Whig Dreams

Margaret Anne Doody

  • A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain by Daniel Defoe, edited by P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens
    Yale, 423 pp, £19.95, July 1991, ISBN 0 300 04980 3
  • James Thomson: A Life by James Sambrook
    Oxford, 332 pp, £40.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 19 811788 4

This new issue of Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain is very pretty. It is a glossy book, lavishly illustrated with 18th-century maps, portraits, landscapes, prospects of towns and representations of buildings, markets, ships. This is obviously meant to function as a coffee-table book, or as a book to put in the back of a car (along with the National Trust’s guides). It’s the sort of book that would look much more at home in a BMW or Mercedes than a Mini. This production breathes an odour of ‘England’s Heritage’: one can imagine it in a bookcase beside works with titles such as ‘Roman Highways of Old Britain’ or ‘Our Cathedral Towns’.

That’s a pity, for Defoe’s book, the product of his many travels on business (including spying business), was intended to challenge the ‘Heritage’ notions of his time. It was a startling and unorthodox guidebook. Defoe rejected the Tory and Anglican interests, proclaiming that he was not going to bother much with Medieval monuments – such as the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This is a guidebook for now – the 1720s – and its central interests are economic and social. ‘The situation of things is given not as they have been, but as they are; the improvements of the soil, the product of the earth, the labour of the poor, the improvement of manufactures, in merchandizes, in navigation, all respects the present time, not the time past.’ When he comes to a new place, Defoe wants to know what the people live on; he quickly sights flourishing commerce, and he is fascinated by roads and communications. He notes how slowly the giant timbers are moved on the bad roads to Chatham, and tellingly illustrates the state of the roads around Lewes: ‘I saw an ancient lady, and a lady of a very good quality, I assure you, drawn to church in her coach with six oxen; nor was it done in frolick or humour, but meer necessity, the way being so still and deep, that no horses could go in it.’

How people and things get from place to place is important: Defoe fully recognises the relation between valuable products (grain, coal, timber, manufactures) and means of transportation. He makes us feel the nature of the road, at times appealing to the reader’s sensual imagination, even to the fascination of discomfort. ‘From this town of Guilford, the road to Farnham is very remarkable, for it runs along west from Guilford, upon the ridge of a high chalky hill ... This hill being all chalk, a traveller feels the effect of it in a hot summer’s day, being scorched by the reflection of the sun from the chalk, so as to make the heat almost insupportable; and this I speak from my own experience. This hill reaches from Guilford town’s end to within a mile and half of Farnham ... and at the top of the ascent from the town stands the gallows, which is so placed respecting the town, that the towns people from the High-Street may sit at their shop doors, and see the criminals executed.’ In this passage (brought to my attention by Lincoln Faller, who uses it effectively in his forthcoming book on Defoe), the reader is invited to share the pain of travel, including seeing too much, the eyes strained and tired. The seeing which is seeing too much is then picked up in the surprising image of the gallows at the apex of the hill. Is this a difficult sight to the citizens of Guilford? Or is it an added luxury of their town that they can attend executions, see the spectacle, without having to stir from their shop doors? Defoe is full of such teasing moments.

Alas, the passage is not present in full in this version of Defoe’s Tour. (I have just quoted the Penguin version of the Tour edited by Pat Rogers, also an abridgment, which does not cut death out of this description.) The Yale editors let us know about the chalky hill, but they have omitted the gallows. Why? Not, surely, because readers would find the information boring. This edition seems to desire a constant stream of good cheer (suitable for all ‘Heritage’ ventures). There must be nothing that can disturb us about our ancestors, or ourselves, or the history of the places we live in. There is a vague but perceptible desire for some intellectually refined version of the cute, an estrangement by domestication of a revolutionary book. Defoe was writing a travel book for businessmen and for Dissenters. He is quick to notice where an Anglican church is dilapidated or little attended, and he gives warm notice to flourishing meeting-houses – including Quaker meeting-houses. This is in an era when there were still penalties imposed on Dissenters, who could not attend the universities or hold any public offices. In his own unorthodox guidebook, Defoe was providing a new style of guide for the use of middle-class Whigs. It is of course fitting that his Tour should come into prominence again now, for Margaret Thatcher has taught us to ‘think Whig’, and the present so-called Tory Party is really a throwback Whig (not Liberal) party, with a fringe of puzzled Tories. However, this presentation of Defoe combs away much of the rebelliousness, adventurousness and cantankerousness of the author, and provides us with a smooth bland face, in keeping with our present modern Whiggery. In the words of Dickens’s Mrs General, ‘nothing disagreeable should ever be looked at ... A truly refined mind will seem to be ignorant of the existence of anything that is not perfectly proper, placid, and pleasant.’ Defoe’s Tour has been turned into a pretty illustrated book dealing with that endearing notion, a simpler past. It arouses the sort of nostalgia that Defoe himself treated with scorn. Defoe alerts us in his Preface to the possibility that there may be a satirical edge to at least parts of the book, and it is evident that some of the energy of the writing springs from a desire to show up those wrongful powers (placid companies, exclusive civic corporations, Anglican clerics, rich and idle gentles and the idle poor) who impede the work of others. He is, however, respectful of the work of the labouring poor, and here, too, the modern editors do not accompany him in his interests. The vitality of early Whiggery has been ingested into the world of the CEO, the Whiggery of the Sunday cottage, and the Sunday drive to the quaint village pub.

Defoe would, I think, encourage us to write our own Tour. Some individual, not directed by the Government or funded by Big Business, might undertake such a survey, examining the state of manufacture, transport facilities, commerce, as well as the life of the labouring poor. But the conclusions to be drawn from such a ‘1990s Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain’ would probably be much more sobering than Defoe’s. In reading this new version of Defoe’s tour, we are merely escaping – borrowing the flush of economic hope from the 1720s, revelling at once in the period’s quaintness and its sense of opportunity.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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