him to manage. This Crusoe-like metaphor makes one realise again that his sense of the sea, his admiration for what he calls ‘the beautiful useful form of a ship’, made him one of the great avatars of the British imagination. When Churchill said that the British people during the Second World War were as ‘sound as the salt in the sea’, he was using that type of patriotic maritime metaphor at which Defoe excelled.
Defoe convinced Harley of the importance of ‘a scheme of general intelligence’, a system of spies and agents who would relay a constant supply of information to the Secretary of State. Sent to Scotland by Harley, he risked his life to report on Scottish opinion about the Union, which, in a poem he published in the Review, he called ‘Nature’s strong cement;/The life of power, and soul of government.’ Though he established a factory for weaving linen in Edinburgh, he felt isolated in Scotland, which he found a ‘remote country’. Crusoe-like, he felt ‘forgotten’ there, and referred to his situation as a form of ‘torture’. While in Scotland, he learned of his daughter Martha’s death, and it is one of Novak’s gifts as a biographer that he lets us see Defoe the devoted husband and father, the Puritan who believed in ‘companionate marriage’ and female education, the journalist who also wrote the early equivalent of agony columns, and who discussed sexual relationships in his journalism. His devotion to private and public happiness made him argue more than a century before University College was established that London needed a university open to everyone. He also argued for the establishment of old people’s homes, a national system of improved roads, and a whole series of political, social and economic reforms. He influenced the system of cabinet government and helped shape the office of prime minister. Defoe led a dangerous life, and he would have reflected on the violence that pamphleteering could provoke when he eulogised John Tutchin. Defoe called Tutchin a ‘very valuable person’ and praised his ‘zeal against tyranny’. Though it was Tutchin’s poem The Foreigners which provoked Defoe to write The True-Born Englishman, he admired him deeply and must have been influenced by his Western Martyrology, which was published 14 years before Crusoe. After Sedgemoor Tutchin was sentenced by Judge Jeffreys to be whipped regularly through every market town in Dorsetshire once a year for seven years. He petitioned James II to be hanged instead, but neither sentence was carried out. He was eventually so badly beaten up by political opponents that he died of his injuries. Where Tutchin had stressed his participation in Monmouth’s rebellion, Defoe mentioned the event sparingly, never admitting he took part, which is why some have doubted he fought in the Battle of Sedgemoor.
On 12 July 1715, Defoe was tried for libel along with two printers. He was found guilty, fined heavily, and sentenced to be whipped from Newgate to Charing Cross, and to be imprisoned for two years. He was, as Novak writes, singled out as a person of vicious character and a danger to the state, but he did not come up for sentencing. Once again, he had struck a deal with the Government, an event which he regarded as close to miraculous and which he describes in Serious Reflections … of Robinson Crusoe. Defoe had become such an influential journalist that in 1717 he was accused of being ‘Corrector General’ of the press. He was legendary for his subversive journalistic methods, and wrote for both Whig and Tory journals, as a way of combating Jacobitism.
The Pretender was crowned at Perth on 23 January 1716, but sailed back to France less than a fortnight later. Defoe predicted a new age of moderation, and perhaps following his advice the Government acted cautiously. There were few executions of rebels, and 18 months later a general amnesty was issued. Clemency is an important theme in Crusoe and elsewhere in Defoe’s writings. Remembering that the Williamite Revolution was bloodless, and recalling Monmouth’s earlier clemency to Scottish rebels after the Battle of Bothwell Brig during Charles II’s reign, he emphasises the values of mercy and humanity. This is reflected in Crusoe’s remark about the cannibals’ ‘cruel bloody entertainment’, a coded reference to Judge Jeffreys’s mocking and vindictive conduct at the Bloody Assizes, which Crusoe’s phrase ‘so outrageous an execution’ also glances at. Crusoe is compassionate towards the cannibals and also learns not to be an absolutist governor of his island – this is again directed at James II, who believed in the divine right of kings, and, as Malborough pointed out, was as hard as stone.
With Defoe’s consistent belief in tolerance and forgiveness goes an enduring interest in military science that makes him resemble Sterne’s Uncle Toby. He was an expert on all kinds of building and the science of fortification, and argued for the establishment of a military academy. Like Uncle Toby, he is at times a military bore, and appears almost to parody this interest when Crusoe’s deepening anxiety about the cannibals leads him obsessively to improve his fortifications (the ‘living hedge’ of his fort also symbolises the British Constitution). Always engaged, always busy and committed, he seems to embrace all possible positions, as if tirelessly reinventing and then extending the public sphere every time he puts pen to paper. Like Cadmus, he sows the earth with innumerable dragon’s teeth in order to found Thebes. There is, at the same time, a pride in identifying himself as a professional writer, that species of writing manufacturer who labours over his pamphlets like Crusoe constructing his chair and table, or turning his grindstone.
A leading figure in the rise of the publishing industry, Defoe emerges at the age of 59 with the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 as the first great novelist in English, and a hugely popular author in Europe. He is such a master realist that critics and scholars have been slow to take seriously his remark in the preface to its immediate sequel, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, about the story being a ‘parable’. He emphasises his aesthetic intention in the next sequel, Serious Reflections … of Robinson Crusoe, where he insists that ‘the story, though allegorical, is also historical.’ I recently came across an article published in the journal History in 1925 by one George Parker MD which argues that Crusoe is a detailed, logically worked-out allegory, but because Parker does not believe that Defoe fought at Sedgemoor his reading is badly skewed, though he makes the interesting point that Crusoe and Friday’s fight with the bear and wolves symbolises Harley’s trial and acquittal (Defoe uses the image of bear and wolves in the Review ironically to symbolise the Dissenters). But really we need to abandon the one-for-one schema demanded by allegory in favour of shifting symbols, and associative or subliminal links, because – to stay with this example – on an another level the ability of the wolves to move in lines ‘as regularly as an army drawn up by experienced officers’ must be connected with the Jacobites, who four years earlier had attempted to overthrow George I’s Whig state. The wolves may also, perhaps primarily, be a shifting symbol representing Louis XIV’s armies, which Malborough defeated.
Defoe loved a good fight, and his family life, as Novak shows, must have been turbulent, affectionate and often chaotic. His son-in-law, the gifted educationalist Henry Baker, who married his favourite daughter, Sophia, remarked that ‘ruin and wild destruction sport around him’, and he died in great pain in 1731 while in hiding from a persistent creditor. He was buried in Bunhill Fields on 26 April 1731 and, as Novak points out, ‘his grave may be found among the great Dissenting Englishmen of his century, not far from those of John Bunyan, Isaac Watts and William Blake.’
As i’ve suggested, Defoe is Milton’s heir, and I like to think that one of the most apparently straightforward passages in Crusoe contains an allusion to a poem by Milton which Defoe would have known and admired. Crusoe escapes from Morocco with a great lump of beeswax wrapped in sailcloth, which he later recalls when he makes candles from goats’ fat on the island. Defoe’s father, James, was a successful tallow chandler, so Defoe is writing with a professional eye when he says of the beeswax:
I had none of that now; the only remedy I had was that when I killed a goat, I sav’d the tallow, and with a little dish made of clay, which I baked in the sun, to which I added a wick of some oakum, I made me a lamp; and this gave me light, though not a clear steady light like a candle.
Though this is an example of his exacting verisimilitude, it also picks up symbolically on a remark of Charles Morton’s which compares the understanding to ‘a candle … to search and find out by its exercise, all those inward acts and inclinations which would otherwise lie hidden and undiscovered’. Deeper than this traditional image lies a central passage in ‘Il Pensoroso’:
Or let my lamp at midnight hour
Be seen in some high lonely tower,
Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes, or unsphere
The spirit of Plato …
Crusoe is a lonely Protestant visionary intellectual studying sacred texts by the light of the free individual conscience, and at one point he refers to ‘the great lamp of instruction, the Spirit of God’.
There are other moments in Crusoe which demand a symbolic interpretation, and here the new Pickering and Chatto edition of Defoe’s pamphlets and journalism is essential reading (so, too, are the same publisher’s recent editions of Hazlitt and De Quincey, which have taken their places in libraries unsung and largely unreviewed). Take for example the passage where Crusoe shakes out a bag that appears to hold nothing but ‘husks and dust’. In fact, it contains a few seeds of what Crusoe terms ‘our English barley’. Thanks to God’s ‘Providence’, the barley grows and after four years Crusoe has sufficient quantities to bake some of it into bread. I’ve long seen this as a parable of investment (the green shoots of economic growth is a cliché we all know, and in the Review Defoe remarks that credit comes upon a man or a nation insensibly ‘as dust upon the cloths’). This symbolism is confirmed by a telling moment in An Essay upon Public Credit where Defoe says that it is ‘the effect of a substance, not the substance, ‘tis the sunshine not the sun; the quickning SOMETHING, call it what you will, that gives life to trade.’ He then remarks in An Essay upon Loans that loans without credit are like a ploughman tilling ‘barren soil’. Again and again, his genius for metaphor and soundbite takes us back to the obsessions and imaginative strategies that shape his fiction. As well as hanging, he is obsessed with ditches – a drainage ditch was crucial to the Sedgemoor defeat, Monmouth was captured hiding in a Hampshire ditch, William of Orange spoke of fighting to the ‘last ditch’, a phrase that still reverberates in the cultural memory of Ulster Unionism.
There is another allusion to Milton when Crusoe describes the beginning of his ill-fated voyage to the island – ‘I went on board in an evil hour, the first of September 1659, being the same day eight year that I went from my father and mother at Hull, in order to act the rebel to their authority, and the fool to my own interest.’ In Paradise Lost, at the crucial moment when Eve eats the apple (an act that symbolises the Stuart Restoration and the wreck of the Commonwealth), Milton says:
her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
Famously Milton rhymes ‘ate’ with ‘seat’ (‘sate’) to produce what is sometimes described as the only couplet, the only moment of Restoration verse style, in the epic. Defoe is echoing this moment of rebellion against God’s republican state, but he is also shading in his own rebellion against a Stuart monarch, as well as the fraught relationship with his father, which Novak convincingly intuits. One of the interesting things about Defoe is that he is a psychological as well as a political novelist – consciousness, emotion, states of mind, guilt, being-in-the-world are his subjects too.
Defoe’s prose is nimbler, more easy and graceful in the journalism and pamphlets than it is in the graver, more concentrated cadences of Crusoe, and it always has the crowded energy of London’s streets and markets, as well as a wide historical range and a celebrative eagerness and human tenderness quite different from Swift’s deliberately rebarbative and uncomfortable style – a style that obsessively targets Defoe and which Defoe scorned, attacking Swift’s Examiner with its ‘unintelligible jingle, fine-spun emptiness, and long-winded repetition, without truth, and without evidence, without meaning’. In his journalism, as in Crusoe, Defoe is fond of imagining pilots shooting up their ‘watery hill’, and his many maritime moments culminate in a tribute to sailors: ‘Les Enfans Perdue, the Forlorn hope of the world; they are fellows that bid defiance to terror, and maintain a constant war with the elements; who by the magic of their art, trade in the very confines of death, and are always posted within shot, as I may say, of the grave.’ A ‘forlorn hope’ is a vanguard sent into battle, and here Defoe the great survivor and escape artist is designing an image of what inspires his multifarious writings. He begins one article by saying: ‘Upon my first launching out into the vast ocean of fluid matter, which is to be the subject of this paper’ – he is a Crusoe of the pen, a death-defying sailor who craves risk and danger always.
There is rumoured to be only one graduate student working on Defoe in Britain at present, but Novak’s compelling biography and the new Pickering and Chatto edition should help redeem the critical neglect his work has suffered. It is interesting that one of his greatest admirers, James Joyce, should have seen Crusoe as ‘the English Ulysses’ – Joyce recognized that it was a national epic which, like his own, is closely entangled with a historical narrative that has become myth, and which is originally set out in the Book of Exodus. In their art, Defoe and Joyce point the way out of Egyptian bondage, a censored press and a guarded speech. But Crusoe must also be understood as a survival narrative, like the account of another Monmouth rebel called John Coad which is entitled A Memorandum of the Wonderful Providence of God to a poor unworthy Creature during the time of the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion and to the Revolution of 1688. In it Coad speaks of the ‘great rain’ and recounts how he was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered as a deserter and a rebel. Luckily, he was able to take the place of a man called Jo Haker who was unwilling to be transported. He stayed for five years in Jamaica before returning to England in 1690, where he found his wife and three sons alive ‘but in a very poor condition’. Like Crusoe, he compares his captivity to ‘the Jewish captivity in Egypt’, and like Crusoe, he draws on the Psalms to describe his experience: ‘Thus the Lord sent from above; he took me, he drew me out of many waters, he delivered me from my strong enemies, and from them that hated me, for they were too strong for me.’ Coad’s narrative, which was praised by Macaulay, was published in 1849. It adds vitally to our understanding of Defoe, who gives complex fictional form to his experience of the Stuarts in Crusoe, A Journal of the Plague Year and his other novels. There is still no historically annotated edition of Paradise Lost, and editions of Defoe similarly betray that historical amnesia which, despite the new historicism, is still a persistent feature of literary studies in this country. It is one of the curious effects of consensus politics that this enemy of Jacobitism and fiery advocate of national unity should be so consistently neglected.