Fugitive Crusoe

Tom Paulin

  • Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions by Maximilian Novak
    Oxford, 756 pp, £30.00, April 2001, ISBN 0 19 812686 7
  • Political and Economic Writings of Daniel Defoe edited by W.R. Owens and P.N. Furbank
    Pickering & Chatto, £595.00, December 2000, ISBN 1 85196 465 7

In 1830, a few months before he died in a Soho rooming-house, Hazlitt published a lengthy essay on a new biography of Daniel Defoe in the Edinburgh Review, where he remarked that in Robinson Crusoe Defoe abandoned the political and religious subjects he addressed in his pamphlets, and confined himself to ‘unsophisticated views of nature and the human heart’. Hazlitt’s misreading is not uncommon. The novel is seen as the archetypal Puritan adventure story, a self-sufficient fiction which transcends the controversies Defoe addresses in his journalism. This is rather like saying that TV programmes such as Castaway and Big Brother tell us nothing about the social moments that created them. Although some recent scholars have noticed that Crusoe’s rhetoric of absolutism and submission ‘places the right and might of sovereignty in the office of the monarch’, as Manuel Schonhorn puts it in Defoe’s Politics (1991), his rather lopsided, overly monarchist study, critics tend to link the novel only intermittently to the historical period it covers, and have not succeeded in offering a critical view of the text as a historical allegory or parable. If Hazlitt – one of Defoe’s heirs and like him nourished in Dissenting culture – missed the point, it is not surprising that later readers have also failed to grasp that Robinson Crusoe is an epic account of the experience of the English Dissenters under the Restoration.

Defoe was born on about 30 September 1660, a few streets from where Milton lived in St Giles Cripplegate. In the course of his career, he often quoted Milton, and though he was careful to criticise the Commonwealth and Protectorate – a necessary journalistic strategy – he emerges in Maximilian Novak’s powerful account of his life and career as a principled radical whose seemingly protean changes of direction and allegiance were always in the service of the polity founded by the Glorious Revolution. Defoe boasted of wearing a mourning ring that had been given at the funeral of Christopher Love, a Presbyterian minister beheaded in 1653 for his part in a plot to overthrow Cromwell. Defoe mentions Love in his 1704 pamphlet The Dissenters Answer to the High-Church Challenge – it is reprinted in W.R. Owens and P.N. Furbank’s excellent eight-volume edition of his political and economic writings. With cleverly recessive irony Defoe says that Love was beheaded ‘for the horrid fanatic plot, contrived for the bringing in, as they then called him, Charles Stuart, and the restoring of monarchy.’ This remark functions mainly as an alibi for his loyalty to the post-Protectorate political structure, and is intended to shield him from the charge of being a closet republican, or a classical republican like John Toland. He believes in a ‘legal limited monarchy’, and has a humane idea of consensus and national unity within such an arrangement. He is an active, adept pragmatist, a revolutionary moderate.

In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe speaks of Crusoe’s ‘life of anxiety’ after he sees the footprint on the beach, and although Novak doesn’t draw this parallel, the atmosphere of anxiety which suffuses the novel can be traced to the ‘feeling of conspiracy’ which dominated Dissenters’ thinking during the Restoration – G.M. Trevelyan calls the years 1678-85 ‘the reigns of terror’. As Defoe noted in his remarkable periodical, the Review, there was a moment early in the reign of Charles II when London Dissenters feared they would be forced into the Catholic Church and have their Bibles confiscated. They decided to copy the Bible in shorthand, and though he was only a boy, Defoe ‘worked like a horse, till I wrote out the whole Pentateuch, and then was so tired I was willing to run the risk of the rest.’ As Novak shows, these feelings of anxiety went well beyond the Dissenting community – Catholics were supposed to have started the Fire of London, and there was a justified suspicion that there was a secret clause in the Treaty of Dover, which Charles made with Louis XIV in 1670, agreeing to restore Catholicism to England. Dissenters were also suspicious of Charles’s Declaration of Indulgence, which in 1672 suspended the penal laws against both Catholics and Dissenters. Many Dissenters preferred the risk of prison to state toleration of Catholicism, which they regarded as the real enemy. Defoe, however, though a firm Trinitarian Protestant, was committed to religious toleration, and in Crusoe, his hero establishes ‘liberty of conscience’ in his island kingdom – Catholic, Protestant and pagan are all tolerated.

Defoe, who claimed a knowledge of five languages, was educated at Charles Morton’s Dissenting Academy in Newington Green. Morton was a distinguished teacher and educationalist who was incessantly harassed by the Anglican Church till he left England for North America, where he became Vice-President of Harvard. The American connection can be sensed in Crusoe, and it is wittily glanced at by Mark Twain as he rewrites the novel with a tender and mischievous irony (Huck’s account of the contents of the catfish’s stomach – a brass button, a round ball ‘and lots of rubbage’ – is pure Defoe).

At Morton’s Academy, students were taught science and other subjects in English, not in Greek or Latin, a radical idea at the time, and they were also instructed in the art of writing good English prose, an enduring subject in the curricula of Dissenting academies (Hazlitt also studied prose composition). Defoe’s emphasis in his journalism and pamphlets on ‘easy, plain and familiar language’ is the direct result of Morton’s inspired teaching. Defoe praises Morton’s Academy in his 1712 pamphlet The Present State of the parties in Great Britain:

There was, some years ago, a private Academy of the Dissenters not far from London, the master or tutor of which read all his lectures, gave all his systems, whether of philosophy or divinity, in English; had all his declaimings, and dissertations in the English tongue. And tho’ the scholars from that place were not destitute in the languages, yet it is observ’d of them, they were by this made masters of the English tongue, and more of them excelled in that particular than of any school at that time. Here were produced of ministers, Mr Timothy Cruso, Mr Hannot of Yarmouth, Mr Nathaniel Taylor, Mr Owen and several others; and of another kind, poets Sam. Wesley, Daniel De Foe, and two or three of your Western martyrs that, had they liv’d, would have been extraordinary men of that kind, viz. Kitt. Battersby, young Jenkins, Hewlin, and many more.

The mention of Timothy Cruso and the ‘Western martyrs’ is, as I hope to show, central to the novel Defoe was to write five years later.

In his first full-length work, An Essay Upon Projects, which was published in 1697, Defoe asserted that there is a ‘direct signification of words, or a cadence in expression, which we call speaking sense; this, like truth, is sullen and the same’ (here sullen means ‘stubborn’). When Crusoe tells us that ‘accordingly I victualled my ship for the voyage, putting in two dozen of my loaves (cakes I should rather call them) of barley bread, an earthen pot full of parched rice,’ we can see that Defoe the conscious stylist has pitched in that explanatory parenthesis in order to give another turn to the vernacular cadence of his prose – we can hear and believe the quick authenticating drop in Crusoe’s voice. Praising Morton’s genius as a teacher, Defoe said his pupils were taught to write in a style ‘all equally free and plain, without foolish flourishes and ridiculous flights of jingling bombast’ – the implication being that they were not taught what he called ‘Oxford modern dialect’. This Puritan aesthetic and egalitarian ideology – plain style – can be felt in Defoe’s every sentence. Morton also contributed a paper to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on the use of sea sand containing organic compounds for fertiliser. The essay includes a ‘project’ for the increased use of such sand and, as Novak points out, is very much in Defoe’s projecting mode.

There was an anti-monarchical bias in most Dissenting academies, and the struggle between Puritans and the Stuart state resulted, according to Defoe’s figures, in eight thousand Dissenters, captured at illegal religious meetings, dying in filthy prisons. Defoe was particularly upset by the death in jail of Thomas Delaune, his wife and two children, and he blamed his community for not supporting them.

When the Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis on 11 June 1685, to begin his rebellion against his uncle, the new Catholic monarch, James II, Defoe left his young wife, Mary, whom he had married eighteen months before, to join the rebels. Novak notes that some of his former schoolmates at Morton’s Academy lost their lives in the rebellion, but he does not name them. This is a pity, because as I’ve recently discovered, a source other than Alexander Selkirk’s narrative stirred Defoe’s imagination, and points to the crucial effect which the Battle of Sedgemoor (6 July 1685) had on Defoe and on what is effectively his coded spiritual autobiography, Robinson Crusoe. In a book called The Western Martyrology, published in 1705, the Whig writer John Tutchin – a former rebel and friendly pamphleteering rival of Defoe’s – described how two brothers, William and Benjamin Hewling, who had fought at Sedgemoor, fled by sea but ‘were driven back again, and with the hazard of their lives got on shore (over dangerous rocks), where they saw the country filled with soldiers, and they being unwilling to fall into the hands of the rabble, and no way of defence or escape remaining to them, they surrendered themselves prisoners’.

William Hewling, who was 19 years old, was hanged at Lyme Regis on 12 September 1685, and Benjamin Hewling, aged about 22, was hanged on 30 September – he is probably the ‘Hewlin’ Defoe remembers as one of the Western martyrs in the passage I quoted from The Present State of the parties. Both were former pupils at Morton’s Academy, and their deaths must have been in Defoe’s mind as he described Crusoe’s miraculous escape from drowning:

I was now landed, and safe on shore, and began to look up and thank God that my life was sav’d in a case wherein there was some minutes before scarce any room to hope. I believe it is impossible to express to the life what ecstasies and transports of the soul are, when it is so sav’d, as I may say, out of the very grave; and I do not wonder now at that custom, viz. That when a malefactor who has the halter about his neck, is tied up, and just going to be turn’d off, and has a reprieve brought to him: I say, I do not wonder that they bring a surgeon with it, to let him blood that very moment they tell him of it, that the surprise may not drive the animal spirits from the heart, and overwhelm him: For sudden joys, like griefs, confound at first.

Crusoe lands on the island like a reprieved convict, and he keeps the date of his landfall as a sacred anniversary, inscribing it on a post: ‘I came on shore here on the 30th of Sept. 1659.’ The date is mentioned a total of six times in the novel, and it stands both as a commemoration of Benjamin Hewling’s death day, possibly of Defoe’s birthday and of his miraculous survival of the slaughter and the notorious Bloody Assizes which followed the battle.

Eking out his ink, Crusoe remarks that ‘by casting up times past: I remember that there was a strange concurrence of dates, in the various Providences which befel me; and which, if I had been superstitiously inclin’d to observe days as fatal or fortunate, I might have had reason to have look’d upon with a great deal of curiosity.’ This tells us that the dates in the novel are to be attended to closely, and the dates of the execution of the Duke of Monmouth (15 July 1685) and his fellow rebel the Duke of Argyll (30 June 1685) are both silently memorialised – the days of the month, not the years – in Crusoe’s journal. On 7 May 1660, the House of Lords proclaimed Charles king, and so signalled the end of England’s republican state, and on 7 May Crusoe records in his journal: ‘Went to the wreck again, but with an intent not to work, but found the weight of the wreck had broke itself down, the beams being cut, that several pieces of the ship seemed to lie loose, and the inside of the hold lay so open, that I could see into it, but almost full of water and sand.’ A ship is a traditional symbol of the state, and I think, too, that the Spanish wreck may be associated with the wrecks of the Armada which, Milton says, ‘larded our seas’.

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

You are not logged in