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.

Subsequently Furbank and Owens generalise their approach to the book on Charles XII, by arguing that badness (however diagnosed) is a prima facie argument against literary attributions to a writer of Defoe’s stature. In principle, this seems risky: think of the awful passages produced by some great writers – the melodrama, grandiose mystifications and irrelevant tub-thumping in Balzac, alongside his sublime inventiveness, or the clumsy ineptitude to which Hardy can descend. In particular, it is a very perilous thing to rest much weight on the invariable quality of Defoe’s writing. The authors make a number of claims for his powers: they admire his ‘improvisatory’ sentences, by which they mean something like the attribute Boulez discovers in Debussy – that is, ending up a phrase, a sentence or a paragraph in an unforeseen way, as opposed to the ‘forward planning’ of traditional good prose, which utilises the periodic sentence and other regular constructions. This is an agreeably positive argument, but not one which disposes of the sheer redundancy, ugly repetition and dangling syntax which mar Defoe’s style, even when he is working at full pressure in his best-known pieces of creative writing. Then Furbank and Owens defend the merits of Defoe the poet, at least in two outstanding productions, The True-Born Englishman and the ‘Hymn to the Pillory’. Here we are wholly into the critical mode, and again it is a warm-hearted and well-meant revaluation: but the terms are old-fashioned Leavisite vitalism, along the lines of ‘this strikes us as ... a wonderfully fine piece of writing, alive in every detail.’ Even if one is convinced, however, it does not avail very much in the general argument. What the authors need to establish here is, not that Defoe could write very well, but that he couldn’t write very badly.

Another way of confronting the problems raised is to look at a passage on previous attempts to disintegrate, or at least loosen up, the canon. This is what Furbank and Owens have to say: ‘Although scholars ... have been doing convincing work in questioning individual items and arguing for their removal from the canon, they have not on the whole called for a general reform or root-and-branch reconsideration. (Indeed, and this is an important point, they have tended to work within the normal scholarly convention of attacking an attribution only if there is a better candidate for authorship to offer.)’ The implication that this is a mere ‘convention’, a matter of ritual and decorum, is surely false. It could, in fact, be argued that such alternative attributions constitute the strongest and most dependable way of reducing the canon. Instead of trying to purge the unwanted items by generalised inferences or character assassination of hostile witnesses, one attempts to provide a demonstration that the author was X, and so can’t have been Defoe. This is surely a higher measure of reliability than can be attained by intuitions about the absence of ideas or amateurish writing.

Late on, in an appendix devoted to stylometry and Defoe, the authors assert that alternative candidates for an anonymous pamphlet which has been attributed to Defoe are bound to form ‘an unlimited group’. The situation is taken to be, not ‘is this by Middleton or Ford?’, but ‘is this by Defoe or an unknown?’ (or, as the authors put it, ‘Defoe against the world’). That this is an exaggeration, albeit an exaggeration of a real difference, is shown by the work which has been done to assign Defoe attributions to other known writers of the period. I cannot speak for the other scholars whom the authors mention in this context, and so will instance cases I know well from personal involvement (well, I would know them, wouldn’t I?). There is, for instance, Moore 293-294, two practically identical versions of a pamphlet published in 1715. The grounds for allocating these items to John Oldmixon took many pages to set out, and include both ‘internal’ and ‘external’ evidence. Furbank and Owens rate the latter much more highly, but this may be in part because they associate internal evidence with the dredging up of ‘favourite phrases’ allegedly used by Defoe. In extreme cases these are as marvellously implausible as, for example, the expression ‘in fine’ – perhaps Henry James might be a candidate if we accepted that criterion. F. Bastian, in his book on Defoe’s early life, makes attributions on the basis of (inter alia) certain ‘Defoisms’ which turn out to include tags such as hinc illae lachrymae. Such items of internal evidence are worth very little, as Furbank and Owens contend: but not all ‘phrases and stylistic tricks’ fall into the same category. The author of the 1715 pamphlet uses the phrase ‘Quondam Chancellor’ of exactly the same figure as does Oldmixon in pamphlets of the same period, and repeatedly employs identical expressions relating to the same named individuals as Oldmixon did elsewhere. One passage where the phrasing echoes that of Oldmixon’s books concerns a very obscure priest in Bristol, dead thirty years, whom Oldmixon had known in his youth. This is, to be sure, a sort of internal evidence and nothing like clinching by itself, but it has a different order of cogency from mere favourite phrases.

Moreover, external evidence is always shading into internal, and there is more of both around than the present authors imply. I have elsewhere attempted to show that Moore # 286 and 288, two pamphlets dealing with the Bristol riot of 1714, are almost certainly the work of Oldmixon. It is true that in this case Moore allotted the items two of his rare stars, implying dubiety. The case rests on a large variety of evidence, including Oldmixon’s extensive connections with Bristol, where Defoe’s are suppositious and flimsily documented. The argument, of course, needs to take matters very much further than bare facts of this kind, but bare facts have their place. Moore was inclined to play fast and loose with them, but that does not mean we should not employ them at all. It helps if we understand the structure and nature of the book trade a little; Moore and others do not seem to have realised (as I did not at one time) how tenuous was the link during Defoe’s lifetime between a pamphleteer and the bookseller whose name appears on the title-page. Often the name listed is that of a ‘trade publisher’, a kind of wholesaler, who did not buy copyrights or deal with authors directly. His presence or absence, or his implied testimony, will take us nowhere near the rightful owner of a given work.

In a very interesting chapter entitled ‘Principles of Author-Attribution’, which is perhaps the heart of their book, Furbank and Owens set out a number of rules which ought to govern these matters. Most of the guidelines are sensible and enforceable; the authors are surely right to question here Moore’s confident assertion that Defoe had a style so distinct that it was ‘recognisable by its rhythm alone’, and ideas so individualistic that ‘they set Defoe apart from any other writer who has used the English language.’ In addition, there is an interesting discussion of what the authors call ‘the fallacy of provisional ascription’. They contend that ‘the positive activity of attribution counts for more than the negative one of refusing or rejecting attribution ... It is far more desirable that a false literary attribution should not be made than that a true one should be made.’ In other words, once items get into the canon, they are fearfully hard to dislodge. This is true, but the problem will not go away, because we are faced with a situation where the ascriptions have gradually built up, and we must decide which to exclude.

In the past I have suggested, a little crassly perhaps, that we need a rationale of de – attribution. This might seem to be proceeding from the wrong direction, if we accept the common-sense view of Furbank and Owens that the onus is on the proposer to come up with irrefragable arguments, not for the sceptic to prove a negative. But attributions will go on being made, and the realistic course is to have in place a system for sorting out the wheat from the chaff. One general rule I attempted to formulate in dealing with the subject may conflict with the authors’ sense that we are dealing with a case of ‘Defoe against the world’, or as one might say, Defoe aut diabolus. This is not the invariable situation, as I have indicated, and anyway the value of some definite control is not fully recognised in the Furbank-Owens principles. The rule was couched in an attempt to challenge Norman Ault’s procedures when he allocated the poem ‘Bounce to Fop’ to Pope, on the basis of indubitable parallels with other poems by Pope, without examining equally glaring parallels with Swift. This is the way the argument ran:

The claim which I am advancing is not that Ault’s conclusions can be definitively set aside. It is rather that his methods involve a suppression of some of the evidence, and rest on a basically unsound mode of attribution. What has been termed the ‘differentiative power’ of authorial fingerprints exists only where the same intensity of effort has gone into their detection in the case of rival candidates. It surely ought to be axiomatic that any technique of investigation will lack cogency if tests (of word frequency, say) are applied unequally between possible candidates for authorship. If such a principle were generally recognised – as I fear it is not at present – then Ault’s procedures in imputing work to Pope would automatically come under suspicion.

Such controls are not as hard to obtain as the defeatist line of Furbank and Owens would suggest. We have some sort of fingerprints for writers such as Abel Boyer, George Ridpath and Thomas Burnet; even such a nameless name as Stephen Whatley, too obscure even to make it to the Dunciad, can be plausibly associated with several pamphlets, whilst Arthur Maynwaring is emerging from the shadows as a regular antagonist with the major authors of his day. Even where no such individual can be nailed for the disputed attribution, it is an advance if one can produce evidence equal or superior to that which has been used to link the item with Defoe – for that in itself is a definite contra-indication, much more valuable than mere blanket cynicism about the activity of attribution in general. If we are de-attributing, we need such particular techniques and procedures.

The section which Furbank and Owens devote to stylometry – as is proper in an appendix – raises some important issues which have not surfaced in the main text. The authors consider the work of A.Q. Morton as representative of some current quantitative approaches to the problem of attribution. If anything, they are a little gentle towards the undue confidence which these methods can breed when one moves from the science of statistics to the quasi-science of statistical interpretation, as, for example, in accepting the very inconclusive evidence that authors do indeed possess ‘unconscious verbal habits’ which persist through their works. In principle, this is a most unlikely theorem: there is nothing that writers are less unconscious of than the position of adverbs or the repetition of a syntactical pattern. Besides, if one writes a review for the LRB one uses a different sentence-length from the length one uses in the TLS. If, per impossibile, the New York Review of Books and the Sun were to ask me to review very similar books tomorrow, the outcome would be very different in terms of verbal constructions, vocabulary and paragraphing, even before sub-editors got their hands on the copy. Again, one writes differently in reviews as compared with essays, and differently again in books. With a writer as versatile and widely active as Defoe (even the disintegrators of the canon will leave that unaffected), it is hopeless naivety to assume that he will preserve absolutely distinct habits over four decades in a variety of forms. One of the troubles about ‘favourite phrases’ is that they change over time – one gets a sudden fondness for ‘really’ and abandons at an arbitrary moment ‘actually’. Considerations of euphony may override all previous practice with regard to sentence-shape. The ‘second nature’ which dictates such choices as that between ‘while’ or ‘whilst’, as Furbank and Owens describe the matter, is surely the kind of internalisation which professional authors resist. But does anyone ever write ‘while’ or ‘whilst’ without being aware at some level of what they are doing?

All in all, The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe is a considerable work; it makes many important points and will need to be consulted by all serious students of Defoe. The authors have provided a host of seasonable cautions, but they have not perhaps helped us as much as they might have in deciding just which items will have to go. On a previous occasion, they have given very strong grounds for rejecting Moore’s # 399, that is, A Vindication of the Press (1718). Other detailed case-studies along these lines are now urgently needed, and in this undertaking sensible use needs to be made of controls where they can be located. Wholesale unargued de-attribution could be almost as incautious a proceeding as its opposite has been.

Donald Bond’s splendid edition of the Spectator first appeared in 1965, and has been standard since then. Its reissue, along with the first proper modern edition of the Tatler, coincided with Bond’s 90th birthday. The earlier journal is slightly more tentative, and patchier in its literary interest: but every now and then we see ‘The Rape of the Lock’ unwinding before our eyes: as in the inventory of a beau’s possessions (# 113), and above all in # 146:

Nay, I have known a Muff, a Scarf, or a Tippet, become a solid Blessing or Misfortune. A Lapdog has broke the Hearts of Thousands. Flavia, who had buried Five Children, and Two Husbands, was never able to get over the Loss of her Parrot. How often has a divine Creature been thrown into a Fit by a Neglect at a ball or an Assembly? Mopsa has kept her Chamber ever since the last Masquerade, and is in greater Danger of her Life upon being left out of it, than Clarinda from the violent Cold which she caught at it.

There is a pre-echo of the Essay on Man in # 119 (‘We descry Millions of Species subsisted on a green Leaf, which your Glasses represent only in Crowds and Swarms ...’), and of Swift’s ‘rhapsody’ on poetry in # 229:

The whole Creation preys upon itself: Every living Creature is inhabited. A Flea has a Thousand invisible Insects that teaze him as he jumps from Place to Place, and revenge our Quarrels upon him. A very ordinary Microscope shows us, that a Louse is it self a very lousy Creature.

At times we are almost into Johnsonian thinking: ‘A Man who confines his Speculations to the Time present, has but a very narrow Province to employ his Thoughts in’ (# 152).

It is well-known that the Tatler started off with some uncertainty about its role. In the early months especially there are news items oddly jostling with social chatter, and it tends to be just news, not commentary about the news. The noise of the Sacheverell brouhaha barely penetrates the text. Various wars are reported in a desultory way: there is the long-running Spanish Succession affair drifting on in the Low Countries, with Marlborough’s less heroic triumph at Ramillies and the siege of Tournai, whilst Stanhope prospers temporarily in the Peninsular campaign. Stray stories keep emerging about Charles XII and the Northern War; ultimately the King is defeated at Pultava and heads for exile at Bender. Here, for once, Bond’s exemplary touch fails him, when he annotates: ‘Charles XII fled south to Bender (modern Tighina, in Bessarabia).’ This information appears to derive from about the tenth or the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and would surprise the inhabitants of modern Bendery in the Moldavian Socialist Republic. But elsewhere the editor tells us just enough of what we need to know, with excellent coverage of the proverbs that contribute distinctively to the style of both the principal writers. With its pronounced concern for the state of the language, witnessed by Swift’s famous paper # 230 on corruptions in style, the Tatler calls for more linguistic than historical awareness on the part of its editor, and it gets what it deserves here.

Students of paratextual matters could have a field-day with both journals, with their battery of framing devices – datelines, locating formulae such as ‘From my own Apartment’, letters and salutations, mottoes, editorial ‘advertisements’ and much else. It is a striking fact that we can read the series of papers straight through today, though there is no sustained fictional line in the Tatler – merely an assumption of the censor’s role, without even the club setting vestigially present in the Spectator. The authors make a virtue of this putative limitation: where Montesquieu feebly pretends to a mysterious ‘chain’ in Les Lettres Persanes, not immediately visible to the naked reading eye, they create their own continuity out of a tone, a set of shared assumptions, a manner of proceeding. For the Tatler’s sun, like that of Heraclitus, had to be relit each morning, or rather every other morning. We read on, sensing the passage of time, but aware too of the frozen quality of the series, its immovability and its unchangeable pattern. ‘The history of ideas,’ says Foucault, ‘usually credits the discourse it analyses with coherence.’ In the Tatler, discourse is as discourse does, day after day, week after week. The gaps are out in the open, intervals between the dates proclaimed in the masthead. Coherence is reduced to ordinal numbers, and nothing can break a chain which limits itself to that mode of sequentially.

Of course, Addison and Steele have been victims of their own success. We cannot see their influence, because it is everywhere. We look for a world we have lost, and find that in essentials we are in our own vaguely tolerant, more or less humane, unpushily civilised and comfortably sceptical surroundings. We mistake clarity for naivety, and misconstrue the finesse of allegory (as in Tatler # 161) for crude proto-symbolism. Some of the reasons for this state of affairs have been brilliantly explored by Peter Gay, in an essay prompted by the original publication of Bond’s Spectator, which appeared in Encounter in 1967, and there’s a thought – how many young people today could easily see how strong the literary pages of Encounter were in its heyday? Gay sees the Spectator as the voice of a new secular culture, bent on taming the aggressive energies of the 17th century in the service of a viable modern way of living: ‘a great campaign on behalf of civilisation, appropriate to [Addison’s] own time if not to ours’. The famous piece on the Royal Exchange (Spectator # 69) becomes an emblem of peaceful human interaction. This is very well said, only it sends Addison and Steele further back into the lumber-room of irrelevance. It is the lost causes of history which excite modern attention – Jacobitism, Mesmerism, astrology. The periodical essayists were too much at home in their world to enter our consciousness; they inhabited a cosmos which was God’s playground, and we are interested in the discomforts of the past, not its existential certainties. It follows that the Tatler and the Spectator have paid for their monumental success with monumental failure in our day. Our almost-instinct about them has proved almost true, because we like to see our questions prefigured in history, never our answers.