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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]

[Footnote 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

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

"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

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

"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

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

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Online LibraryWilliam MintoDaniel Defoe → online text (page 11 of 13)