- Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth by Katherine Frank
Bodley Head, 338 pp, £20.00, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 224 07309 7
- Moll: The Life and Times of Moll Flanders by Siân Rees
Chatto, 224 pp, £18.99, July 2011, ISBN 978 0 7011 8507 7
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.