Secret Purposes

P.N. Furbank

  • Defoe and the Idea of Fiction: 1713-1719 by Geoffrey Sill
    Associated University Presses, 190 pp, £16.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 87413 227 4
  • The Elusive Daniel Defoe by Laura Curtis
    Vision, 216 pp, £15.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 85478 435 7
  • Dofoe’s Fiction by Ian Bell
    Croom Helm, 201 pp, £17.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7099 3294 4
  • Realism, Myth and History in Defoe’s Fiction by Maximillian Novak
    Nebraska, 181 pp, £21.55, July 1983, ISBN 0 8032 3307 8

We owe a large debt to the famous chapter on Robinson Crusoe in Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel. Watt really made us use our wits about that novel and forced us to relate it to our most serious interests. Reread after twenty years, moreover, the chapter still has all of its intellectual impact and verve. The trouble is, I now find myself wanting to quarrel with almost every sentence in it. The problem is perhaps epitomised by Watt’s dependence on Max Weber, who, I increasingly think, had quite a genius for getting things wrong. Watt, speaking of Crusoe’s methodical book-keeping, quotes Weber on ‘profit-and-loss book-keeping’ being ‘the distinctive technical feature of modern capitalism’. But after all, double-entry book-keeping was a mainstay of commercial prosperity in 15th-century Venice and Genoa (it later became known as ‘the Italian method’). How then can it be ‘distinctive’ of modern capitalism?

Of course, one could make quite a sensible case for regarding Medieval Venetian wealth-making as ‘capitalism’ (though scarcely as ‘modern capitalism’), just as you can make out a sensible case for denying it this name. But if you do refuse to call it ‘capitalism’, this would seem to put you on your honour to use the term with some scrupulousness, not to say soul-searching. On this basis, it is really very hard to see how Robinson Crusoe is, as Watt would argue, an expression of the capitalist ethos. The distinguishing features of capitalism seem mainly conspicuous by their absence on Crusoe’s island, where there is no division of labour, no distribution or exchange, no profit-motive and no competition. Admittedly, this could be precisely the point, and the book could be about capitalism in the sense of demonstrating what a poor thing life would be without it. Such a negative interpretation will not wash, however: for the novel succeeds in attaching strong positive feelings, even a kind of glory, to Crusoe’s island activities.

I think it may be wisest, for the moment anyway, to give up ‘capitalism’ as a key to Robinson Crusoe, and this indeed is what more recent critics have been tending to do. Of the books under review, both Laura Curtis’s and Geoffrey Sill’s offer an ethical rather than a socio-economic interpretation of the novel. Geoffrey Sill’s chapter on Robinson Crusoe strikes me as distinctly the weakest part of what is in some respects a very stimulating book, and I will deal with it rather briefly. He interprets Robinson Crusoe as being about the need to learn ‘moderation and self-restraint’ and the art of pursuing ‘ease and safety’. The ‘real crux of Crusoe’s moral sensibility’, Sill says, is ‘how to judge when to venture and when not to venture’. This, according to Sill, was also Defoe’s recipe for Britain’s political welfare, and before emerging as a novelist, he had been advocating it by fictional methods in various pseudo-biographical works: thus Robinson Crusoe was not altogether a new start. The scheme of Robinson Crusoe and of the Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, according to Sill, is to take Crusoe through the various roles of mechanic, monarch, country gentleman and merchant adventurer and so on, thus making him ‘a model of moral restraint that included in itself elements of all social classes’.

The objection to this interpretation seems obvious: that it makes Defoe’s fascinating narrative sound so dreadfully dull (not to mention unsalubrious, for the pursuit of ease and safety does not seem a very inspiring goal). Anyway, the reader is so grateful to Crusoe for not showing moderation and restraint, and for recklessly landing himself in the most appalling holes, that such an ethical scheme would be likely to be counter-productive. More seriously, Sill’s interpretation depends on the claim (as it were, on the analogy of Don Quixote) that the reader will not have got the point of Defoe’s novel till he has reached the end of its sequel, the Farther Adventures – in which the world-renouncing example of the exiled Russian courtier, ‘whose exile strongly resembles that of Harley and Shrewsbury’, guides Crusoe to the knowledge of ‘the Value of Retirement, and the Blessing of ending our Days in Peace’. Now this is as much as to say that, over the centuries, the common reader, who (it is a hundred to one) has never read the Farther Adventures, has not been in a position to appreciate Robinson Crusoe.

A more plausible ethical interpretation is proposed by Laura Curtis in The Elusive Daniel Defoe. It is that we are to relate the island life constructed by Robinson Crusoe to the ideal world implied in the prose and attitudes of the plain-speaking Mr Review, in Defoe’s journal The Review. In the former, as in the latter, all the emphasis is placed upon ‘order, directness, clarity, simplicity, repression of emotion and slow and patient work’. Thus Crusoe’s mind, according to Laura Curtis, tends always to reject the ‘otherness’ of the world. For instance, his description of Man Friday’s physical appearance reveals his ‘continual attempt to shape or to prune potentially inimical elements in his environment’ and to ‘edit, or to soften, features that must have been terrifying or repulsive to English readers of Defoe’s day’: ‘His Hair was long and black, not curl’d like Wool ... The colour of his Skin was not quite black, but very tawny; and yet not of an ugly yellow nauseous tawny.’ Two temptations, however, threaten Crusoe’s ideal order. First, restlessness – that restlessness which sends him out on a rambling life in the first place and which tempts him away from a secure existence as a planter in Brazil to the hazards and terrors of a desert isle. Secondly, and contrariwise, a ‘Mahometan’ passivity and tendency to ‘relax his strenuous efforts, to sink into pleasure and enjoyment, to allow himself to become absorbed by his surroundings’. It is from Crusoe’s battle with these temptations (which are also the temptations of the narrator in Journal of the Plague Year) that the novel gains its plot.

This is a way of looking at the novel which, at first sight, seems definitely helpful. But let us look a little more closely at a couple of Laura Curtis’s assertions. First: ‘The narrative of Robinson Crusoe is the account of how a single man gradually masters his own compulsions and extends his control over a huge, indifferent, even potentially hostile environment, learning to harness its inhuman forces and to put them to use for his own benefit. In this process, which is essentially that of rationalising the unknown, the immeasurable and the inexplicable, the forces that are being tamed stand in imminent danger of disappearing altogether.’ Why ‘huge’ here? one asks one-self. Crusoe’s island is quite a small one. What are the ‘inhuman forces’ that Crusoe harnesses? They seem to be no more than the ones familiar to us in the kitchen, the tailor’s shop and the pottery. Why ‘inexplicable’? I suppose this refers to Friday’s footprint: but that, apart from its singleness, is quite satisfactorily explained. Laura Curtis’s language strikes one as extravagant: she is importing a Romantic sublime or William Goldingesque apocalypticism into Defoe’s sober scene.

Then what about the following? ‘In Chapter Two, I traced two tendencies in Robinson Crusoe and in A Journal of the Plague Year that conflict with Defoe’s compulsion to construct in his writing an ideal, clear and simplified world of traditional morality, Christian belief, family hierarchy, and slow and patient work.’ It is not quite wrong, but it is not quite right. ‘Simplified’ sounds as if it should be correct, but as one ponders the word, it begins to look odd. Crusoe’s life on the island is, after all, remarkably complicated: indeed it is one of the closest likenesses between him, Moll Flanders, Roxana and Colonel Jack that their lives are an almost unceasing exercise in problem-solving. ‘Family hierarchy’ also does not quite hit the nail on the head, for Crusoe’s thoughts tend to run more to political than to family sovereignty. Again, and more important, ‘slow and patient work’ (or ‘long and patient toil and prayer’, as she puts it elsewhere) makes slightly the wrong impression. We are not to think of Crusoe’s devotion to work as self-abnegating, in the manner of saints’ lives or of Verlaine’s vie humble aux travaux en-nuyeux et faciles. The work may be slow and patient, but it produces joys that are not just dutiful but aesthetic. The novel, in this sense, is a celebration of creativity. ‘No joy at a thing of so mean a nature was ever equal to mine,’ says Crusoe, ‘when I found I had made an earthen pot that would bear the fire; and I had hardly patience to stay till they were cold, before I set one upon the fire again.’ His creativity is part of the religious scheme of the novel. When the discovery of the footprint destroys Crusoe’s relationship of trust and thankfulness to God, it also, for the moment, puts an end to all ‘invention’ – i.e. creativity – on Crusoe’s part. We are also, no doubt, meant to see a political lesson in it. The people of Britain are being asked to see what resources they have within their own being, if they would only look. The message about work resembles the one discussed in John McVeagh’s memorable article on ‘Defoe and the Romance of Trade’ – that there is a glory in trade. ‘Challenging, lucrative’, trade ‘is also wonderful’, and Defoe’s admiration for it ‘is not the dull astonishment of the outsider. It is the recognition by a tried expert that behind the computable facts of trade and industry lies an incomputable dynamic, that there is a mystery at the heart of things.’

Sill and Curtis agree in taking Robinson Crusoe seriously as a work of art. Watt is more ambivalent about the issue, or at least more ambiguous; and Ian Bell is sceptical. A lot of people enjoy the novel, and always have done, he argues, but the pleasure they are getting out of it is naive; and for those who are incapable of reading it with ‘naive involvement’ it is bound to be not only boring but puzzling. Only the labours of a literary historian can ‘make any sense’ of it. To make sense of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders (as opposed to Roxana, his masterpiece) it is essential, he says, to clear one’s mind of mandarin assumptions and read them as ‘popular literature’. He admits, indeed, that scholars’ attempts to identify a distinctive audience for ‘popular literature’ have failed: it seems that everybody read it, though some did so more shamefacedly than others. However, not quite consistently, Bell speaks of Defoe’s novels as ‘narratives ... designed to divert and quietly inform those classes with seriously restricted leisure time’, and elsewhere he implies that their readers were mainly from the ‘lower orders’ or ‘lower classes’, and especially trades-people.

At all events, what mattered, according to Bell, was not so much who was reading popular literature as the expectations and demands they brought to such literature (as opposed to the polite kind); and these demands were very strictly generic. You expected a travel narrative, or a confessional tale, or a spiritual autobiography, or a scandalous romance, and knew, as clearly as any Mills and Boon editor or Hollywood mogul, what it ought to be like, and would suffer no deviations. In Bell’s account, indeed, genre figures as a quite tyrannical overseer or ‘supervisor’. The reason Crusoe cannot have an equal human relationship with Friday is because of the imperialistic and slave-driving proclivities, not of Crusoe, but of the genre of the travel-narrative, which insists that ‘the personalities of figures encountered have to be subservient to the dominance of the narrator, for the tale to be told.’

Bell’s book is pulled apart by a dilemma over value-judgment. He claims to be defending Robinson Crusoe against inappropriate criticism and writes indignantly: ‘What justification can there be for dismissing the objects of most people’s attention as trivial? Why are great books assumed to be central, and to have more importance by definition than widely-read ones?’ What is required, he argues, is ‘two different kinds of reading’, and these will lead to ‘two different estimates’ of Defoe. The implication is that, once the literary historian has succeeded in ‘making sense’ of Defoe, by ‘relocating him within the popular’, Robinson Crusoe can once more be shown to be good. In practice, though, all Bell’s remarks about the novel have a tendency to belittle it and its readers. We see here, I think, the fruits of a fallacy: namely, that you can make value-judgments on behalf of other people. When Bell is expressing his own value-judgment, according to which Roxana is not only the best of Defoe’s novels but a truly powerful one, worthy to set beside Richardson, he writes well. He is good, for instance, on the dangerous excess of Roxana’s self-condemnation: ‘In this narrative, Defoe presents the consequences of a sense of sin, which seems to lead towards sin.’ However, here he is frankly writing as a 20th-century critic, or, to use his own words, ‘offering a diachronic estimate’. To provide a ‘synchronic estimate’, if we are to take ‘estimate’ as meaning ‘value-judgment’, he would have to become an 18th-century critic or reader, which, except in Science Fiction, is an impossibility. You can no more have an 18th-century value-judgment today than you can have an 18th-century cold.

Let me turn now to the contributions that these books make to the understanding of Moll Flanders. Maximillian Novak, in Realism, Myth and History in Defoe’s Fiction, has a valuable chapter, designed as a sort of outflanking of the debate, waged some years ago now, as to whether Moll Flanders is consistently ironical. Whether or not Defoe is being ironical at Moll’s expense, Novak argues, it is certain that Moll herself has a penchant for word-play – is indeed ‘extraordinarily playful in her use of language’, conversing in double-entendres and expecting her listeners, and equally her readers, to pick them up. She loves to qualify her words: the brother she marries incestuously becomes ‘my Brother, as I now call him’, and infanticide by unmarried mothers becomes ‘disposing their children out of the way, as it is call’d’. Equally she is inclined to ‘ask us to suspend our judgment on the meaning of certain words and phrases until the events themselves or Moll’s last commentary clarifies the situation’. This is unmistakably Moll’s pet speech-habit (as, one recalls, Crusoe’s is a playfully aggrandising word-play: ‘I called a council in my thoughts’; ‘When I came down from my apartment in the tree’; ‘my castle’, ‘my reign’). And by it, as Novak rightly argues, Moll frankly proclaims herself an unreliable witness. Irony or no irony, therefore, we are being warned not to read Moll Flanders ‘straight’.

Laura Curtis makes an altogether bolder attack on the problem. Her theory is that Moll Flanders is a ‘hoax’ or put-on, by Defoe in complicity with Moll. As opposed to irony, which requires some definite resolution, a hoax is open-ended, and as employed by Defoe it is an intensely secretive form. Thus in the present case, only Moll and Defoe are fully let into the joke, which is that Moll remains to the end a genial and unrepentant rogue. If we are taken in by her moralisings, the joke is all on us, hypocrites lecteurs, and on our desperate need for moral shams. Moll’s own hypocrisy, by contrast, is life-affirming; and the ‘rubber bands encircling the warring elements in Moll Flanders’ belong to ‘the welcoming realm of comedy, not the repudiating realm of irony’.

It is a daring effort, but I don’t think it will do. One of her examples of a hoax, in this novel which is supposedly all a hoax, is Moll’s action, after her reunion with her American son Humphrey, in giving the unsuspecting boy a gold watch, actually extremely ill-gotten, and asking him to kiss it now and then for her sake. This, according to Curtis, is a ‘practical joke’ on Humphrey, who reverently kisses the watch and says it shall be a debt upon him that he will be paying as long as Moll lives. The joke is meant to make him look ridiculous to the reader and is relished by Moll. Now, that we are meant to laugh at Humphrey, or think that Moll regards her motherhood as a huge joke, would make it a very black farce indeed, and I don’t think one can credit it. Of course, we do find the deception of Humphrey funny, as an aspect of Moll, but by dint of distancing and dissociating ourselves from her. This suggests a basic law regarding Defoe’s novels. He does not ask us to identify with his characters, or enter into any complicity with them, whether sentimental or cynical: what he does, and this is what makes him a humane and moving writer, is to make us sympathise intensely with their situation. If poor Moll’s efforts to act the mother strike us as stagey, as they do, we are to blame her situation: life plays just such hideous tricks on us.

The concerns of Geoffrey Sill’s Defoe and the Idea of Fiction are quite different. Sill has done something of the greatest value in drawing attention to a whole neglected genre of Defoe’s. I refer to the genre of pseudo-biographical or pseudo-historical fiction, constructed for ideological purposes, and brought off so skilfully by Defoe that, with its knowing detail and authentic-sounding dialogue, it passes itself off for fact with gullible readers and leaves a nagging doubt or two even with sophisticated ones. Defoe cultivated this form for some six years, between the decline and fall of his patron Harley in 1713-14 and the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Some of the best examples are ‘The Secret History of the White Staff (1714-15), a three-part attempt to whitewash Harley just after his fall; ‘A True Account of the Proceedings at Perth’, a purported eye-witness account of the final disillusioning days of the Jacobite rebellion; and ‘Minutes of the Negotiations of Monsr Mesnager’ (1717), the supposed private memoirs of the chief French agent in the peace negotiations leading to the Treaty of Utrecht.

It must be said at once that, although they appear in the standard bibliographies, there is no proof that any of them are by Defoe. The most one can say is that it makes sense to consider them as his (which is by no means true of all Defoe attributions). Each has a secret purpose and serves it by a technique described by Sill thus: ‘Defoe had learned the knack of describing human behaviour not merely as a series of public acts, but as a complex of intentions which, when properly understood, went a long way towards redeeming the apparently criminal or treasonable nature of those acttions.’ The genre, that is to say, belongs wholly to art; and according to Sill, ‘it was in this emphasis on intent rather than act that Defoe turned the corner from history into fiction.’ Sill spells out very lucidly the basic ploys and mechanisms of the genre.

The more one studies these works, the more they intrigue one; and in the richer ones much of the effect lies, not just in a reversal of signs, but in an uncertainty as to which signs need to be reversed. In the ‘Minutes of the Negotiations of Monsr Mesnager’, the densest fog of doubt is deliberately created around the credibility of political pamphleteering, the very genre to which the Minutes actually belong. ‘Those Writers of Pamphlets in England are the best People of that Kind that are any where to be found,’ writes Mesnager gleefully: ‘for they have so many Turns to impose upon their People, that nothing I have met with was ever like it.’ He employs an admirable hireling, with a perfect genius for proving that black is white: but unfortunately this man dies, and Mesnager has to look round for another. At this point, the Swedish envoy in London, Monsieur Lyencroon, recommends to him ‘an excellent Tract in our interest entitled, “Reasons Why This Nation ought to put an End to this Expensive War” ’, and Mesnager sends the author a handsome sum of money as a compliment, only to discover that he is in British government pay and has loyally reported the gift to his employer the Queen. Now it seems most likely that ‘Reasons Why this Nation’ was by Defoe himself; and Lyencroon was an arch-enemy of his, who, a few years before, had got him into serious trouble for some reflections on the Swedes. Here, it would appear, is Laura Curtis’s secret hoaxer, enjoying an almost unfathomably complex private joke. One perceives that the whole pseudo-biographical genre is, in a way, self-defeating as art, in that only one person in the world is fully in a position to appreciate it.

Sill has opened up a large subject. He has, however, a dangerous habit. He likes to construct a narrative plot or fiction as he goes along, depicting Defoe as ‘developing’ and as learning this or that lesson. Defoe, in his account, ‘gradually’ learns that heroes are not always wise and good men (I would suppose he knew it all along). He ‘very gradually’ approaches ‘fictional maturity’ (one reflects that the brilliant ‘True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs Veal’ came out as early as 1705). And, with the fall of Harley, it is said that he finally ‘came out from the intellectual shadows of a “great man” and developed a capacity for independent thought and action that made his success as a novelist possible’. (Actually, from the very beginning of their correspondence, Defoe showered Harley with independent ideas: and anyway the idea of Harley having intellectual influence on anyone seems far-fetched.)

Sill is thus not only discussing pseudo-biographical fictions, but producing them himself. The point becomes burningly relevant when one considers the state of Defoe attribution. Sill takes it for granted (of course he is not alone in this) that Defoe was the author of eulogistic defences of Townshend (‘An Impartial Enquiry into the Conduct of Viscount Townshend’) and of Walpole (The Conduct of Robert Walpole Esq’), both published in 1717. The fact would be puzzling, for they were bitter opponents of Harley, whose cause Defoe seems to have spent much energy in championing: indeed Walpole was Harley’s chief accuser and persecutor. This prompts Sill to one of his biographical constructions, interpreting it as a stage in Defoe’s ‘developing his own independent outlook’. Now a much better explanation, it would seem to me, is that Defoe did not write the pamphlets. What reason have we, when one comes down to it, for believing that he did? It is largely that the bibliographer W.P. Trent, in 1907 or thereabouts, made up his mind that the pamphlet on Walpole was ‘unmistakably Defoe’s in style and substance’, and that the way it advertised the one on Townshend suggested that both were by the same author. My own feeling is that the Townshend pamphlet, a prosy piece without a spark of verbal life, is unmistakably not by Defoe. And this seems a good reason for rejecting it from the Defoe canon, for the moment anyway, whereas Trent’s are very bad reasons for adding both to the canon. Not much harm is done by depriving an author of a doubtful work, whereas to bestow a new work on an author is a momentous step. I am not the first to be startled by the casualness with which that vast edifice, the Defoe canon, has been raised: Donald Wing once wearily asked whether it wouldn’t be simpler to assign all ownerless early 18th-century pamphlets to Defoe. We have to look no further than Geoffrey Sill to see the possible consequences. It is in this fashion that Defoe has acquired the reputation for being a mercenary, a trimmer, a vengeful turncoat, a writer-on-both-sides.