Daniel Defoe, by William Minto

Chapter 9.

The Place of Defoe’s Fictions in His Life.

Those of my readers who have thought of Defoe only as a writer of stories which young and old still love to read, must not be surprised that so few pages of this little book should be left for an account of his work in that field. No doubt Defoe’s chief claim to the world’s interest is that he is the author of Robinson Crusoe. But there is little to be said about this or any other of Defoe’s tales in themselves. Their art is simple, unique, incommunicable, and they are too well known to need description. On the other hand, there is much that is worth knowing and not generally known about the relation of these works to his life, and the place that they occupy in the sum total of his literary activity. Hundreds of thousands since Defoe’s death, and millions in ages to come, would never have heard his name but for Robinson Crusoe. To his contemporaries the publication of that work was but a small incident in a career which for twenty years had claimed and held their interest. People in these days are apt to imagine, because Defoe wrote the most fascinating of books for children, that he was himself simple, child-like, frank, open, and unsuspecting. He has been so described by more than one historian of literature. It was not so that he appeared to his contemporaries, and it is not so that he can appear to us when we know his life, unless we recognise that he took a child’s delight in beating with their own weapons the most astute intriguers in the most intriguing period of English history.

Defoe was essentially a journalist. He wrote for the day, and for the greatest interest of the greatest number of the day. He always had some ship sailing with the passing breeze, and laden with a useful cargo for the coast upon which the wind chanced to be blowing. If the Tichborne trial had happened in his time, we should certainly have had from him an exact history of the boyhood and surprising adventures of Thomas Castro, commonly known as Sir Roger, which would have come down to us as a true record, taken, perhaps, by the chaplain of Portland prison from the convict’s own lips. It would have had such an air of authenticity, and would have been corroborated by such an array of trustworthy witnesses, that nobody in later times could have doubted its truth. Defoe always wrote what a large number of people were in a mood to read. All his writings, with so few exceptions that they may reasonably be supposed to fall within the category, were pièces de circonstance. Whenever any distinguished person died or otherwise engaged public attention, no matter how distinguished, whether as a politician, a criminal, or a divine, Defoe lost no time in bringing out a biography. It was in such emergencies that he produced his memoirs of Charles XII., Peter the Great, Count Patkul, the Duke of Shrewsbury, Baron de Goertz, the Rev. Daniel Williams, Captain Avery the King of the Pirates, Dominique Cartouche, Rob Roy, Jonathan Wild, Jack Sheppard, Duncan Campbell. When the day had been fixed for the Earl of Oxford’s trial for high treason, Defoe issued the fictitious Minutes of the Secret Negotiations of Mons. Mesnager at the English Court during his ministry. We owe the Journal of the Plague in 1665 to a visitation which fell upon France in 1721, and caused much apprehension in England. The germ which in his fertile mind grew into Robinson Crusoe fell from the real adventures of Alexander Selkirk, whose solitary residence of four years on the island of Juan Fernandez was a nine days’ wonder in the reign of Queen Anne. Defoe was too busy with his politics at the moment to turn it to account; it was recalled to him later on, in the year 1719, when the exploits of famous pirates had given a vivid interest to the chances of adventurers in far-away islands on the American and African coasts. The Life, Adventures, and Piracies of the famous Captain Singleton, who was set on shore in Madagascar, traversed the continent of Africa from east to west past the sources of the Nile, and went roving again in the company of the famous Captain Avery, was produced to satisfy the same demand. Such biographies as those of Moll Flanders and the Lady Roxana were of a kind, as he himself illustrated by an amusing anecdote, that interested all times and all professions and degrees; but we have seen to what accident he owed their suggestion and probably part of their materials. He had tested the market for such wares in his Journals of Society.

In following Defoe’s career, we are constantly reminded that he was a man of business, and practised the profession of letters with a shrewd eye to the main chance. He scoffed at the idea of practising it with any other object, though he had aspirations after immortal fame as much as any of his more decorous contemporaries. Like Thomas Fuller, he frankly avowed that he wrote “for some honest profit to himself.” Did any man, he asked, do anything without some regard to his own advantage? Whenever he hit upon a profitable vein, he worked it to exhaustion, putting the ore into various shapes to attract different purchasers. Robinson Crusoe made a sensation; he immediately followed up the original story with a Second Part, and the Second Part with a volume of Serious Reflections. He had discovered the keenness of the public appetite for stories of the supernatural, in 1706, by means of his True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal.4 When, in 1720, he undertook to write the life of the popular fortune-teller, Duncan Campbell—a puff which illustrates almost better than anything else Defoe’s extraordinary ingenuity in putting a respectable face upon the most disreputable materials—he had another proof of the avidity with which people run to hear marvels. He followed up this clue with A System of Magic, or a History of the Black Art; The Secrets of the Invisible World disclosed, or a Universal History of Apparitions; and a humorous History of the Devil, in which last work he subjected Paradise Lost, to which Addison had drawn attention by his papers in the Spectator, to very sharp criticism. In his books and pamphlets on the Behaviour of Servants, and his works of more formal instruction, the Family Instructor, the Plan of English Commerce, the Complete English Tradesman, the Complete English Gentleman (his last work, left unfinished and unpublished), he wrote with a similar regard to what was for the moment in demand.

4 Mr. Lee has disposed conclusively of the myth that this tale was written to promote the sale of a dull book by one Drelincourt on the Fear of Death, which Mrs. Veal’s ghost earnestly recommended her friend to read. It was first published separately as a pamphlet without any reference to Drelincourt. It was not printed with Drelincourt’s Fear of Death till the fourth edition of that work, which was already popular. Further, the sale of Drelincourt does not appear to have been increased by the addition of Defoe’s pamphlet to the book, and of Mrs. Veal’s recommendation to the pamphlet.]

Defoe’s novel-writing thus grew naturally out of his general literary trade, and had not a little in common with the rest of his abundant stock. All his productions in this line, his masterpiece, Robinson Crusoe, as well as what Charles Lamb calls his “secondary novels,” Captain Singleton, Colonel Jack, Moll Flanders, and Roxana, were manufactured from material for which he had ascertained that there was a market; the only novelty lay in the mode of preparation. From writing biographies with real names attached to them, it was but a short step to writing biographies with fictitious names. Defoe is sometimes spoken of as the inventor of the realistic novel; realistic biography would, perhaps, be a more strictly accurate description. Looking at the character of his professed records of fact, it seems strange that he should ever have thought of writing the lives of imaginary heroes, and should not have remained content with “forging stories and imposing them on the world for truth” about famous and notorious persons in real life. The purveyors of news in those days could use without fear of detection a licence which would not be tolerated now. They could not, indeed, satisfy the public appetite for news without taking liberties with the truth. They had not special correspondents in all parts of the world, to fill their pages with reports from the spot of things seen and heard. The public had acquired the habit of looking to the press, to periodical papers and casual books and pamphlets, for information about passing events and prominent men before sufficient means had been organized for procuring information which should approximate to correctness. In such circumstances, the temptation to invent and embellish was irresistible. “Why,” a paragraph-maker of the time is made to say, “if we will write nothing but truth, we must bring you no news; we are bound to bring you such as we can find.” Yet it was not lies but truth that the public wanted as much as they do now. Hence arose the necessity of fortifying reports with circumstantial evidence of their authenticity. Nobody rebuked unprincipled news-writers more strongly than Defoe, and no news-writer was half as copious in his guarantees for the accuracy of his information. When a report reached England that the island of St. Vincent had been blown into the air, Defoe wrote a description of the calamity, the most astonishing thing that had happened in the world “since the Creation, or at least since the destruction of the earth by water in the general Deluge,” and prefaced his description by saying:—

“Our accounts of this come from so many several hands and several places that it would be impossible to bring the letters all separately into this journal; and when we had done so or attempted to do so, would leave the story confused, and the world not perfectly informed. We have therefore thought it better to give the substance of this amazing accident in one collection; making together as full and as distinct an account of the whole as we believe it possible to come at by any intelligence whatsoever, and at the close of this account we shall give some probable guesses at the natural cause of so terrible an operation.”

Defoe carried the same system of vouching for the truth of his narratives by referring them to likely sources, into pamphlets and books which really served the purpose of newspapers, being written for the gratification of passing interests. The History of the Wars of Charles XII., which Mr. Lee ascribes to him, was “written by a Scot’s gentleman, in the Swedish service.” The short narrative of the life and death of Count Patkul was “written by the Lutheran Minister who assisted him in his last hours, and faithfully translated out of a High Dutch manuscript.” M. Mesnager’s minutes of his negotiations were “written by himself,” and “done out of French.” Defoe knew that the public would read such narratives more eagerly if they believed them to be true, and ascribed them to authors whose position entitled them to confidence. There can be little doubt that he drew upon his imagination for more than the title-pages. But why, when he had so many eminent and notorious persons to serve as his subjects, with all the advantage of bearing names about which the public were already curious, did he turn to the adventures of new and fictitious heroes and heroines? One can only suppose that he was attracted by the greater freedom of movement in pure invention; he made the venture with Robinson Crusoe, it was successful, and he repeated it. But after the success of Robinson Crusoe, he by no means abandoned his old fields. It was after this that he produced autobiographies and other primâ facie authentic lives of notorious thieves and pirates. With all his records of heroes, real or fictitious, he practised the same devices for ensuring credibility. In all alike he took for granted that the first question people would ask about a story was whether it was true. The novel, it must be remembered, was then in its infancy, and Defoe, as we shall presently see, imagined, probably not without good reason, that his readers would disapprove of story-telling for the mere pleasure of the thing, as an immorality.

In writing for the entertainment of his own time, Defoe took the surest way of writing for the entertainment of all time. Yet if he had never chanced to write Robinson Crusoe, he would now have a very obscure place in English literature. His “natural infirmity of homely plain writing,” as he humorously described it, might have drawn students to his works, but they ran considerable risk of lying in utter oblivion. He was at war with the whole guild of respectable writers who have become classics; they despised him as an illiterate fellow, a vulgar huckster, and never alluded to him except in terms of contempt. He was not slow to retort their civilities; but the retorts might very easily have sunk beneath the waters, while the assaults were preserved by their mutual support. The vast mass of Defoe’s writings received no kindly aid from distinguished contemporaries to float them down the stream; everything was done that bitter dislike and supercilious indifference could do to submerge them. Robinson Crusoe was their sole life-buoy.

It would be a mistake to suppose that the vitality of Robinson Crusoe is a happy accident, and that others of Defoe’s tales have as much claim in point of merit to permanence. Robinson Crusoe has lived longest, because it lives most, because it was detached as it were from its own time and organized for separate existence. It is the only one of Defoe’s tales that shows what he could do as an artist. We might have seen from the others that he had the genius of a great artist; here we have the possibility realized, the convincing proof of accomplished work. Moll Flanders is in some respects superior as a novel. Moll is a much more complicated character than the simple, open-minded, manly mariner of York; a strangely mixed compound of craft and impulse, selfishness and generosity—in short, a thoroughly bad woman, made bad by circumstances. In tracing the vigilant resolution with which she plays upon human weakness, the spasms of compunction which shoot across her wily designs, the selfish afterthoughts which paralyse her generous impulses, her fits of dare-devil courage and uncontrollable panic, and the steady current of good-humoured satisfaction with herself which makes her chuckle equally over mishaps and successes, Defoe has gone much more deeply into the springs of action, and sketched a much richer page in the natural history of his species than in Robinson Crusoe. True, it is a more repulsive page, but that is not the only reason why it has fallen into comparative oblivion, and exists now only as a parasite upon the more popular work. It is not equally well constructed for the struggle of existence among books. No book can live for ever which is not firmly organized round some central principle of life, and that principle in itself imperishable. It must have a heart and members; the members must be soundly compacted and the heart superior to decay. Compared with Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders is only a string of diverting incidents, the lowest type of book organism, very brilliant while it is fresh and new, but not qualified to survive competitors for the world’s interest. There is no unique creative purpose in it to bind the whole together; it might be cut into pieces, each capable of wriggling amusingly by itself. The gradual corruption of the heroine’s virtue, which is the encompassing scheme of the tale, is too thin as well as too common an artistic envelope; the incidents burst through it at so many points that it becomes a shapeless mass. But in Robinson Crusoe we have real growth from a vigorous germ. The central idea round which the tale is organized, the position of a man cast ashore on a desert island, abandoned to his own resources, suddenly shot beyond help or counsel from his fellow-creatures, is one that must live as long as the uncertainty of human life.

The germ of Robinson Crusoe, the actual experience of Alexander Selkirk, went floating about for several years, and more than one artist dallied with it, till it finally settled and took root in the mind of the one man of his generation most capable of giving it a home and working out its artistic possibilities. Defoe was the only man of letters in his time who might have been thrown on a desert island without finding himself at a loss what to do. The art required for developing the position in imagination was not of a complicated kind, and yet it is one of the rarest of gifts. Something more was wanted than simply conceiving what a man in such a situation would probably feel and probably do. Above all, it was necessary that his perplexities should be unexpected, and his expedients for meeting them unexpected; yet both perplexities and expedients so real and life-like that, when we were told them, we should wonder we had not thought of them before. One gift was indispensable for this, however many might be accessory, the genius of circumstantial invention—not a very exalted order of genius, perhaps, but quite as rare as any other intellectual prodigy.5

5 Mr. Leslie Stephen seems to me to underrate the rarity of this peculiar gift in his brilliant essay on Defoe’s Novels in Hours in a Library.]

Defoe was fifty-eight years old when he wrote Robinson Crusoe. If the invention of plausible circumstances is the great secret in the art of that tale, it would have been a marvellous thing if this had been the first instance of its exercise, and it had broken out suddenly in a man of so advanced an age. When we find an artist of supreme excellence in any craft, we generally find that he has been practising it all his life. To say that he has a genius for it, means that he has practised it, and concentrated his main force upon it, and that he has been driven irresistibly to do so by sheer bent of nature. It was so with Defoe and his power of circumstantial invention, his unrivalled genius for “lying like truth.” For years upon years of his life it had been his chief occupation. From the time of his first connexion with Harley, at least, he had addressed his countrymen through the press, and had perambulated the length and breadth of the land in assumed characters and on factitious pretexts. His first essay in that way in 1704, when he left prison in the service of the Government, appealing to the general compassion because he was under government displeasure, was skilful enough to suggest great native genius if not extensive previous practice. There are passages of circumstantial invention in the Review, as ingenious as anything in Robinson Crusoe; and the mere fact that at the end of ten years of secret service under successive Governments, and in spite of a widespread opinion of his untrustworthiness, he was able to pass himself off for ten years more as a Tory with Tories and with the Whig Government as a loyal servant, is a proof of sustained ingenuity of invention greater than many volumes of fiction.

Looking at Defoe’s private life, it is not difficult to understand the peculiar fascination which such a problem as he solved in Robinson Crusoe must have had for him. It was not merely that he had passed a life of uncertainty, often on the verge of precipices, and often saved from ruin by a buoyant energy which seems almost miraculous; not merely that, as he said of himself in one of his diplomatic appeals for commiseration.

“No man hath tasted differing fortunes more,

For thirteen times have I been rich and poor.”

But when he wrote Robinson Crusoe, it was one of the actual chances of his life, and by no means a remote one, that he might be cast all alone on an uninhabited island. We see from his letters to De la Faye how fearful he was of having “mistakes” laid to his charge by the Government in the course of his secret services. His former changes of party had exposed him, as he well knew, to suspicion. A false step, a misunderstood paragraph, might have had ruinous consequences for him. If the Government had prosecuted him for writing anything offensive to them, refusing to believe that it was put in to amuse the Tories, transportation might very easily have been the penalty. He had made so many enemies in the Press that he might have been transported without a voice being raised in his favour, and the mob would not have interfered to save a Government spy from the Plantations. Shipwreck among the islands of the West Indies was a possibility that stood not far from his own door, as he looked forward into the unknown, and prepared his mind, as men in dangerous situations do, for the worst. When he drew up for Moll Flanders and her husband a list of the things necessary for starting life in a new country, or when he described Colonel Jack’s management of his plantation in Virginia, the subject was one of more than general curiosity to him; and when he exercised his imagination upon the fate of Robinson Crusoe, he was contemplating a fate which a few movements of the wheel of Fortune might make his own.

But whatever it was that made the germ idea of Robinson Crusoe take root in Defoe’s mind, he worked it out as an artist. Artists of a more emotional type might have drawn much more elaborate and affecting word-pictures of the mariner’s feelings in various trying situations, gone much deeper into his changing moods, and shaken our souls with pity and terror over the solitary castaway’s alarms and fits of despair. Defoe’s aims lay another way. His Crusoe is not a man given to the luxury of grieving. If he had begun to pity himself, he would have been undone. Perhaps Defoe’s imaginative force was not of a kind that could have done justice to the agonies of a shipwrecked sentimentalist; he has left no proof that it was: but if he had represented Crusoe bemoaning his misfortunes, brooding over his fears, or sighing with Ossianic sorrow over his lost companions and friends, he would have spoiled the consistency of the character. The lonely man had his moments of panic and his days of dejection, but they did not dwell in his memory. Defoe no doubt followed his own natural bent, but he also showed true art in confining Crusoe’s recollections as closely as he does to his efforts to extricate himself from difficulties that would have overwhelmed a man of softer temperament. The subject had fascinated him, and he found enough in it to engross his powers without travelling beyond its limits for diverting episodes, as he does more or less in all the rest of his tales. The diverting episodes in Robinson Crusoe all help the verisimilitude of the story.

When, however, the ingenious inventor had completed the story artistically, carried us through all the outcast’s anxieties and efforts, and shown him triumphant over all difficulties, prosperous, and again in communication with the outer world, the spirit of the iterary trader would not let the finished work alone. The story, as a work of art, ends with Crusoe’s departure from the island, or at any rate with his return to England. Its unity is then complete. But Robinson Crusoe at once became a popular hero, and Defoe was too keen a man of business to miss the chance of further profit from so lucrative a vein. He did not mind the sneers of hostile critics. They made merry over the trifling inconsistencies in the tale. How, for example, they asked, could Crusoe have stuffed his pockets with biscuits when he had taken off all his clothes before swimming to the wreck? How could he have been at such a loss for clothes after those he had put off were washed away by the rising tide, when he had the ship’s stores to choose from? How could he have seen the goat’s eyes in the cave when it was pitch dark? How could the Spaniards give Friday’s father an agreement in writing, when they had neither paper nor ink? How did Friday come to know so intimately the habits of bears, the bear not being a denizen of the West Indian islands? On the ground of these and such-like trifles, one critic declared that the book seems calculated for the mob, and will not bear the eye of a rational reader, and that “all but the very canaille are satisfied of the worthlessness of the performance.” Defoe, we may suppose, was not much moved by these strictures, as edition after edition of the work was demanded. He corrected one or two little inaccuracies, and at once set about writing a Second Part, and a volume of Serious Reflections which had occurred to Crusoe amidst his adventures. These were purely commercial excrescences upon the original work. They were popular enough at the time, but those who are tempted now to accompany Crusoe in his second visit to his island and his enterprising travels in the East, agree that the Second Part is of inferior interest to the first, and very few now read the Serious Reflections.

The Serious Reflections, however, are well worth reading in connexion with the author’s personal history. In the preface we are told that Robinson Crusoe is an allegory, and in one of the chapters we are told why it is an allegory. The explanation is given in a homily against the vice of talking falsely. By talking falsely the moralist explains that he does not mean telling lies, that is, falsehoods concocted with an evil object; these he puts aside as sins altogether beyond the pale of discussion. But there is a minor vice of falsehood which he considers it his duty to reprove, namely, telling stories, as too many people do, merely to amuse. “This supplying a story by invention,” he says, “is certainly a most scandalous crime, and yet very little regarded in that part. It is a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart, in which by degrees a habit of lying enters in. Such a man comes quickly up to a total disregarding the truth of what he says, looking upon it as a trifle, a thing of no import, whether any story he tells be true or not.” How empty a satisfaction is this “purchased at so great an expense as that of conscience, and of a dishonour done to truth!” And the crime is so entirely objectless. A man who tells a lie, properly so called, has some hope of reward by it. But to lie for sport is to play at shuttlecock with your soul, and load your conscience for the mere sake of being a fool. “With what temper should I speak of those people? What words can express the meanness and baseness of the mind that can do this?” In making this protest against frivolous story-telling, the humour of which must have been greatly enjoyed by his journalistic colleagues, Defoe anticipated that his readers would ask why, if he so disapproved of the supplying a story by invention, he had written Robinson Crusoe. His answer was that Robinson Crusoe was an allegory, and that the telling or writing a parable or an allusive allegorical history is quite a different case. “I, Robinson Crusoe, do affirm that the story, though allegorical, is also historical, and that it is the beautiful representation of a life of unexampled misfortunes, and of a variety not to be met with in this world.” This life was his own. He explains at some length the particulars of the allegory:—

“Thus the fright and fancies which succeeded the story of the print of a man’s foot, and surprise of the old goat, and the thing rolling on my bed, and my jumping up in a fright, are all histories and real stories; as are likewise the dream of being taken by messengers, being arrested by officers, the manner of being driven on shore by the surge of the sea, the ship on fire, the description of starving, the story of my man Friday, and many more most natural passages observed here, and on which any religious reflections are made, are all historical and true in fact. It is most real that I had a parrot, and taught it to call me by my name, such a servant a savage and afterwards a Christian and that his name was called Friday, and that he was ravished from me by force, and died in the hands that took him, which I represent by being killed; this is all literally true; and should I enter into discoveries many alive can testify them. His other conduct and assistance to me also have just references in all their parts to the helps I had from that faithful savage in my real solitudes and disasters.”

“The story of the bear in the tree, and the fight with the wolves in the snow, is likewise matter of real history; and in a word, the adventures of Robinson Crusoe are a whole scheme of a life of twenty-eight years spent in the most wandering, desolate, and afflicting circumstances that ever man went through, and in which I have lived so long in a life of wonders, in continued storms, fought with the worst kind of savages and man-eaters, by unaccountable surprising incidents; fed by miracles greater than that of the ravens, suffered all manner of violences and oppressions, injurious reproaches, contempt of men, attacks of devils, corrections from Heaven, and oppositions on earth; and had innumerable ups and downs in matters of fortune, been in slavery worse than Turkish, escaped by an exquisite management, as that in the story of Xury and the boat of Sallee, been taken up at sea in distress, raised again and depressed again, and that oftener perhaps in one man’s life than ever was known before; shipwrecked often, though more by land than by sea; in a word, there’s not a circumstance in the imaginary story but has its just allusion to a real story, and chimes part for part, and step for step, with the inimitable life of Robinson Crusoe.”

But if Defoe had such a regard for the strict and literal truth, why did he not tell his history in his own person? Why convey the facts allusively in an allegory? To this question also he had an answer. He wrote for the instruction of mankind, for the purpose of recommending “invincible patience under the worst of misery; indefatigable application and undaunted resolution under the greatest and most discouraging circumstances.”

“Had the common way of writing a man’s private history been taken, and I had given you the conduct or life of a man you knew, and whose misfortunes and infirmities perhaps you had sometimes unjustly triumphed over, all I could have said would have yielded no diversion, and perhaps scarce have obtained a reading, or at best no attention; the teacher, like a greater, having no honour in his own country.”

For all Defoe’s profession that Robinson Crusoe is an allegory of his own life, it would be rash to take what he says too literally. The reader who goes to the tale in search of a close allegory, in minute chronological correspondence with the facts of the alleged original, will find, I expect, like myself, that he has gone on a wild-goose chase. There is a certain general correspondence. Defoe’s own life is certainly as instructive as Crusoe’s in the lesson of invincible patience and undaunted resolution. The shipwreck perhaps corresponds with his first bankruptcy, with which it coincides in point of time, having happened just twenty-eight years before. If Defoe had a real man Friday, who had learnt all his arts till he could practise them as well as himself, the fact might go to explain his enormous productiveness as an author. But I doubt whether the allegory can be pushed into such details. Defoe’s fancy was quick enough to give an allegorical meaning to any tale. He might have found in Moll Flanders, with her five marriages and ultimate prostitution, corresponding to his own five political marriages and the dubious conduct of his later years, a closer allegory in some respects than in the life of the shipwrecked sailor. The idea of calling Robinson Crusoe an allegory was in all probability an after-thought, perhaps suggested by a derisive parody which had appeared, entitled The life and strange surprising adventures of Daniel de Foe, of London, Hosier, who lived all alone in the uninhabited island of Great Britain, and so forth.

If we study any writing of Defoe’s in connexion with the circumstances of its production, we find that it is many-sided in its purposes, as full of side aims as a nave is full of spokes. These supplementary moral chapters to Robinson Crusoe, admirable as the reflections are in themselves, and naturally as they are made to arise out of the incidents of the hero’s life, contain more than meets the eye till we connect them with the author’s position. Calling the tale an allegory served him in two ways. In the first place, it added to the interest of the tale itself by presenting it in the light of a riddle, which was left but half-revealed, though he declared after such explanation as he gave that “the riddle was now expounded, and the intelligent reader might see clearly the end and design of the whole work.” In the second place, the allegory was such an image of his life as he wished, for good reasons, to impress on the public mind. He had all along, as we have seen, while in the secret service of successive governments, vehemently protested his independence, and called Heaven and Earth to witness that he was a poor struggling, unfortunate, calumniated man. It was more than ever necessary now when people believed him to be under the insuperable displeasure of the Whigs, and he was really rendering them such dangerous service in connexion with the Tory journals, that he should convince the world of his misfortunes and his honesty. The Serious Reflections consist mainly of meditations on Divine Providence in times of trouble, and discourses on the supreme importance of honest dealing. They are put into the mouth of Robinson Crusoe, but the reader is warned that they occurred to the author himself in the midst of real incidents in his own life. Knowing what public repute said of him, he does not profess never to have strayed from the paths of virtue, but he implies that he is sincerely repentant, and is now a reformed character. “Wild wicked Robinson Crusoe does not pretend to honesty himself.” He acknowledges his early errors. Not to do so would be a mistaken piece of false bravery. “All shame is cowardice. The bravest spirit is the best qualified for a penitent. He, then, that will be honest, must dare to confess that he has been a knave.” But the man that has been sick is half a physician, and therefore he is both well fitted to counsel others, and being convinced of the sin and folly of his former errors, is of all men the least likely to repeat them. Want of courage was not a feature in Defoe’s diplomacy. He thus boldly described the particular form of dishonesty with which, when he wrote the description, he was practising upon the unconscious Mr. Mist.

“There is an ugly word called cunning, which is very pernicious to it [honesty], and which particularly injures it by hiding it from our discovery and making it hard to find. This is so like honesty that many a man has been deceived with it, and have taken one for t’other in the markets: nay, I have heard of some who have planted this wild honesty, as we may call it, in their own ground, have made use of it in their friendship and dealings, and thought it had been the true plant. But they always lost credit by it, and that was not the worst neither, for they had the loss who dealt with them, and who chaffered for a counterfeit commodity; and we find many deceived so still, which is the occasion there is such an outcry about false friends, and about sharping and tricking in men’s ordinary dealings with the world.”

A master-mind in the art of working a man, as Bacon calls it, is surely apparent here. Who could have suspected the moralist of concealing the sins he was inclined to, by exposing and lamenting those very sins? There are other passages in the Serious Reflections which seem to have been particularly intended for Mist’s edification. In reflecting what a fine thing honesty is, Crusoe expresses an opinion that it is much more common than is generally supposed, and gratefully recalls how often he has met with it in his own experience. He asks the reader to note how faithfully he was served by the English sailor’s widow, the Portuguese captain, the boy Xury, and his man Friday. From these allegoric types, Mist might select a model for his own behaviour. When we consider the tone of these Serious Reflections, so eminently pious, moral, and unpretending, so obviously the outcome of a wise, simple, ingenuous nature, we can better understand the fury with which Mist turned upon Defoe when at last he discovered his treachery. They are of use also in throwing light upon the prodigious versatility which could dash off a masterpiece in fiction, and, before the printer’s ink was dry, be already at work making it a subordinate instrument in a much wider and more wonderful scheme of activity, his own restless life.

It is curious to find among the Serious Reflections a passage which may be taken as an apology for the practices into which Defoe, gradually, we may reasonably believe, allowed himself to fall. The substance of the apology has been crystallized into an aphorism by the author of Becky Sharp, but it has been, no doubt, the consoling philosophy of dishonest persons not altogether devoid of conscience in all ages.

“Necessity makes an honest man a knave; and if the world was to be the judge, according to the common received notion, there would not be an honest poor man alive.”

“A rich man is an honest man, no thanks to him, for he would be a double knave to cheat mankind when he had no need of it. He has no occasion to prey upon his integrity, nor so much as to touch upon the borders of dishonesty. Tell me of a man that is a very honest man; for he pays everybody punctually, runs into nobody’s debt, does no man any wrong; very well, what circumstances is he in? Why, he has a good estate, a fine yearly income, and no business to do. The Devil must have full possession of this man, if he should be a knave; for no man commits evil for the sake of it; even the Devil himself has some farther design in sinning, than barely the wicked part of it. No man is so hardened in crimes as to commit them for the mere pleasure of the fact; there is always some vice gratified; ambition, pride, or avarice makes rich men knaves, and necessity the poor.”

This is Defoe’s excuse for his backslidings put into the mouth of Robinson Crusoe. It might be inscribed also on the threshold of each of his fictitious biographies. Colonel Jack, Moll Flanders, Roxana, are not criminals from malice; they do not commit crimes for the mere pleasure of the fact. They all believe that but for the force of circumstances they might have been orderly, contented, virtuous members of society.

A Colonel, a London Arab, a child of the criminal regiment, began to steal before he knew that it was not the approved way of making a livelihood. Moll and Roxana were overreached by acts against which they were too weak to cope. Even after they were tempted into taking the wrong turning, they did not pursue the downward road without compunction. Many good people might say of them, “There, but for the grace of God, goes myself.” But it was not from the point of view of a Baxter or a Bunyan that Defoe regarded them, though he credited them with many edifying reflections. He was careful to say that he would never have written the stories of their lives, if he had not thought that they would be useful as awful examples of the effects of bad education and the indulgence of restlessness and vanity; but he enters into their ingenious shifts and successes with a joyous sympathy that would have been impossible if their reckless adventurous living by their wits had not had a strong charm for him. We often find peeping out in Defoe’s writings that roguish cynicism which we should expect in a man whose own life was so far from being straightforward. He was too much dependent upon the public acceptance of honest professions to be eager in depreciating the value of the article, but when he found other people protesting disinterested motives, he could not always resist reminding them that they were no more disinterested than the Jack-pudding who avowed that he cured diseases from mere love of his kind. Having yielded to circumstances himself, and finding life enjoyable in dubious paths, he had a certain animosity against those who had maintained their integrity and kept to the highroad, and a corresponding pleasure in showing that the motives of the sinner were not after all so very different from the motives of the saint.

The aims in life of Defoe’s thieves and pirates are at bottom very little different from the ambition which he undertakes to direct in the Complete English Tradesman, and their maxims of conduct have much in common with this ideal. Self-interest is on the look-out, and Self-reliance at the helm.

“A tradesman behind his counter must have no flesh and blood about him, no passions, no resentment; he must never be angry—no, not so much as seem to be so, if a customer tumbles him five hundred pounds’ worth of goods, and scarce bids money for anything; nay, though they really come to his shop with no intent to buy, as many do, only to see what is to be sold, and though he knows they cannot be better pleased than they are at some other shop where they intend to buy, ’tis all one; the tradesman must take it, he must place it to the account of his calling, that ’tis his business to be ill-used, and resent nothing; and so must answer as obligingly to those who give him an hour or two’s trouble, and buy nothing, as he does to those who, in half the time, lay out ten or twenty pounds. The case is plain; and if some do give him trouble, and do not buy, others make amends and do buy; and as for the trouble, ’tis the business of the shop.”

All Defoe’s heroes and heroines are animated by this practical spirit, this thorough-going subordination of means to ends. When they have an end in view, the plunder of a house, the capture of a ship, the ensnaring of a dupe, they allow neither passion, nor resentment, nor sentiment in any shape or form to stand in their way. Every other consideration is put on one side when the business of the shop has to be attended to. They are all tradesmen who have strayed into unlawful courses. They have nothing about them of the heroism of sin; their crimes are not the result of ungovernable passion, or even of antipathy to conventional restraints; circumstances and not any law-defying bias of disposition have made them criminals. How is it that the novelist contrives to make them so interesting? Is it because we are a nation of shopkeepers, and enjoy following lines of business which are a little out of our ordinary routine? Or is it simply that he makes us enjoy their courage and cleverness without thinking of the purposes with which these qualities are displayed? Defoe takes such delight in tracing their bold expedients, their dexterous intriguing and manoeuvring, that he seldom allows us to think of anything but the success or failure of their enterprises. Our attention is concentrated on the game, and we pay no heed for the moment to the players or the stakes. Charles Lamb says of The Complete English Tradesman that “such is the bent of the book to narrow and to degrade the heart, that if such maxims were as catching and infectious as those of a licentious cast, which happily is not the case, had I been living at that time, I certainly should have recommended to the grand jury of Middlesex, who presented The Fable of the Bees, to have presented this book of Defoe’s in preference, as of a far more vile and debasing tendency. Yet if Defoe had thrown the substance of this book into the form of a novel, and shown us a tradesman rising by the sedulous practice of its maxims from errand-boy to gigantic capitalist, it would have been hardly less interesting than his lives of successful thieves and tolerably successful harlots, and its interest would have been very much of the same kind, the interest of dexterous adaptation of means to ends.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56