David Nokes on the duality of Defoe

  • Daniel Defoe: His Life by Paula Backscheider
    Johns Hopkins, 671 pp, £20.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 8018 3785 5

In many ways, Paula Backscheider has written a highly appropriate life of Defoe. Fat, fact-filled and repetitious, her book offers a meandering narrative of merchant adventures and spying, opportunism and piety, taking us from fire and plague to bankruptcy via the battlefield of Sedgemoor, Newgate prison and the pillory. It is, in other words, much like a novel by Defoe. The one essential difference is that at the heart of all Defoe’s novels there is a voice, the beguilingly candid tones of a first-person narrator skilfully blending puritan confessional with con-man’s patter to impose a rhetorical identity upon the turmoil of events. It is not merely that Professor Backscheider’s book inevitably lacks the strong dramatic unison of such an autobiographical persona. More disappointingly, she seems uncomfortable describing, or attempting to account for, the virtuoso feats of moral and political ventriloquism which render Defoe’s true ‘identity’ a reverberating compromise between rhetorical fantasy and documentary fact.

Writing a biography of Defoe is a daunting task. Quite apart from his relentless mercantile activities as hosier, brick-and-tile manufacturer, wine-importer, horse-dealer, salt-factor, oyster-farmer, perfumier, linen-trader, timber-merchant etc etc, and his extensive espionage work on behalf of Robert Harley, Defoe was an indefatigable writer. Peter Earle, in the introduction to The World of Defoe (1976), confesses the alarm he experienced when ‘with the contract signed, I began to realise just what I had let myself in for ... To my horror I discovered that Defoe was probably the most prolific writer in the English language, a writer moreover who wrote on every conceivable topic from angels to annuities and from adultery to agriculture.’ More recently, in their book The Canonisation of Defoe (1988) P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens have argued – persuasively, in my view – that the traditional check-list of Defoe’s output may considerably exaggerate the number of items written by him. Backscheider appears unhappy at this revisionist attempt to cut her author down to size. Her prefatory note that ‘my own use of the received canon is conservative’ is itself ambiguous. It appears to mean that she has, as she claims, ‘re-examined and re-evaluated every work attributed to Defoe’: yet in practice her conservatism is more evident in her acceptance of almost all the traditional canon and her rejection of the radical cut-backs proposed by Furbank and Owens. Indeed the sheer volume of Defoe’s output becomes for her a measure of his literary stature as she sets about proving his ‘superiority as a propagandist’ over his contemporaries Swift and Steele. Swift, she tells us, ‘spent many months on “The Conduct of the Allies”, and while working on it had written little else’. By contrast, the vastly more prolific Defoe ‘seems to have had no trouble sustaining the Review and publishing more than twenty tracts on the [peace] negotiations (plus half a dozen pamphlets on other subjects) in twelve months’. Her chapter titles reinforce this admiration for heroic feats of productivity. Chapter Seven is entitled ‘Four Hundred Thousand Words’, a record easily surpassed by Chapter 14’s ‘Six Hundred Thousand Words’. To gauge Defoe’s true superiority over his literary rivals one doesn’t need to read his works, merely to weigh them.

However, it isn’t the sheer bulk of Defoe’s writings that poses the main problem. More disconcerting is the spirit of cheerful, even boastful self-contradiction that runs throughout them. Borrowing a handy phrase from J.A. Downie, Backscheider remarks that at times Defoe appears not so much an individual as ‘a team of writers’. Even this under-estimates his protean talents. Often he delighted in playing not as one team only, but as both teams, keeping the whole game to himself. Writing in the pay of Robert Harley during the final years of Queen Anne’s reign, Defoe simultaneously supplied Whiggish copy in the Review and pro-Tory propaganda in such pamphlets as ‘Peace or Poverty’ and ‘Memoirs of Count Tariff’. Nor, in these antiphonal exchanges, did he confine his argument to a safe consensus territory between the partisan extremes. On the contrary, boasting of his intention of being ‘all things to all men’, Defoe allowed his rhetoric to exploit the most rancorous and antagonistic prejudices of either side. Writing as a Tory, he lampooned the greed of the Whigs, who ‘can no more forbear than a vulture can forbear his prey; the funds are the carkass they feed on.’ Writing as a Whig, he denounced the views of the high Tory Dr Sacheverell as the ‘the illegitimate spurious birth of monsters’. Often, his contradictory assertions on specific topics suggest a kind of political scizophrenia. Writing as a Whig, he describes the Dutch as ‘the best friends that England ever had’. Writing as a Tory, he suspects the motives behind this seeming friendship, and complains that ‘we have been greatly impoverish’d, and they exceedingly enrich’d by the war.’

While faithfully recording these switchbacks of Defoe’s political journalism, Backscheider insists that ‘history’s legacy is wrong; Defoe was not an unprincipled weathercock’ but ‘deeply human’ in his expression of such contradictory opinions. Indeed, she goes further. Defoe, she asserts, was ‘basically an idealist’. It is with evident distaste, therefore, that she finds herself compelled to report the details of the Machiavellian programme which Defoe outlined to Harley in the summer of 1704, with its cynical recommendations of the ‘virtue’ of hypocrisy, its instructions in the art of political lying and its insistence throughout that ‘intelligence is the soul of all publick business.’ ‘The Defoe that emerges in this period is not an attractive one,’ she writes, preferring to ignore the delight in covert role-play that links the language of Defoe the secret policeman with that of Defoe the counterfeiter of criminal autobiographies. Later, when describing how Defoe was paid by Townshend, the Whig Secretary of State, to insinuate himself into the editorship of several leading Tory periodicals and thus censor their political voice, Backscheider repeats her formulaic defence against the charge of double-dealing. ‘In a deeply human way,’ she tells us, ‘Defoe tried to affirm what he believed himself to be.’

Unfortunately, this faith in Defoe’s ‘deep humanity’ relies too often upon a superficial precis of what he actually wrote. As noted above, what is most strangely absent from this book is the authentic voice, or rather the authentic voices, of Defoe himself. What Backscheider offers us are paraphrases and summaries, rather than quotations. The differences between Defoe’s original and Backscheider’s dubbed version can be easily demonstrated. Defoe’s ambitious plans for a national network of spies, she notes, ‘may have been based, at least in part, upon Richelieu’s’. What Defoe actually wrote is this: ‘In my mannagemt here I am a perfect emissary. I act the old part of Cardinall Richlieu. I have my spyes and my pensioners in every place, and I confess tis the easyest thing in the world to hire people here to betray their friends.’ It is this gloating conspiratorial tone, the mischievous delight in duplicitous manoeuvres and the flight of egocentric fantasy, that transforms him into a reincarnation of Richelieu, and it is this that is so sadly lacking from Backscheider’s account. Here she is describing Defoe’s activities as Harley’s secret agent in Scotland, where he worked to promote support for the Act of Union: ‘He talked to merchants about trade, to manufacturers about wool and linen, and others about such things as newspapers and fisheries. He widened his circle of friends and solidified a number of special friendships that led to evening after evening of punch and good talk’. The tone is neutral, homely, matter-of-fact. Nothing in this account would lead us to suspect there was anything false about these ‘special friendships’, these convivial evenings of punch and good talk. Here, however, is how Defoe himself described the same activities in his secret correspondence with Harley:

I have faithfull emissaries in every company and I talk to everybody in their own way. To the merchants I am about to settle here in trade, building ships &c. With the lawyers I want to purchase a house and land to bring my family & live upon it (God knows where the money is to pay for it). To day I am goeing into partnership with a membr of parliamt in a glass house, to morrow with another in a salt work. With the Glasgow mutineers I am to be a fish merchant, with the Aberdeen men a woollen and with the Perth and western men a linen manufacturer, and still at the end of all discourse the Union is the essentiall and I am all to everyone that I may gain some.

In Defoe’s account we find that what Backscheider presents as a process of solidifying friendships is in fact a further demonstration of Defoe’s talents for political ventriloquism, talking ‘to everybody in their own way’ with the clear ulterior purpose of promoting the Union. We should also note the modulation of tone to introduce a parenthetical reminder to his paymaster Harley: ‘God knows where the money is to pay for it.’ It is this voice, disingenuously candid and artfully sincere, that most clearly identifies Defoe as the creator of that most ingenious strategist of salvation, Moll Flanders.

It is worth dwelling on this question of authorial voice since there should be no question of accepting at face value the numerous contradictory pronouncements of a man who managed to combine his genuine and honest puritan faith with a ruthless style of double-dealing in his political and mercantile activities. As far as possible, Backscheider attempts to offer us an uncomplicated, idealistic version of Defoe, but even she cannot ignore the most celebrated example of his political ventriloquism, ‘The Shortest Way with Dissenters’. In this pamphlet Defoe, himself a Dissenter, was only too successful in imitating the shrill voice of high Tory bigotry, with his recommendation for a hygienic campaign to ‘root out this cursed race’ that ‘poison the soul, corrupt our posterity, destroy ... our future felicity’. Characteristically, Backscheider is better at explaining the technical and legal nature of Defoe’s offence than at analysing the satiric qualities of a work whose tone, apparently, Defoe so seriously misjudged that Dissenters were all taken in by it, and he was sent to the pillory. Defoe’s intention, she repeatedly assures us, was to ‘expose’ the true message hidden behind the coded Tory rhetoric of ‘the Church in Danger’. But was it necessary, or even helpful, to this process of exposure that Defoe should end up in the pillory? Kierkegaard has argued that the true end of irony lies not in any utilitarian purpose but in the private satisfaction and delight of the ironist: ‘Should he wholly succeed in leading people astray, perhaps to be arrested as a suspicious character, the ironist has attained his wish.’ Did Defoe, who delighted in the deceptions of spying, also revel in this private satisfaction of the ironist as hoaxer?

These are questions which Backscheider prefers not to address. It is indicative of her whole approach that the term ‘ironic’ occurs less often in in this book than the term ‘irenic’. She is less interested in Machiavellian deceit than in Christian principles, and devotes less space to the elucidation of Defoe’s fictional strategies than to the assertion of his homiletic strengths. Thus she considers The Family Instructor as one of Defoe’s ‘best works’, a volume of practical divinity whose ‘psychological insights seem strikingly astute’. This contrasts markedly with the view of Defoe’s earlier biographer James Sutherland: ‘a good deal of the book is what would now be called sob-stuff ... If laughter can be coarse or delicate, so can tears; and those shed in The Family Instructor are mostly of poor quality.’ Not content with merely praising this work of domestic piety, Backscheider presents it as the key to a proper understanding of Robinson Crusoe. The two works, she suggests, function in parallel, with the dialogue of Robinson Crusoe echoing sections of the two-part Family Instructor. ‘Small children and Tobey in The Family Instructors ask the same questions that Friday and Will Atkins’s native wife do in Robinson Crusoe and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe ... In both Family Instructors and both parts of Robinson Crusoe the responses of those innocents who hear about God are identical.’ Backscheider concludes that ‘all of these books repeat the simple truths of Christianity.’

The ‘messages’ of the other novels turn out to be equally straightforward. With an uncanny knack for shoe-horning awkward fictional material into narrow factual moulds she presents Defoe’s later fiction as a series of extended commentaries on recent social legislation. The Transportation Act of 1718 not only regularised the sentencing of felons to America but also provided him with a theme for Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack. In these novels, she assures us, transportation is recommended as the ‘solution’ to the problems of criminality. Similarly, A Journal of the Plague Year is presented as a message of support for Walpole’s Quarantine Act. It is interesting to be told how closely the career of the fictional whore Roxana follows that of the real-life whore Sally Salisbury. But Backscheider, in her enthusiasm for the enlightened policy of transportation, observes that ‘had Moll’s husband not been her brother, she might have lived as peaceful and productive a life as her mother had.’ This appears to present the accident of incest as a practical inconvenience, rather than the fictional contrivance of an author who seldom presents peacefulness and productivity as complementary states.

It is in her reading of the novels that Backscheider’s ‘idealistic’ view of Defoe is least convincing. Moll’s repentance, she tells us in born-again tones, ‘has been a thing of joy. Like the rock that poured clear, refreshing water when struck, Moll has told her story to the minister who “broke into my very soul” by his honest, friendly manner.’ In a footnote Backscheider concedes that ‘not all critics agree with this reading.’ This is an understatement.

It is not merely that ‘not all critics agree’ with such a pious interpretation of this novel, but that Backscheider fails to attend to the fictional ambiguities of Moll’s moral vocabulary. For Moll, the language of righteousness is constantly transformed into a moral patter that justifies self-interest. When she steals a child’s necklace, she represents her act as ‘a just reproof’ to the parents ‘for their negligence in leaving the poor lamb to come home by itself’. When she strips a drunken old punter of his valuables, she reflects that ‘this usage may, for aught I know, do more to reform him than all the sermons that he will ever hear in his life.’ It is this apparently guileless facility for dignifying opportunist plunder with the rhetoric of moral principle which provides the most intriguing, yet disconcerting link between the language of the ‘real-life’ Defoe and that of his fictional creations.

My own favourite example occurs in Defoe’s correspondence with Harley from Scotland in 1707. In anticipation of the treaty of Union, London wine-merchants were stocking up their Edinburgh warehouses with duty-free wines from France, intending to sell them on the English market once the customs barriers came down. Defoe, himself a former wine-importer, deploring this attempt to defraud the public exchequer, sent a letter full of righteous indignation to Harley detailing ‘how easily 20 or 30 thousand pounds duty shall be avoided by the merchants in this case, the best wines being now sold here for £11 per hogshead’. Fired by his zeal for the public interest, Defoe set about uncovering the identities of these would-be tax-dodgers and a fortnight later sent another letter enumerating their cargoes. But then, switching in a single sentence from public moralist to black-marketeer, he adds: ‘Why shall your honour not permit me to buy you a ton of rich claret here which I may do as cheap as you buy a hogshead and I’ll take my hazard it shall be extraordinary.’ Would you buy a ton of claret from this man?