It is said that Robinson Crusoe has been translated into every written language, including Latin, Coptic, Inuit, Maori and Esperanto. There is a version for children entitled Robinson Crusoe in Words of One Syllable, as well as a female Crusoe, a Catholic Crusoe and a dog Crusoe. There is a science fiction remake, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and a mass of film, cartoon and TV adaptations. A German scholar has listed nearly 700 imitations of the novel. A faint echo of the book can even be heard in I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!
Defoe himself produced almost as many works as there are recyclings of his best-known piece of fiction. One commentator attributes an astonishing 570 items to him. He was one of the most industrious hacks in English literature; he wrote because he needed the money. He tried to sell Robinson Crusoe to two publishers at the same time, which was typical of his devious commercial dealings. At the age of 60, when most men of his day would have been close to death, he churned out all his major novels at a punitive pace along with pamphlets, tracts and pseudo-autobiographies, and squeezed all he could out of his castaway hero’s staggering success with a series of second-rate sequels.
One of the ironies of Robinson Crusoe is that although the setting is exotic, Crusoe’s behaviour is just the opposite. He potters around like a Home Counties gardener tending his flower-beds. We half expect him to open a greengrocer’s. The novel is a celebration of sturdy commonsensical English rationality, which looks all the more impressive and unflappable when up against such outlandish conditions. It’s nice to see a desert island looking a little like Dorking. There is something both admirable and absurd about Crusoe’s petit bourgeois approach to his new home – for example, when he rigs up an umbrella for himself. He distils the true spirit of a nation of shopkeepers.
If the novel combines English practicality with a sense of danger and adventure, so did Defoe’s career: life in early capitalist England was both prosaic and precarious. Defoe is commonly seen as the father of the English novel, and the novel begins to emerge when the everyday existence which is its stock in trade becomes newly unstable. On the whole, the classical literary genres do not take ordinary social experience very seriously, whereas the novel is born of the Protestant insight that the sublunary world is where souls and fortunes are made and lost. One can imagine the shock of an 18th-century reader reared on a diet of pastoral and elegy on opening Moll Flanders. Whatever else it was, it was certainly not Literature.
In early modern England, everyday society was as full of thrills and spills as Homeric epic or Senecan tragedy. One of the pleasures of reading Defoe is the drama he can wring from the mundane. The businessman is the mirror image of the whore and the pickpocket, and requires much the same ruthlessness, quick wits, thick skin and smooth tongue. As Brecht famously inquired, what’s robbing a bank compared to founding one? The thieves’ kitchen is the small business stripped of its veil of respectability. Defoe’s world is one of rogues, pícaros, hustlers and con men, those who continually cross the thin line between respectable society and the criminal underworld. Moll Flanders, usually seen as a common tart, is a canny businesswoman with genteel aspirations and a well-bred contempt for the criminals with whom she consorts. The commodity she happens to peddle is her body, in which she invests with meticulous care to ensure the most profitable return. There is no unseemly revelling in the flesh in this briskly efficient hunt for wealthy husbands of poor taste and low intelligence. It would offend against Puritan doctrine and financial prudence.
Defoe himself was no stranger to exotic adventure, even though he may never have left his native country. The son of a prosperous London tallow chandler, he set himself up as a haberdasher, ran a profitable brick and tile factory, dabbled in marine insurance, imported and exported a range of goods and, as a convinced Dissenter, took part in the Duke of Monmouth’s abortive rebellion against James II. In search of sunken treasure, he flirted with a diving bell project in Cornwall. He established a civet cat business in his home on Newington Green, collecting and selling the animals’ perineal secretions for the manufacture of perfume. It is not quite the milieu of Fielding or Pope. It was rumoured that he kept a set of ropes and ladders handy should the debt collector come to call.
His creditors hounded him, and he was committed to Fleet Prison as a bankrupt. On his release he decided that words were a more lucrative commodity than the perineal glands of civet cats. It was only now, fairly late in life, that he began to produce an unceasing flood of books, pamphlets, poems and journalism, having realised, in Katherine Frank’s words, that experience was an eminently saleable commodity. On one calculation he scribbled two and a half million words in a period of six years. One of his pamphlets, a satirical onslaught on High Church Toryism, forced him into hiding with a government bounty on his head. He ended up in the pillory, where it was possible to die as a result of the contorted and immobilised posture, and you were certain to suffer the indignity of having excrement, rotten eggs, dead cats and slaughterhouse refuse hurled in your face. Never one to miss a commercial opportunity, Defoe had his defiant poem ‘Hymn to the Pillory’ distributed to the crowd while he stood pinioned before them. After a spell in Newgate Prison, which proved invaluable for his crime fiction, he was hired as a publicist and undercover agent by the government that had clapped him in jail.
Frank argues that Defoe’s novel is primarily based on the career of Robert Knox, a 19-year-old seaman whose ship was badly damaged off the coast of India in 1659. He and his crew put ashore in Dutch-occupied Ceylon, where they were welcomed by the Tamil people but feared as imperial interlopers by the king of Kandy, a region in the island’s interior. They were hauled off to Kandy and held captive in various places for many years. Knox arrived back in England 20 years later. Nothing daunted, he set off again on an expedition to Madagascar, where he exchanged brandy for slaves and barely escaped the clutches of a temperamentally unstable king. To have been taken captive twice would have looked like carelessness. When his crew mutinied and took off with his ship, he was stranded in destitute circumstances on St Helena. On his return to England the first ship he clapped eyes on in Plymouth harbour was his own purloined vessel. It was still in the hands of the mutineers, who ran off for a second time. It was, one might claim, a matter of the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.
Knox published the tale of his adventures in 1681, and Frank believes his book forms the basis of Defoe’s fable of 1719. She has raided the historical archives, trudged up remote Sri Lankan mountains, taken life-threatening boat trips and collected local legends on St Helena. If anything, her research has been too assiduous, throwing up all kinds of minor characters and arcane bits of information the storyline could have done without. Yet it is hard to see that she has fully established her case. Defoe certainly read Knox’s memoir: in his novel Captain Singleton, he mentions the seaman’s misfortunes, uses material from his book and plagiarises a lengthy passage of it. It also seems likely that he was familiar with Knox’s unpublished autobiography, bits of which crop up in one of the Crusoe sequels. Even so, Frank’s claim that ‘Robinson Crusoe was based on Robert Knox’s long captivity on Ceylon’ is undermined by her own evidence. There are, to be sure, similarities between Knox’s experiences and Crusoe’s, but Frank herself admits that the real overlap is to be found in Crusoe’s early capture by Barbary pirates, which nobody really remembers, not in the desert island story, which everybody does. Otherwise, the two narratives diverge in all kinds of respects. Crusoe’s solitude plays a crucial part in his spiritual affliction, whereas Knox was with other people for most of his time in Ceylon. Frank speaks with assurance of Knox as ‘the man who was Crusoe’, but leaves us with no good reason to think that Alexander Selkirk, Fernando López or a number of other historical castaways, all of whom she acknowledges as possible models, were not equally or more important.
There is a sense in which the structure of Frank’s book serves to obscure this rather vital point. What she has done, in effect, is dovetail Defoe/Crusoe’s life story with Knox’s, in a way that intimates but never really clinches the affinities between them. There is a chapter about Knox entitled ‘Escape’, followed by a chapter about Defoe called ‘Another Escape’. But the first chapter is about Knox’s escape from Ceylon, and the second about Defoe’s escape from Newgate, a somewhat factitious parallel, not least when one takes account of the fact that Defoe did not escape from Newgate in the sense that people escaped from Colditz. He was released when the government intervened. Much of the biographical detail Frank provides can be found elsewhere, which makes her claim to originality – the Defoe/Knox relationship – all the more urgently in need of substantiation. We continually expect a decisive revelation that never comes. In the end, we simply get two fascinating stories for the price of one. At its least persuasive, the book tells us that there was a man called Knox who lived through some momentous events, and a character called Crusoe who did much the same.
Narrative tends to overwhelm interpretation: there is a good deal of blow by blow storytelling, but very little speculative stepping back. Frank has amassed some valuable material, but doesn’t do enough with it. There is a touch of what one might call subjunctive history: Defoe and Knox may, just possibly, have met in a London coffee house and the former ‘perhaps’ had the latter’s memoirs open on his desk while writing Crusoe. For the most part, however, Frank sticks with the indicative mood, though she succumbs from time to time to the now fashionable habit of fictionalising history: ‘A chill, late winter afternoon, dark closing in. A man sits at a table, writing, in a solid, red-brick house on Church Street, Stoke Newington.’ She even fictionalises fiction: ‘Crusoe, the young man on the shore, stares out at a listing ship, stranded on rocks that rear like stony monsters out of the sea.’ Perhaps the critic’s latest task is to improve on the author’s text, inserting a few suggestive similes here and there.
Frank’s preference for narrative over interpretation resembles Defoe’s own. What we have in his fiction is a pure narrativity; the pressing question is always ‘What next?’ Events are important in so far as they lead to other events. Everything is instrumental for something else. These perpetually restless narratives are fascinated by process itself, not by its end-product. There is no logical conclusion to a Defoe story, no natural closure. You simply go on accumulating narrative. Crusoe’s island is an occasion not for rest but for ceaseless labour. Crusoe himself is a capitalist’s fantasy, since he has no competitors; but he behaves as though he does, forever constructing and improving. He is no sooner home from the island than he is off on his travels again, stockpiling more adventures that he promises to write about in the future.
The desire to narrate is insatiable. In a world where to stop is to stagnate, you settle down only to take off again. Characters like Moll, Roxana, Singleton and Colonel Jack move so fast that they are incapable of storing up rich layers of experience. Instead, they live off the top of their heads, by the skin of their teeth, and (sometimes literally) by the seat of their pants. Selves are adaptive and provisional, without much interiority, and relationships (not least sexual ones) are purely contractual. All this is acted out at the level of style. Defoe’s severely functional, readily consumable prose is as nervous of depth and sensuous specificity as that of his great contemporary Swift. Instead, the signifier effaces itself obediently before the signified, language becomes the transparent medium of experience and objects are valued for their weight and size rather than for their colour, smell, taste or texture.
Narrative not only dominates interpretation in these works, but can be farcically at odds with it. Literary realism for a good Puritan can be justified only by yielding a moral, so Defoe assures us in the style of a tabloid reporter that he is recounting these sensational tales so we can draw a lesson from them. It is blatantly obvious, however, that literary realism is being relished for its own sake, and that story and moral are absurdly discrepant. We are invited to believe that the world is shaped by divine providence, a case which the shapeless realism of the tales, packed as they are with grotesque mishaps and contingent details, entirely fails to bear out. What seems retrospectively true – that one’s adventures were designed to bring one to virtue and repentance – fails to correspond with what seemed the case at the time. Virtue and repentance are for those who can afford them.
It is becoming hard nowadays to publish in book form language of the sort I have just been using. This is partly because the language of literary criticism is nearly as dead as clog dancing, and partly because of the problems of the publishing industry. There are textbooks and anthologies galore, but not many studies of Middleton’s stagecraft or Byron’s imagery. Literary critical discussion of writers has given way to biography, potted social context, coffee-table commodities and literary detective work. A whole venerable mode of discourse is in danger of going down the sink. There is nothing in Frank’s book which treats Defoe’s works as literary art, and nothing either in Siân Rees’s more lightweight, downmarket, mildly sensational Moll. This highly readable study introduces us to a number of real-life originals for Moll Flanders, including the procuress and gang-master Moll Cutpurse, Mary Moders, known rather less formally as Mary the Vulva, the pickpocket Moll Harvey and Moll King, who was transported to Maryland for theft. Rees’s technique is to trawl through Defoe’s novel in search of various points at which she can leave it behind and shoot off on historical tangents. Moll’s birth cues a discussion of 17th-century childbirth, her moving to Colchester launches us into a brief history of the town, and a mention of the slums around the London Mint permits us a brief wallow in London lowlife. It is a wonder that Moll stepping down from her carriage does not give rise to an account of early modern footwear.
Much of this is informative, and some of it is even fascinating. It is a familiar fact that female convicts of the time could escape the gallows by pleading their bellies, i.e. by being pregnant, but perhaps not so well known that male prisoners, or free men who bribed the jailers, would offer for a fee to inseminate any woman prisoner of childbearing age up on a capital offence. There is also an illuminating account of the Virginia plantation to which Moll’s mother is shipped for her misdeeds. The only puzzle is why writers like Rees use fiction as a peg to hang their social history on, rather than giving it to us straight. In this book, as in Frank’s, literature is a convenient device for talking about something else. Both writers add to our understanding of the social context of Defoe’s writing, but neither would spot a shift of tone, an unreliable narrator or a pattern of imagery if it leapt into their laps.