“Robinson Crusoe” by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Essay

April 13, 1895. Robinson Crusoe.

Many a book has produced a wide and beneficent effect and won a great reputation, and yet this effect and this reputation have been altogether wide of its author’s aim. Swift’s Gulliver is one example. As Mr. Birrell put it the other day, “Swift’s gospel of hatred, his testament of woe–his Gulliver, upon which he expended the treasures of his wit, and into which he instilled the concentrated essence of his rage–has become a child’s book, and has been read with wonder and delight by generations of innocents.”

How far is the tale a parable?

Generations of innocents in like manner have accepted Robinson Crusoe as a delightful tale about a castaway mariner, a story of adventure pure and simple, without sub-intention of any kind. But we know very well that Defoe in writing it intended a parable–a parable of his own life. In the first place, he distinctly affirms this in his preface to the Serious Reflections which form Part iii. of his great story:–

“As the design of everything is said to be first in the intention, and last in the execution, so I come now to acknowledge to my reader that the present work is not merely a product of the two first volumes, but the two first volumes may rather be called the product of this. The fable is always made for the moral, not the moral for the fable….”

He goes on to say that whereas “the envious and ill-disposed part of the world” have accused the story of being feigned, and “all a romance, formed and embellished by invention to impose upon the world,” he declares this objection to be an invention scandalous in design, and false in fact, and affirms that the story, “though allegorical, is also historical”; that it is

“the beautiful representation of a life of unexampled misfortunes, and of a variety not to be met with in the world, sincerely adapted to and intended for the common good of mankind, and designed at first, as it is now further applied, to the most serious use possible. Farther, that there is a man alive, and well known too, the actions of whose life are the just subject of these volumes, and to whom all or most part of the story most directly alludes; this may be depended upon, for truth, and to this I set my name.”

He proceeds to assert this in detail of several important passages in the book, and obviously intends us to infer that the adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, were throughout and from the beginning designed as a story in parable of the life and adventures of Daniel Defoe, Gentleman. “But Defoe may have been lying?” This was never quite flatly asserted. Even his enemy Gildon admitted an analogy between the tale of Crusoe and the stormy life of Defoe with its frequent shipwrecks “more by land than by sea.” Gildon admitted this implicitly in the title of his pamphlet, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Mr. D—- De F—-, of London, Hosier, who has lived above Fifty Years by himself in the Kingdoms of North and South Britain. But the question has always been, To what extent are we to accept Defoe’s statement that the story is an allegory? Does it agree step by step and in detail with the circumstances of Defoe’s life? Or has it but a general allegorical resemblance?

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Hitherto, critics have been content with the general resemblance, and have agreed that it would be a mistake to accept Defoe’s statement too literally, to hunt for minute allusions in Robinson Crusoe, and search for exact resemblances between incidents in the tale and events in the author’s life. But this at any rate may be safely affirmed, that recent discoveries have proved the resemblance to be a great deal closer than anyone suspected a few years ago.

Mr. Wright’s hypothesis.

Mr. Aitken supplied the key when he announced in the Athenæum for August 23rd, 1890, his discovery that Daniel Defoe was born, not in 1661 (as had hitherto been supposed), but earlier, and probably in the latter part of the year 1659. The story dates Crusoe’s birth September 30th, 1632, or just twenty-seven years earlier. Now Mr. Wright, Defoe’s latest biographer,[A] maintains that if we add these twenty-seven years to the date of any event in Crusoe’s life we shall have the date of the corresponding event in Defoe’s life. By this simple calculation he finds that Crusoe’s running away to sea corresponds in time with Defoe’s departure from the academy at Newington Green; Crusoe’s early period on the island (south side) with the years Defoe lived at Tooting; Crusoe’s visit to the other side of the island with a journey of Defoe’s into Scotland; the footprint and the arrival of the savages with the threatening letters received by Defoe, and the physical assaults made on him after the Sacheverell trial; while Friday stands for a collaborator who helped Defoe with his work.

Defoe expressly states in his Serious Reflections that the story of Friday is historical and true in fact–

“It is most real that I had … 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.”

It may be added that there are strong grounds for believing Defoe to have had about this time assistance in his literary work.

All this is very neatly worked out; but of course the really important event in Crusoe’s life is his great shipwreck and his long solitude on the island. Now of what events in Defoe’s life are these symbolical?

The ‘Silence.’

Well, in the very forefront of his Serious Reflections, and in connection with his long confinement in the island, Defoe makes Crusoe tell the following story:–

“I have heard of a man that, upon some extraordinary disgust which he took at the unsuitable conversation of some of his nearest relations, whose society he could not avoid, suddenly resolved never to speak any more. He kept his resolution most rigorously many years; not all the tears or entreaties of his friends–no, not of his wife and children–could prevail with him to break his silence. It seems it was their ill-behaviour to him, at first, that was the occasion of it; for they treated him with provoking language, which frequently put him into undecent passions, and urged him to rash replies; and he took this severe way to punish himself for being provoked, and to punish them for provoking him. But the severity was unjustifiable; it ruined his family and broke up his house. His wife could not bear it, and after endeavouring, by all the ways possible, to alter his rigid silence, went first away from him, and afterwards from herself, turning melancholy and distracted. His children separated, some one way and some another way; and only one daughter, who loved her father above all the rest, kept with him, tended him, talked to him by signs, and lived almost dumb like her father near twenty-nine years with him; till being very sick, and in a high fever, delirious as we call it, or light-headed, he broke his silence, not knowing when he did it, and spoke, though wildly at first. He recovered of his illness afterwards, and frequently talked with his daughter, but not much, and very seldom to anybody else.”

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I italicise some very important words in the above story. Crusoe was wrecked on his island on September 30th, 1659, his twenty-seventh birthday. We are told that he remained on the island twenty-eight years, two months and nineteen days. (Compare with duration of the man’s silence in the story.) This puts the date of his departure at December 19th, 1687.

Now add twenty-seven years. We find that Defoe left his solitude–whatever that may have been–on December 19th, 1714. Just at that date, as all his biographers record, Defoe was struck down by a fit of apoplexy and lay ill for six weeks. Compare this again with the story.

You divine what is coming. Astounding as it may be, Mr. Wright contends that Defoe himself was the original of the story: that Defoe, provoked by his wife’s irritating tongue, made a kind of vow to live a life of silence–and kept it for more than twenty-eight years!

So far back as 1859 the egregious Chadwick nibbled at this theory in his Life and Times of Daniel Defoe, with Remarks Digressive and Discursive. The story, he says, “would be very applicable” to Defoe himself, and again, “is very likely to have been taken from his own life”; but at this point Chadwick maunders off with the remark that “perhaps the domestic fireside of the poet or book-writer is not the place we should go to in search of domestic happiness.” Perhaps not; but Chadwick, tallyhoing after domestic happiness, misses the scent. Mr. Wright sticks to the scent and rides boldly; but is he after the real fox?

* * * * *

April 20, 1895.

Can we believe it? Can we believe that on the 30th of September, 1686, Defoe, provoked by his wife’s nagging tongue, made a vow to live a life of complete silence; that for twenty-eight years and a month or two he never addressed a word to his wife or children; and that his resolution was only broken down by a severe illness in the winter of 1714?

Mr. Aitken on Mr. Wright’s hypothesis.

Mr. Aitken,[B] who has handled this hypothesis of Mr. Wright’s, brings several arguments against it, which, taken together, seem to me quite conclusive. To begin with, several children were born to Defoe during this period. He paid much attention to their education, and in 1713, the penultimate year of this supposed silence, we find his sons helping him in his work. Again, in 1703 Mrs. Defoe was interceding for her husband’s release from Newgate. Let me add that it was an age in which personalities were freely used in public controversy; that Defoe was continuously occupied with public controversy during these twenty-eight years, and managed to make as many enemies as any man within the four seas; and I think the silence of his adversaries upon a matter which, if proved, would be discreditable in the extreme, is the best of all evidence that Mr. Wright’s hypothesis cannot be sustained. Nor do I see how Mr. Wright makes it square with his own conception of Defoe’s character. “Of a forgiving temper himself,” says Mr. Wright on p. 86, “he (Defoe) was quite incapable of understanding how another person could nourish resentment.” This of a man whom the writer asserts to have sulked in absolute silence with his wife and family for twenty-eight years, two months, and nineteen days!

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An inherent improbability.

At all events it will not square with our conception of Defoe’s character. Those of us who have an almost unlimited admiration for Defoe as a master of narrative, and next to no affection for him as a man, might pass the heartlessness of such conduct. “At first sight,” Mr. Wright admits, “it may appear monstrous that a man should for so long a time abstain from speech with his own family.” Monstrous, indeed–but I am afraid we could have passed that. Mr. Wright, who has what I may call a purfled style, tells us that–

“To narrate the career of Daniel Defoe is to tell a tale of wonder and daring, of high endeavour and marvellous success. To dwell upon it is to take courage and to praise God for the splendid possibilities of life…. Defoe is always the hero; his career is as thick with events as a cornfield with corn; his fortunes change as quickly and as completely as the shapes in a kaleidoscope–he is up, he is down, he is courted, he is spurned; it is shine, it is shower, it is couleur de rose, it is Stygian night. Thirteen times he was rich and poor. Achilles was not more audacious, Ulysses more subtle, Æneas more pious.”

That is one way of putting it. Here is another way (as the cookery books say):–“To narrate the career of Daniel Defoe is to tell a tale of a hosier and pantile maker, who had a hooked nose and wrote tracts indefatigably–he was up, he was down, he was in the Pillory, he was at Tooting; it was poule de soie, it was leather and prunella; and it was always tracts. Æneas was not so pious a member of the Butchers’ Company; and there are a few milestones on the Dover Road; but Defoe’s life was as thick with tracts as a cornfield with corn.” These two estimates may differ here and there; but on one point they agree–that Defoe was an extremely restless, pushing, voluble person, who could as soon have stood on his head for twenty-eight years, two months, and nineteen days as have kept silence for that period with any man or woman in whose company he found himself frequently alone. Unless we have entirely misjudged his character–and, I may add, unless Mr. Wright has completely misrepresented the rest of his life–it simply was not in the man to keep this foolish vow for twenty-four hours.

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No, I am afraid Mr. Wright’s hypothesis will not do. And yet his plan of adding twenty-seven years to each important date in Crusoe’s history has revealed so many coincident events in the life of Defoe that we cannot help feeling he is “hot,” as they say in the children’s game; that the wreck upon the island and Crusoe’s twenty-eight years odd of solitude do really correspond with some great event and important period of Defoe’s life. The wreck is dated 30th September, 1659. Add the twenty-seven years, and we come to September 30th, 1686. Where was Defoe at that date, and what was he doing? Mr. Wright has to confess that of his movements in 1686 and the two following years “we know little that is definite.” Certainly we know of nothing that can correspond with Crusoe’s shipwreck.

A suggestion.

But wait a moment–The original editions of Robinson Crusoe (and most, if not all, later editions) give the date of Crusoe’s departure from the island as December 19th, 1686, instead of 1687. Mr. Wright suggests that this is a misprint; and, to be sure, it does not agree with the statement respecting the length of Crusoe’s stay on the island, if we assume the date of the wreck to be correct. But, (as Mr. Aitken points out) the mistake must be the author’s, not the printer’s, because in the next paragraph we are told that Crusoe reached England in June, 1687, not 1688. I agree with Mr. Aitken; and I suggest that the date of Crusoe’s arrival at the island, not the date of his departure, is the date misprinted. Assume for a moment that the date of departure (December 19th, 1686) is correct. Subtract the twenty-eight years, two months, and nineteen days of Crusoe’s stay on the island, and we get September 30th, 1658, as the date of the wreck and his arrival at the island. Now add the twenty-seven years which separate Crusoe’s experiences from Defoe’s, and we come to September 30th, 1685. What was happening in England at the close of September, 1685? Why, Jeffreys was carrying through his Bloody Assize.

“Like many other Dissenters,” says Mr. Wright on p. 21, “Defoe sympathised with Monmouth; and, to his misfortune, took part in the rising.” His comrades perished in it, and he himself, in Mr. Wright’s words, “probably had to lie low.” There is no doubt that the Monmouth affair was the beginning of Defoe’s troubles: and I suggest that certain passages in the story of Crusoe’s voyage (e.g. the “secret proposal” of the three merchants who came to Crusoe) have a peculiar significance if read in this connection. I also think it possible there may be a particular meaning in the several waves, so carefully described, through which Crusoe made his way to dry land; and in the simile of the reprieved malefactor (p. 50 in Mr. Aitken’s delightful edition); and in the several visits to the wreck.

I am no specialist in Defoe, but put this suggestion forward with the utmost diffidence. And yet, right or wrong, I feel it has more plausibility than Mr. Wright’s. Defoe undoubtedly took part in the Monmouth rising, and was a survivor of that wreck “on the south side of the island”: and undoubtedly it formed the turning-point of his career. If we could discover how he escaped Kirke and Jeffreys, I am inclined to believe we should have a key to the whole story of the shipwreck. I should not be sorry to find this hypothesis upset; for the story of Robinson Crusoe is quite good enough for me as it stands, and without any sub-intention. But whatever be the true explanation of the parable, if time shall discover it, I confess I expect it will be a trifle less recondite than Mr. Wright’s, and a trifle more creditable to the father of the English novel.[C]

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[A] “The Life of Daniel Defoe.” By Thomas Wright, Principal of Cowper School, Olney. London: Cassell & Co.

[B] Romances and Narratives by Daniel Defoe. Edited by George A. Aitken. Vols. i., ii., and iii. Containing the Life and Adventures, Farther Adventures, and Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe. With a General Introduction by the Editor. London: J.M. Dent & Co.

[C] Upon this suggestion Mr. Aitken, in a postscript to his seventh volume of the Romances and Narratives, has since remarked as follows:–

“In a discussion in The Speaker upon Defoe’s supposed period of ‘silence,’ published since the appearance of the first volume of this edition, Mr. Quiller Couch, while agreeing, for the reasons I have given (vol. i. p. lvii.), that there is no mistake in the date of Robinson Crusoe’s departure from his island (December, 1686), has suggested that perhaps the error in the chronology lies, not in the length of time Crusoe is said to have lived on the island, but in the date given for his landing (September, 1659). That this suggestion is right appears from a passage which has hitherto escaped notice. Crusoe was born in 1632, and Defoe makes him say (vol. i. p. 147), ‘The same day of the year I was born on, viz. the 30th of September, that same day I had my life so miraculously saved twenty-six years after, when I was cast ashore on this island.’ Crusoe must, therefore, have reached his island on September 30, 1658, not 1659, as twice stated by Defoe; and by adding twenty-eight years to 1658 we get 1686, the date given for Crusoe’s departure.

“It is, however, questionable whether this rectification helps us to interpret the allegory in Robinson Crusoe. It is true that if, in accordance with the ‘key’ suggested by Mr. Wright, we add twenty-seven years to the date of the shipwreck (1658) in order to find the corresponding event in Defoe’s life, we arrive at September, 1685, when Jeffreys was sentencing many of those who–like Defoe–took part in Monmouth’s rising. But we have no evidence that Defoe suffered seriously in consequence of the part he took in this rebellion; and the addition of twenty-seven years to the date of Crusoe’s departure from the island (December, 1686) does not bring us to any corresponding event in Defoe’s own story. Those who are curious will find the question discussed at greater length in The Speaker for April 13 and 20, and May 4, 1895.”

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