Defoe or the Devil

Pat Rogers

  • The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe by P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens
    Yale, 210 pp, £20.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 300 04119 5
  • The ‘Tatler’: Vols I-III edited by Donald Bond
    Oxford, 590 pp, £60.00, July 1987, ISBN 0 19 818614 2
  • The ‘Spectator’: Vols I-V edited by Donald Bond
    Oxford, 512 pp, £55.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 19 818610 X

Comically observant, admonitory, but not quite reproachful, very English in its good-humoured and long-suffering manner, The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe is in more ways than one a caution. The cautionary tale it tells concerns the unplanned growth of the canon of Defoe’s works, which has sprawled from a hundred items to something like six times that figure in the last two centuries. P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens take us through the stages of this galloping hypertrophy more in sorrow than in anger, but they leave no doubt that the guilty men who have swollen the corpus with their rash attributions have been abetted by the passivity of other Defoe scholars. They argue that our sense of Defoe has been distorted by this process of aggrandisement, which has been going on virtually unchecked, and at an accelerating pace, in the 20th century. What they would like to see is a ‘root and branch’ exercise to clear away false accretions on the body of Defoe’s authenticated writing. So far so good: and no reader of their book can possibly demur at large parts of their thesis.

Yet there are problems. They are able to show without difficulty that many of the new ascriptions have been based on the haziest and most unscientific procedures. A highly entertaining part of their book reviews the succession of biographers and other students (never, significantly, bibliographers) who have been responsible for swelling the canon. We start with the Scottish man of letters George Chalmers in 1790, and end up with Professor J.R. Moore of Indiana University, whose principal work extended from the 1930s to the 1960s. We learn of William Lee, sanitary reformer and colleague of Edwin Chadwick, who found his match in the equally expansive (canon-wise) James Crossley – a more cautious and cunning operator, the extent of whose activities as a corpus-sweller has not been fully apparent until now. Furbank and Owens suggest that Chalmers was both accident-prone and obstinately credulous – witness his eager acceptance of the Ireland Shakespeare forgeries, soon dispelled by Edmond Malone. (A pity Malone never took up Defoe as an object of study.) Of the next biographer, the authors simply say that Walter Wilson’s ‘claims to critical skill are really very modest’, an understatement on the grand scale. It is revealed of W.P. Trent, the most influential figure in Defoe studies in the early 20th century, that ‘as a lifelong Anglophobe’, he ‘regarded Germany as, if anything, the injured party’ in the First World War. So we go on, with numerous Stracheyan touches to diminish the credibility of the witnesses.

Nevertheless, for all the rhetorical skill deployed by the authors, they cannot avoid their own surmises and suppositions: ‘We here put forward a speculation; indeed it is on this hypothesis that the present chapter partly hangs. It is that quite soon, Lee came to see in the affair’ – of Defoe’s dealings with the government publicity machine – ‘an example of the sort of injustice which was all too familiar to him in his own career.’ Perhaps: and one would be inclined to trust more of these authors’ guesses than those of William Lee himself. But they are guesses, and that casts an awkward doubt on their own procedures.

The difficulty here could be expressed in several ways. It is partly that the authors destroy our faith in the attributions because of their subjective and impressionistic character. Yet their own reasons for doubting an ascription, in any individual case, display essentially the same process in reverse. For example, they are convinced that item # 322 in Moore’s Checklist is spurious: that is, A History of the Wars of Charles XII. Their declared grounds are twofold: first, its totally unprofessional manner (‘everything in it bespeaks the amateur writer’); and second, its lack of general ideas (‘so intellectually vacant a chronicle’). Both views are critically arguable, but no more definitive than the evidence used to make the ascription. Later in the book the authors throw doubt on Defoe’s responsibility for Moore # 425, An Historical Account of the Adventures of Sir Walter Raleigh. Again their hesitance to accept the item is understandable, but again they are pushed to speculation: a rival Chilean scheme, they believe, was Defoe’s pet colonial project, and ‘he loved it too dearly, one feels, to have wished to float [another scheme in the Raleigh book].’ They also assume, for this purpose, that a vague and unspecific passage in Defoe’s later Plan of the English Commerce is a ‘mystifying reference’ to the Chilean scheme, which is dangerously close to the language of the Defovian empire-builders like Trent and Moore.

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