The first futurist

There is more to Daniel Defoe than Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

He told us, that he had given Mrs [Elizabeth] Montagu a catalogue of all Daniel Defoe’s works of imagination; most, if not all of which, as well as of his other works, he now enumerated, allowing a considerable share of merit to a man, who, bred a tradesman, had written so variously and so well. Indeed, his Robinson Crusoe is enough of itself to establish his reputation. — Samuel Johnson, 10 April 1778

A unifying theme in the life of Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) was the pursuit of the future — a future of individual redemption and social improvement. This pursuit was partly inspired by Defoe’s position as an outsider to the present. A Protestant Dissenter from the Church of England whose joining the unsuccessful 1685 Monmouth rebellion against King James II was an act of treason, Defoe was by his background and fortunes a man who had only an episodic and precarious stance in the Establishment. He was well aware of his outsider status and dependence on the vagaries of political fortune, polemical and literary success and business and legal chance. It gave his career its edge.

Defoe was a traveller, both literally so, and in his interests and imagination. These travels took him from the English town of Colchester where his fictional Moll Flanders grows up, to the tropical Atlantic island where his fictional Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked.

There are also the travels of challenge and redemption that Defoe pursues himself and through his characters, taking forward the approach of John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), but giving it novelistic particularity that Bunyan rather lacked in his writing. The journey of the evil to an earthly perdition and a hellish end was extensively rehearsed both by religious and more secular commentators. In his range of interests, vigorous engagement with life and issues, often polemical content and style and willingness to engage with low life, Defoe prefigures Tobias Smollett.

Defoe’s major characters all strive for betterment. Thus, Robinson Crusoe creates a fertile and orderly new world which he has to defend against hostile intruders, whilst Colonel Jack also seeks advantage from the trans-oceanic world. He assembles in New England and New York a cargo of British cloth and linen that he sells to Spanish merchants in Cuba. This leads him to dream of profit: “I that had a door open, as I thought to immense treasure, that had found the way to have a stream of the golden rivers of Mexico flow into my plantation of Virginia … I dreamed of nothing but millions and hundreds of thousands.”

Whatever the setting, there was a major role for contingency in Defoe’s novels. The rapid shifts in fate for Defoe’s characters and the immediacy of the prose matched at an exaggerated rate the tumult that affected his own life and that of the country. Moll Flanders discusses with her arrested highwayman husband his willingness to be hanged rather than submit to transportation:

I blamed him on two accounts; first, because if he was transported, there might be an hundred ways for him that was a gentleman, and a bold enterprising man, to find his way back again … he had a kind of horror upon his mind at his being sent over to the plantations, as Romans sent condemned slaves to work in the mines.

For all categories of Defoe’s writing, there was a sense of events being not merely a matter of chance and occasion of drama, but also reflecting the moral economy of a divinely-ordained world. This was an existence in which all were tested, and their responses in terms of acceptance, fortitude and redemption played a key role. Pressing against constraints involved not only Defoe as writer but some of his characters in very different ways facing the contradiction between the should be, the am, and the (self-)delusion. There was, however, no formulaic approach to what were often improvised responses, as self-interest in the form of grasping opportunities was pursued.

Robinson Crusoe, title page of the first edition

Contingency due to divine purpose was played out in a context of a true fixedness and fairness framed by Providence, as was to be enacted in Handel’s oratorios as he compared England with Old Testament Israel. Indeed, nationalism was the product, history and record of collective and individual struggle, as well as its defence. Defoe wrote about it, both in foreign seas and lands and at home.

This struggle had a moral character that is difficult to capture today. It was a battle against vice, international and domestic, political and religious. This theme linked moralists who had very different political prospectuses and also captured the moral obligations of statehood. In his preface to Moll Flanders, Defoe outlines an exemplary purpose:

Throughout the infinite variety of this book, this fundamental is most strictly adhered to; there is not a wicked action in any part of it, but is first and last rendered unhappy and unfortunate, there is not a superlative villain brought upon the stage, but either he is brought to an unhappy end, or brought to be a penitent; there is not an ill thing mentioned but it is condemned, even in the relation, nor a virtuous, just thing, but it carries its praise along with it.

Liberty and religion seemed to be dependent upon the moral calibre of the people, and this calibre was threatened by subversion encouraged by poor governance. Each achievement was no more than a stage upon the road as nationhood had to be defended, not least if the country wished to be ensured the support of Providence. This defensiveness accorded with the belief that Anglo-Saxon liberties had been overthrown by the Norman Conquest.

In Defoe’s A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–27) there is an account of Tring, where Henry Guy, the Secretary of the Treasury, had been interested in enclosure, although for aesthetic rather than economic reasons. Defoe is even-handed, or if anything, sympathetic towards the poor, as he would not have been to the same extent had agricultural improvement been the leading goal of the enclosure:

There was an eminent contest here between Mr Guy, and the poor of the parish, about his enclosing part of the common to make him a park; Mr Guy presuming upon his power, set up his pales [fences], and took in a large parcel of open land, called Wigginton-Common; the cottagers and farmers opposed it, by their complaints a great while; but finding he went on with his work, and resolved to do it, they rose upon him, pulled down his banks, and forced up his pales, and carried away the wood, or set it on a heap and burnt it; and this they did several times, till he was obliged to desist. After some time, he began again, offering to treat with the people, and to give them any equivalent for it. But that not being satisfactory, they mobbed him again. How they accommodated it at last, I know not: I mention this as an instance of the popular claim in England; which we call right of commonage, which the poor take to be as much their property, as a rich man’s land is his own.

Defoe was keen in this and other instances on the idea of liberty as a particularly British, more specifically English, characteristic: “a nation who have the greatest privileges, and enjoy the most liberty of any people in the world”. This claim — which ignored slaves — also reflected the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution which permitted a new context and perspective for the judgement of events, trends and risks.

By contrast, Defoe was not particularly interested in mediaeval struggles against royal authority. There was a clear parallel with the focus in the Tour, in which he wrote:

My business is not the situation or a mere geographical description of it; I have nothing to do with the longitude of places, the antiquities of towns, corporation buildings, charters etc., but to give you a view of the whole in its present state, as also of the commerce, curiosities and customs, according to my title.

The emphasis is very much on towns, and if there are none of note then an area is of scant interest. Defoe deliberately avoids visiting Hadrian’s Wall, as “antiquity” is not his “business” in the Tour.

Newcastle by Nathaniel Buck c.1745

One of Defoe’s strengths is his ability to reflect on what he is doing, which helps provide the authorial voice that links Defoe as writer of fact to the more generally developing style of the novelist. As an instance of an inherently contrarian character that extends to the many voices of the author as describer, letter nine of the Tour, on the North-East of England, closes with a rejection of the content and tone set hitherto, admitting, “I cannot but say, that since I entered upon the view of these northern counties, I have many times repented that I so early resolved to decline the delightful view of antiquity, here being so great and so surprising a variety”. For:

as the trophies, the buildings, the religious as well as military remains, as well of the Britains [sic], as of the Romans, Saxons, and Normans, are but, as we may say, like wounds hastily healed up, the callus spread over them being removed, they appear presently; and though the earth, which naturally eats into the strongest stones, metals, or whatever substance, simple or compound, is or can be by art or nature prepared to endure it, has defaced the surface, the figures and inscriptions upon most of these things, yet … the venerable face of antiquity has some thing so pleasing, so surprising, so satisfactory in it, especially to those who have with any attention read the histories of passed ages, that I know nothing renders travelling more pleasant and more agreeable. But I have condemned myself (unhappily) to silence upon this head.

Defoe said he would remedy this on a future tour, and whilst he certainly had time to produce another fictional one, he was not to do so. No later writer offered his combination of energy and vision.

The grave of Daniel Defoe

Alongside Defoe’s account of change in the present came a sense of transformation from the Romans and the significant “noble undertakings” they had made. His reflection was one in which living standards were part of the proposition, more especially with the social background to the liberal capitalism and parliamentary sanction, represented by turnpikes.

This was a contrast not only with the Romans, but also with authoritarian empires of his day: “But now the case is altered, labour is dear, wages high, no man works for bread and water now; our labourers do not work in the road, and drink in the brook; so that as rich as we are; it would exhaust the whole nation to build the edifices, the causeways … which the Romans built with very little expense.”

As a result, Defoe argued, Britain needed new responses which he sought to offer in a corpus of writings full of proposing the future, notably in histories of the recently-achieved, such as The History of the Union of Great Britain (1709), in his extensive journalism and in his novels with their accounts of the individual struggle to overcome change.

His characters overcome a malign range of challenges from diabolical elements to the sin of despair, stockjobbing to the vagaries of the legal system. The common theme in the alleged autobiographies of Defoe’s fictional characters was authenticity. In that, they had affinities with criminal biographies. His energetic writing had an explicit directness. Defoe offered the future, deliberately writing clearly as well as vigorously and successfully embracing and advancing new literary forms from the newspaper to the novel.

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