De Foe's Novels
[This is taken from Leslie Stephens' Hours in a Library.]
According to the high authority of Charles Lamb, it has sometimes happened 'that from no inferior merit in the rest, but from some superior good fortune in the choice of a subject, some single work' (of a particular author) 'shall have been suffered to eclipse, and cast into the shade, the deserts of its less fortunate brethren.' And after quoting the case of Bunyan's 'Holy War' as compared with the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' he adds that, 'in no instance has this excluding partiality been exerted with more unfairness than against what may be termed the secondary novels or romances of De Foe.' He proceeds to declare that there are at least four other fictitious narratives by the same writer—'Roxana,' 'Singleton,' 'Moll Flanders,' and 'Colonel Jack'—which possess an interest not inferior to 'Robinson Crusoe'—'except what results from a less felicitous choice of situation.' Granting most unreservedly that the same hand is perceptible in the minor novels as in 'Robinson Crusoe,' and that they bear at every page the most unequivocal symptoms of De Foe's workmanship, I venture to doubt the 'partiality' and the 'unfairness' of2 preferring to them their more popular rival. The instinctive judgment of the world is not really biassed by anything except the intrinsic power exerted by a book over its sympathies; and as in the long run it has honoured 'Robinson Crusoe,' in spite of the critics, and has comparatively neglected 'Roxana' and the companion stories, there is probably some good cause for the distinction. The apparent injustice to books resembles what we often see in the case of men. A. B. becomes Lord Chancellor, whilst C. D. remains for years a briefless barrister; and yet for the life of us we cannot tell but that C. D. is the abler man of the two. Perhaps he was wanting in some one of the less conspicuous elements that are essential to a successful career; he said, 'Open, wheat!' instead of 'Open, sesame!' and the barriers remained unaffected by his magic. The secret may really be simple enough. The complete success of such a book as 'Robinson' implies, it may be, the precise adaptation of the key to every ward of the lock. The felicitous choice of situation to which Lamb refers gave just the required fitness; and it is of little use to plead that 'Roxana,' 'Colonel Jack,' and others might have done the same trick if only they had received a little filing, or some slight change in shape: a shoemaker might as well argue that if you had only one toe less his shoes wouldn't pinch you.
To leave the unsatisfactory ground of metaphor, we may find out, on examination, that De Foe had discovered in 'Robinson Crusoe' precisely the field in which his talents could be most effectually applied; and that a very slight alteration in the subject-matter might change the merit of his work to a disproportionate extent. The more special the idiosyncrasy upon which a man's literary success is founded, the greater, of course, the probability that a small change will disconcert him. A man who can only perform upon the drum will have to wait for certain combinations of other instruments before his special talent can be turned to account. Now, the talent in which De Foe surpasses all other writers is just one of those peculiar gifts which must wait for a favourable chance. When a gentleman, in a fairy story, has a power of seeing a hundred miles, or covering seven leagues at a stride, we know that an opportunity will speedily occur for putting his faculties to use. But the gentleman with the seven-leagued boots is useless when the occasion offers itself for telescopic vision, and the eyes are good for nothing without the power of locomotion. To De Foe, if we may imitate the language of the 'Arabian Nights,' was given a tongue to which no one could listen without believing every word that he uttered—a qualification, by the way, which would serve its owner far more effectually in this commonplace world than swords of sharpness or cloaks of darkness, or other fairy paraphernalia. In other words, he had the most marvellous power ever known of giving verisimilitude to his fictions; or, in other words again, he had the most amazing talent on record for telling lies. We have all read how the 'History of the Plague,' the 'Memoirs of a Cavalier,' and even, it is said, 'Robinson Crusoe,' have succeeded in passing themselves off for veritable narratives. The 'Memoirs of Captain Carleton' long passed for De Foe's, but the Captain has now gained admission to the biographical dictionary and is credited with his own memoirs. In either case, it is as characteristic that a genuine narrative should be attributed to De Foe, as that De Foe's narrative should be taken as genuine. An odd testimony to De Foe's powers as a liar (a word for which there is, unfortunately, no equivalent that does not imply some blame) has been mentioned. Mr. M'Queen, quoted in Captain Burton's 'Nile Basin,' names 'Captain Singleton' as a genuine account of travels in Central Africa, and seriously mentions De Foe's imaginary pirate as 'a claimant for the honour of the discovery of the sources of the White Nile.' Probably, however, this only proves that Mr. M'Queen had never read the book.
Most of the literary artifices to which De Foe owed his power of producing this illusion are sufficiently plain. Of all the fictions which he succeeded in palming off for truths none is more instructive than that admirable ghost, Mrs. Veal. Like the sonnets of some great poets, it contains in a few lines all the essential peculiarities of his art, and an admirable commentary has been appended to it by Sir Walter Scott. The first device which strikes us is his ingenious plan for manufacturing corroborative evidence. The ghost appears to Mrs. Bargrave. The story of the apparition is told by a 'very sober and understanding gentlewoman, who lives within a few doors of Mrs. Bargrave;' and the character of this sober gentlewoman is supported by the testimony of a justice of the peace at Maidstone, 'a very intelligent person.' This elaborate chain of evidence is intended to divert our attention from the obvious circumstance that the whole story rests upon the authority of the anonymous person who tells us of the sober gentlewoman, who supports Mrs. Bargrave, and is confirmed by the intelligent justice. Simple as the artifice appears, it is one which is constantly used in supernatural stories of the present day. One of those improving legends tells how a ghost appeared to two officers in Canada, and how, subsequently, one of the officers met the ghost's twin brother in London, and straightway exclaimed, 'You are the person who appeared to me in Canada!' Many people are diverted from the weak part of the story by this ingenious confirmation, and, in their surprise at the coherence of the narrative, forget that the narrative itself rests upon entirely anonymous evidence. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link; but if you show how admirably the last few are united together, half the world will forget to test the security of the equally essential links which are kept out of sight. De Foe generally repeats a similar trick in the prefaces of his fictions. ''Tis certain,' he says, in the 'Memoirs of a Cavalier,' 'no man could have given a description of his retreat from Marston Moor to Rochdale, and thence over the moors to the North, in so apt and proper terms, unless he had really travelled over the ground he describes,' which, indeed, is quite true, but by no means proves that the journey was made by a fugitive from that particular battle. He separates himself more ostentatiously from the supposititious author by praising his admirable manner of relating the memoirs, and the 'wonderful variety of incidents with which they are beautified;' and, with admirable impudence, assures us that they are written in so soldierly a style, that it 'seems impossible any but the very person who was present in every action here related was the relater of them.' In the preface to 'Roxana,' he acts, with equal spirit, the character of an impartial person, giving us the evidence on which he is himself convinced of the truth of the story, as though he would, of all things, refrain from pushing us unfairly for our belief. The writer, he says, took the story from the lady's own mouth: he was, of course, obliged to disguise names and places; but was himself 'particularly acquainted with this lady's first husband, the brewer, and with his father, and also with his bad circumstances, and knows that first part of the story.' The rest we must, of course, take upon the lady's own evidence, but less unwillingly, as the first is thus corroborated. We cannot venture to suggest to so calm a witness that he has invented both the lady and the writer of her history; and, in short, that when he says that A. says that B. says something, it is, after all, merely the anonymous 'he' who is speaking. In giving us his authority for 'Moll Flanders,' he ventures upon the more refined art of throwing a little discredit upon the narrator's veracity. She professes to have abandoned her evil ways, but, as he tells us with a kind of aside, and as it were cautioning us against over-incredulity, 'it seems' (a phrase itself suggesting the impartial looker-on) that in her old age 'she was not so extraordinary a penitent as she was at first; it seems only' (for, after all, you mustn't make too much of my insinuations) 'that indeed she always spoke with abhorrence of her former life.' So we are left in a qualified state of confidence, as if we had been talking about one of his patients with the wary director of a reformatory.
This last touch, which is one of De Foe's favourite expedients, is most fully exemplified in the story of Mrs. Veal. The author affects to take us into his confidence, to make us privy to the pros and cons in regard to the veracity of his own characters, till we are quite disarmed. The sober gentlewoman vouches for Mrs. Bargrave; but Mrs. Bargrave is by no means allowed to have it all her own way. One of the ghost's communications related to the disposal of a certain sum of 10l. a year, of which Mrs. Bargrave, according to her own account, could have known nothing, except by this supernatural intervention. Mrs. Veal's friends, however, tried to throw doubt upon the story of her appearance, considering that it was disreputable for a decent woman to go abroad after her death. One of them, therefore, declared that Mrs. Bargrave was a liar, and that she had, in fact, known of the 10l. beforehand. On the other hand, the person who thus attacked Mrs. Bargrave had himself the 'reputation of a notorious liar.' Mr. Veal, the ghost's brother, was too much of a gentleman to make such gross imputations. He confined himself to the more moderate assertion that Mrs. Bargrave had been crazed by a bad husband. He maintained that the story must be a mistake, because, just before her death, his sister had declared that she had nothing to dispose of. This statement, however, may be reconciled with the ghost's remarks about the 10l., because she obviously mentioned such a trifle merely by way of a token of the reality of her appearance. Mr. Veal, indeed, makes rather a better point by stating that a certain purse of gold mentioned by the ghost was found, not in the cabinet where she told Mrs. Bargrave that she had placed it, but in a comb-box. Yet, again, Mr. Veal's statement is here rather suspicious, for it is known that Mrs. Veal was very particular about her cabinet, and would not have let her gold out of it. We are left in some doubts by this conflict of evidence, although the obvious desire of Mr. Veal to throw discredit on the story of his sister's appearance rather inclines us to believe in Mrs. Bargrave's story, who could have had no conceivable motive for inventing such a fiction. The argument is finally clenched by a decisive coincidence. The ghost wears a silk dress. In the course of a long conversation she incidentally mentioned to Mrs. Bargrave that this was a scoured silk, newly made up. When Mrs. Bargrave reported this remarkable circumstance to a certain Mrs. Wilson, 'You have certainly seen her,' exclaimed that lady, 'for none knew but Mrs. Veal and myself that the gown had been scoured.' To this crushing piece of evidence it seems that neither Mr. Veal nor the notorious liar could invent any sufficient reply.
One can almost fancy De Foe chuckling as he concocted the refinements of this most marvellous narrative. The whole artifice is, indeed, of a simple kind. Lord Sunderland, according to Macaulay, once ingeniously defended himself against a charge of treachery, by asking whether it was possible that any man should be so base as to do that which he was, in fact, in the constant habit of doing. De Foe asks us in substance, Is it conceivable that any man should tell stories so elaborate, so complex, with so many unnecessary details, with so many inclinations of evidence this way and that, unless the stories were true? We instinctively answer, that it is, in fact, inconceivable; and, even apart from any such refinements as those noticed, the circumstantiality of the stories is quite sufficient to catch an unworthy critic. It is, indeed, perfectly easy to tell a story which shall be mistaken for a bonâ fide narrative, if only we are indifferent to such considerations as making it interesting or artistically satisfactory.
The praise which has been lavished upon De Foe for the verisimilitude of his novels seems to be rather extravagant. The trick would be easy enough, if it were worth performing. The story-teller cannot be cross-examined; and if he is content to keep to the ordinary level of commonplace facts, there is not the least difficulty in producing conviction. We recognise the fictitious character of an ordinary novel, because it makes a certain attempt at artistic unity, or because the facts are such as could obviously not be known to, or would not be told by, a real narrator, or possibly because they are inconsistent with other established facts. If a man chooses to avoid such obvious confessions of unreality, he can easily be as life-like as De Foe. I do not suppose that foreign correspondence of a newspaper is often composed in the Strand; but it is only because I believe that the honesty of writers in the press is far too great to allow them to commit a crime which must be speedily detected by independent evidence. Lying is, after all, the easiest of all things, if the liar be not too ambitious. A little clever circumstantiality will lull any incipient suspicion; and it must be added that De Foe, in adopting the tone of a bonâ fide narrator, not unfrequently overreaches himself. He forgets his dramatic position in his anxiety to be minute. Colonel Jack, at the end of a long career, tells us how one of his boyish companions stole certain articles at a fair, and gives us the list, of which this is a part: '5thly, a silver box, with 7s. in small silver; 6, a pocket-handkerchief; 7, another; 8, a jointed baby, and a little looking-glass.' The affectation of extreme precision, especially in the charming item 'another,' destroys the perspective of the story. We are listening to a contemporary, not to an old man giving us his fading recollections of a disreputable childhood.
The peculiar merit, then, of De Foe must be sought in something more than the circumstantial nature of his lying, or even the ingenious artifices by which he contrives to corroborate his own narrative. These, indeed, show the pleasure which he took in simulating truth; and he may very probably have attached undue importance to this talent in the infancy of novel-writing, as in the infancy of painting it was held for the greatest of triumphs when birds came and pecked at the grapes in a picture. It is curious, indeed, that De Foe and Richardson, the founders of our modern school of fiction, appear to have stumbled upon their discovery by a kind of accident. As De Foe's novels are simply history minus the facts, so Richardson's are a series of letters minus the correspondents. The art of novel-writing, like the art of cooking pigs in Lamb's most philosophical as well as humorous apologue, first appeared in its most cumbrous shape. As Hoti had to burn his cottage for every dish of pork, Richardson and De Foe had to produce fiction at the expense of a close approach to falsehood. The division between the art of lying and the art of fiction was not distinctly visible to either; and both suffer to some extent from the attempt to produce absolute illusion, where they should have been content with portraiture. And yet the defect is balanced by the vigour naturally connected with an unflinching realism. That this power rested, in De Foe's case, upon something more than a bit of literary trickery, may be inferred from his fate in another department of authorship. He twice got into trouble for a device exactly analogous to that which he afterwards practised in fiction. On both occasions he was punished for assuming a character for purposes of mystification. In the latest instance, it is seen, the pamphlet called 'What if the Pretender Comes?' was written in such obvious irony, that the mistake of his intentions must have been wilful. The other and better-known performance, 'The Shortest Way with the Dissenters,' seems really to have imposed upon some of his readers. It is difficult in these days of toleration to imagine that any one can have taken the violent suggestions of the 'Shortest Way' as put forward seriously. To those who might say that persecuting the Dissenters was cruel, says De Foe, 'I answer, 'tis cruelty to kill a snake or a toad in cold blood, but the poison of their nature makes it a charity to our neighbours to destroy those creatures, not for any personal injury received, but for prevention.... Serpents, toads, and vipers, &c., are noxious to the body, and poison the sensitive life: these poison the soul, corrupt our posterity, ensnare our children, destroy the vital of our happiness, our future felicity, and contaminate the whole mass.' And he concludes: 'Alas, the Church of England! What with Popery on the one hand, and schismatics on the other, how has she been crucified between two thieves! Now let us crucify the thieves! Let her foundations be established upon the destruction of her enemies: the doors of mercy being always open to the returning part of the deluded people; let the obstinate be ruled with a rod of iron!' It gives a pleasant impression of the spirit of the times, to remember that this could be taken for a genuine utterance of orthodoxy; that De Foe was imprisoned and pilloried, and had to write a serious protestation that it was only a joke, and that he meant to expose the nonjuring party by putting their secret wishes into plain English. ''Tis hard,' he says, 'that this should not be perceived by all the town; that not one man can see it, either Churchman or Dissenter.' It certainly was very hard; but a perusal of the whole pamphlet may make it a degree more intelligible. Ironical writing of this kind is in substance a reductio ad absurdum. It is a way of saying the logical result of your opinions is such or such a monstrous error. So long as the appearance of logic is preserved, the error cannot be stated too strongly. The attempt to soften the absurdity so as to take in an antagonist is injurious artistically, if it may be practically useful. An ironical intention which is quite concealed might as well not exist. And thus the unscrupulous use of the same weapon by Swift is now far more telling than De Foe's comparatively guarded application of it. The artifice, however, is most skilfully carried out for the end which De Foe had in view. The 'Shortest Way' begins with a comparative gravity to throw us off our guard; the author is not afraid of imitating a little of the dulness of his supposed antagonists, and repeats with all imaginable seriousness the very taunts which a High Church bigot would in fact have used. It was not a sound defence of persecution to say that the Dissenters had been cruel when they had the upper hand, and that penalties imposed upon them were merely retaliation for injuries suffered under Cromwell and from Scottish Presbyterians; but it was one of those topics upon which a hot-headed persecutor would naturally dwell, though De Foe gives him rather more forcible language than he would be likely to possess. It is only towards the end that the ironical purpose crops out in what we should have thought an unmistakable manner. Few writers would have preserved their incognito so long. The caricature would have been too palpable, and invited ridicule too ostentatiously. An impatient man soon frets under the mask and betrays his real strangeness in the hostile camp.
De Foe in fact had a peculiarity at first sight less favourable to success in fiction than in controversy. Amongst the political writers of that age he was, on the whole, distinguished for good temper and an absence of violence. Although a party man, he was by no means a man to swallow the whole party platform. He walked on his own legs, and was not afraid to be called a deserter by more thoroughgoing partisans. The principles which he most ardently supported were those of religious toleration and hatred to every form of arbitrary power. Now, the intellectual groundwork upon which such a character is formed has certain conspicuous merits, along with certain undeniable weaknesses. Amongst the first may be reckoned a strong grasp of facts—which was developed to an almost disproportionate degree in De Foe—and a resolution to see things as they are without the gloss which is contracted from strong party sentiment. He was one of those men of vigorous common-sense who like to have everything down plainly and distinctly in good unmistakable black and white, and indulge a voracious appetite for facts and figures. He was, therefore, able—within the limits of his vision—to see things from both sides, and to take his adversaries' opinions as calmly as his own, so long, at least, as they dealt with the class of considerations with which he was accustomed to deal; for, indeed, there are certain regions of discussion to which we cannot be borne on the wings of statistics, or even of common-sense. And this, the weak side of his intellect, is equally unmistakable. The matter-of-fact man may be compared to one who suffers from colour-blindness. Perhaps he may have a power of penetrating, and even microscopic vision; but he sees everything in his favourite black and white or gray, and loses all the delights of gorgeous, though it may be deceptive, colouring. One man sees everything in the forcible light and shade of Rembrandt: a few heroes stand out conspicuously in a focus of brilliancy from a background of imperfectly defined shadows, clustering round the centre in strange but picturesque confusion. To another, every figure is full of interest, with singular contrasts and sharply-defined features; the whole effect is somewhat spoilt by the want of perspective and the perpetual sparkle and glitter; yet when we fix our attention upon any special part, it attracts us by its undeniable vivacity and vitality. To a third, again, the individual figures become dimmer, but he sees a slow and majestic procession of shapes imperceptibly developing into some harmonious whole. Men profess to reach their philosophical conclusions by some process of logic; but the imagination is the faculty which furnishes the raw material upon which the logic is employed, and, unconsciously to its owners, determines, for the most part, the shape into which their theories will be moulded. Now, De Foe was above the ordinary standard, in so far as he did not, like most of us, see things merely as a blurred and inextricable chaos; but he was below the great imaginative writers in the comparative coldness and dry precision of his mental vision. To him the world was a vast picture, from which all confusion was banished; everything was definite, clear, and precise as in a photograph; as in a photograph, too, everything could be accurately measured, and the result stated in figures; by the same parallel, there was a want of perspective, for the most distant objects were as precisely given as the nearest; and yet further, there was the same absence of the colouring which is caused in natural objects by light and heat, and in mental pictures by the fire of imaginative passion. The result is a product which is to Fielding or Scott what a portrait by a first-rate photographer is to one by Vandyke or Reynolds, though, perhaps, the peculiar qualifications which go to make a De Foe are almost as rare as those which form the more elevated artist.
To illustrate this a little more in detail, one curious proof of the want of the passionate element in De Foe's novels is the singular calmness with which he describes his villains. He always looks at the matter in a purely business-like point of view. It is very wrong to steal, or break any of the commandments: partly because the chances are that it won't pay, and partly also because the devil will doubtless get hold of you in time. But a villain in De Foe is extremely like a virtuous person, only that, so to speak, he has unluckily backed the losing side. Thus, for example, Colonel Jack is a thief from his youth up; Moll Flanders is a thief, and worse; Roxana is a highly immoral lady, and is under some suspicion of a most detestable murder; and Captain Singleton is a pirate of the genuine buccaneering school. Yet we should really doubt, but for their own confessions, whether they have villainy enough amongst them to furnish an average pickpocket. Roxana occasionally talks about a hell within, and even has unpleasant dreams concerning 'apparitions of devils and monsters, of falling into gulphs, and from off high and steep precipices.' She has, moreover, excellent reasons for her discomfort. Still, in spite of a very erroneous course of practice, her moral tone is all that can be desired. She discourses about the importance of keeping to the paths of virtue with the most exemplary punctuality, though she does not find them convenient for her own personal use. Colonel Jack is a young Arab of the streets—as it is fashionable to call them now-a-days—sleeping in the ashes of a glasshouse by night, and consorting with thieves by day. Still the exemplary nature of his sentiments would go far to establish Lord Palmerston's rather heterodox theory of the innate goodness of man. He talks like a book from his earliest infancy. He once forgets himself so far as to rob a couple of poor women on the highway instead of picking rich men's pockets; but his conscience pricks him so much that he cannot rest till he has restored the money. Captain Singleton is a still more striking case: he is a pirate by trade, but with a strong resemblance to the ordinary British merchant in his habits of thought. He ultimately retires from a business in which the risks are too great for his taste, marries, and settles down quietly on his savings. There is a certain Quaker who joins his ship, really as a volunteer, but under a show of compulsion, in order to avoid the possible inconveniences of a capture. The Quaker always advises him in his difficulties in such a way as to avoid responsibility. When they are in action with a Portuguese man-of-war, for example, the Quaker sees a chance of boarding, and, coming up to Singleton, says very calmly, 'Friend, what dost thou mean? why dost thou not visit thy neighbour in the ship, the door being open for thee?' This ingenious gentleman always preserves as much humanity as is compatible with his peculiar position, and even prevents certain negroes from being tortured into confession, on the unanswerable ground that, as neither party understands a word of the other's language, the confession will not be to much purpose. 'It is no compliment to my moderation,' says Singleton, 'to say, I was convinced by these reasons; and yet we had all much ado to keep our second lieutenant from murdering some of them to make them tell.'
Now, this humane pirate takes up pretty much the position which De Foe's villains generally occupy in good earnest. They do very objectionable things; but they always speak like steady, respectable Englishmen, with an eye to the main chance. It is true that there is nothing more difficult than to make a villain tell his own story naturally; in a way, that is, so as to show at once the badness of the motive and the excuse by which the actor reconciles it to his own mind. De Foe is entirely deficient in this capacity of appreciating a character different from his own. His actors are merely so many repetitions of himself placed under different circumstances and committing crimes in the way of business, as De Foe might himself have carried out a commercial transaction. From the outside they are perfect; they are evidently copied from the life; and Captain Singleton is himself a repetition of the celebrated Captain Kidd, who indeed is mentioned in the novel. But of the state of mind which leads a man to be a pirate, and of the effects which it produces upon his morals, De Foe has either no notion, or is, at least, totally incapable of giving us a representation. All which goes by the name of psychological analysis in modern fiction is totally alien to his art. He could, as we have said, show such dramatic power as may be implied in transporting himself to a different position, and looking at matters even from his adversary's point of view; but of the further power of appreciating his adversary's character he shows not the slightest trace. He looks at his actors from the outside, and gives us with wonderful minuteness all the details of their lives; but he never seems to remember that within the mechanism whose working he describes there is a soul very different from that of Daniel De Foe. Rather, he seems to see in mankind nothing but so many million Daniel De Foes; they are in all sorts of postures, and thrown into every variety of difficulty, but the stuff of which they are composed is identical with that which he buttons into his own coat; there is variety of form, but no colouring, in his pictures of life.
We may ask again, therefore, what is the peculiar source of De Foe's power? He has little, or no dramatic power, in the higher sense of the word, which implies sympathy with many characters and varying tones of mind. If he had written 'Henry IV.,' Falstaff, and Hotspur, and Prince Hal would all have been as like each other as are generally the first and second murderer. Nor is the mere fact that he tells a story with a strange appearance of veracity sufficient; for a story may be truth-like and yet deadly dull. Indeed, no candid critic can deny that this is the case with some of De Foe's narratives; as, for example, the latter part of 'Colonel Jack,' where the details of management of a plantation in Virginia are sufficiently uninteresting in spite of the minute financial details. One device, which he occasionally employs with great force, suggests an occasional source of interest. It is generally reckoned as one of his most skilful tricks that in telling a story he cunningly leaves a few stray ends, which are never taken up. Such is the well-known incident of Xury, in 'Robinson Crusoe.' This contrivance undoubtedly gives an appearance of authenticity, by increasing the resemblance to real narratives; it is like the trick of artificially roughening a stone after it has been fixed into a building, to give it the appearance of being fresh from the quarry. De Foe, however, frequently extracts a more valuable piece of service from these loose ends. The situation which has been most praised in De Foe's novels is that which occurs at the end of 'Roxana.' Roxana, after a life of wickedness, is at last married to a substantial merchant. She has saved, from the wages of sin, the convenient sum of 2,056l. a year, secured upon excellent mortgages. Her husband has 17,000l. in cash, after deducting a 'black article of 8,000 pistoles,' due on account of a certain lawsuit in Paris, and 1,320l. a year in rent. There is a satisfaction about these definite sums which we seldom receive from the vague assertions of modern novelists. Unluckily, a girl turns up at this moment who shows great curiosity about Roxana's history. It soon becomes evident that she is, in fact, Roxana's daughter by a former and long since deserted husband; but she cannot be acknowledged without a revelation of her mother's subsequently most disreputable conduct. Now, Roxana has a devoted maid, who threatens to get rid, by fair means or foul, of this importunate daughter. Once she fails in her design, but confesses to her mistress that, if necessary, she will commit the murder. Roxana professes to be terribly shocked, but yet has a desire to be relieved at almost any price from her tormentor. The maid thereupon disappears again; soon afterwards the daughter disappears too; and Roxana is left in terrible doubt, tormented by the opposing anxieties that her maid may have murdered her daughter, or that her daughter may have escaped and revealed the mother's true character. Here is a telling situation for a sensation novelist; and the minuteness with which the story is worked out, whilst we are kept in suspense, supplies the place of the ordinary rant; to say nothing of the increased effect due to apparent veracity, in which certainly few sensation novelists can even venture a distant competition. The end of the story differs still more widely from modern art. Roxana has to go abroad with her husband, still in a state of doubt. Her maid after a time joins her, but gives no intimation as to the fate of the daughter; and the story concludes by a simple statement that Roxana afterwards fell into well-deserved misery. The mystery is certainly impressive; and Roxana is heartily afraid of the devil and the gallows, to say nothing of the chance of losing her fortune. Whether, as Lamb maintained, the conclusion in which the mystery is cleared up is a mere forgery, or was added by De Foe to satisfy the ill-judged curiosity of his readers, I do not profess to decide. Certainly it rather spoils the story; but in this, as in some other cases, one is often left in doubt as to the degree in which De Foe was conscious of his own merits.
Another instance on a smaller scale of the effective employment of judicious silence, is an incident in 'Captain Singleton.' The Quaker of our acquaintance meets with a Japanese priest who speaks a few words of English, and explains that he has learnt it from thirteen Englishmen, the only remnant of thirty-two who had been wrecked on the coast of Japan. To confirm his story, he produces a bit of paper on which is written, in plain English words: 'We came from Greenland and from the North Pole.' Here are claimants for the discovery of a North-west Passage, of whom we would gladly hear more. Unluckily, when Captain Singleton comes to the place where his Quaker had met the priest, the ship in which he was sailing had departed; and this put an end to an inquiry, and perhaps 'may have disappointed mankind of one of the most noble discoveries that ever was made or will again be made, in the world, for the good of mankind in general; but so much for that.'
In these two fragments, which illustrate a very common device of De Foe's, we come across two elements of positive power over our imaginations. Even De Foe's imagination recognised and delighted in a certain margin of mystery to this harsh world of facts and figures. He is generally too anxious to set everything before us in broad daylight; there is too little of the thoughts and emotions which inhabit the twilight of the mind; of those dim half-seen forms which exercise the strongest influence upon the imagination, and are the most tempting subjects for the poet's art. De Foe, in truth, was little enough of a poet. Sometimes by mere force of terse idiomatic language he rises into real poetry, as it was understood in the days when Pope and Dryden were our lawgivers. It is often really vigorous. The well-known verses—
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The devil always builds a chapel there—
which begin the 'True-born Englishman,' or the really fine lines which occur in the 'Hymn to the Pillory,' that 'hieroglyphic state machine, contrived to punish fancy in,' and ending—
Tell them that placed him here,
They're scandals to the times,
Are at a loss to find his guilt,
And can't commit his crimes—
may stand for specimens of his best manner. More frequently he degenerates into the merest doggerel, e.g.—
No man was ever yet so void of sense,
As to debate the right of self-defence,
A principle so grafted in the mind,
With nature born, and does like nature bind;
Twisted with reason, and with nature too,
As neither one nor t'other can undo—
which is scarcely a happy specimen of the difficult art of reasoning in verse. His verse is at best vigorous epigrammatic writing, such as would now be converted into leading articles, twisted with more or less violence into rhyme. And yet there is a poetical side to his mind, or at least a susceptibility to poetical impressions of a certain order. And as a novelist is on the border-line between poetry and prose, and novels should be as it were prose saturated with poetry, we may expect to come in this direction upon the secret of De Foe's power. Although De Foe for the most part deals with good tangible subjects, which he can weigh and measure and reduce to moidores and pistoles, the mysterious has a very strong though peculiar attraction for him. It is indeed that vulgar kind of mystery which implies nothing of reverential awe. He was urged by a restless curiosity to get away from this commonplace world, and reduce the unknown regions beyond to scale and measure. The centre of Africa, the wilds of Siberia, and even more distinctly the world of spirits, had wonderful charms for him. Nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to determine the exact number of the fallen angels and the date of their calamity. In the 'History of the Devil' he touches, with a singular kind of humorous gravity, upon several of these questions, and seems to apologise for his limited information. 'Several things,' he says, 'have been suggested to set us a-calculating the number of this frightful throng of devils who, with Satan the master-devil, was thus cast out of heaven.' He declines the task, though he quotes with a certain pleasure the result obtained by a grave calculator, who found that in the first line of Satan's army there were a thousand times a hundred thousand million devils, and more in the other two. He gives a kind of arithmetical measure of the decline of the devil's power by pointing out that 'he who was once equal to the angel who killed eighty thousand men in one night, is not able now, without a new commission, to take away the life of one Job.' He is filled with curiosity as to the proceedings of the first parliament (p————t as he delicately puts it) of devils; he regrets that as he was not personally present in that 'black divan'—at least, not that he can remember, for who can account for his pre-existent state?—he cannot say what happened; but he adds, 'If I had as much personal acquaintance with the devil as would admit it, and could depend upon the truth of what answer he would give me, the first question would be, what measures they (the devils) resolved on at their first assembly?' and the second how they employed the time between their fall and the creation of the man? Here we see the instinct of the politician; and we may add that De Foe is thoroughly dissatisfied with Milton's statements upon this point, though admiring his genius; and goes so far as to write certain verses intended as a correction of, or interpolation into, 'Paradise Lost.'
Mr. Ruskin, in comparing Milton's Satan with Dante's, somewhere remarks that the vagueness of Milton, as compared with the accurate measurements given by Dante, is so far a proof of less activity of the imaginative faculty. It is easier to leave the devil's stature uncertain than to say that he was eighteen feet high. Without disputing the proposition as Mr. Ruskin puts it, we fancy that he would scarcely take De Foe's poetry as an improvement in dignity upon Milton's. We may, perhaps, guess at its merits from this fragment of a speech in prose, addressed to Adam by Eve: 'What ails the sot?' says the new termagant. 'What are you afraid of?... Take it, you fool, and eat.... Take it, I say, or I will go and cut down the tree, and you shall never eat any of it at all; and you shall still be a fool, and be governed by your wife for ever.' This, and much more gross buffoonery of the same kind, is apparently intended to recommend certain sound moral aphorisms to the vulgar; but the cool arithmetical method by which De Foe investigates the history of the devil, his anxiety to pick up gossip about him, and the view which he takes of him as a very acute and unscrupulous politician—though impartially vindicating him from some of Mr. Milton's aspersions—is exquisitely characteristic.
If we may measure the imaginative power of great poets by the relative merits of their conceptions of Satan, we might find a humbler gauge for inferior capacities in the power of summoning awe-inspiring ghosts. The difficulty of the feat is extreme. Your ghost, as Bottom would have said, is a very fearful wild-fowl to bring upon the stage. He must be handled delicately, or he is spoilt. Scott has a good ghost or two; but Lord Lytton, almost the only writer who has recently dealt with the supernatural, draws too freely upon our belief, and creates only melodramatic spiritual beings, with a strong dash of the vulgarising element of modern 'spiritualism.' They are scarcely more awful beings than the terrible creations of the raw-head-and-bloody-bones school of fiction.
Amongst this school we fear that De Foe must, on the whole, be reckoned. We have already made acquaintance with Mrs. Veal, who, in her ghostly condition, talks for an hour and three-quarters with a gossip over a cup of tea; who, indeed, so far forgets her ghostly condition as to ask for a cup of the said tea, and only evades the consequences of her blunder by one of those rather awkward excuses which we all sometimes practise in society; and who, in short, is the least ethereal spirit that was ever met with outside a table. De Foe's extraordinary love for supernatural stories of the gossiping variety found vent in 'A History of Apparitions,' and his 'System of Magic.' The position which he takes up is a kind of modified rationalism. He believes that there are genuine apparitions which personate our dead friends, and give us excellent pieces of advice on occasion; but he refuses to believe that the spirits can appear themselves, on account 'of the many strange inconveniences and ill consequences which would happen if the souls of men and women, unembodied and departed, were at liberty to visit the earth.' De Foe is evidently as familiar with the habits of spirits generally as of the devil. In that case, for example, the feuds of families would never die, for the injured person would be always coming back to right himself. He proceeds upon this principle to account for many apparitions, as, for example, one which appeared in the likeness of a certain J. O. of the period, and strongly recommended his widow to reduce her expenses. He won't believe that the Virgin appeared to St. Francis, because all stories of that kind are mere impostures of the priests; but he thinks it very likely that he was haunted by the devil, who may have sometimes taken the Virgin's shape. In the 'History of Witchcraft' De Foe tells us how, as he was once riding in the country, he met a man on the way to inquire of a certain wizard. De Foe, according to his account, which may or may not be intended as authentic, waited the whole of the next day at a public-house in a country town, in order to hear the result of the inquiry; and had long conversations, reported in his usual style, with infinite 'says he's' and 'says I's,' in which he tried to prove that the wizard was an impostor. This lets us into the secret of many of De Foe's apparitions. They are the ghosts that frighten villagers as they cross commons late at night, or that rattle chains and display lights in haunted houses. Sometimes they have vexed knavish attorneys by discovering long-hidden deeds. Sometimes they have enticed highwaymen into dark corners of woods, and there the wretched criminal finds in their bags (for ghosts of this breed have good substantial luggage) nothing but a halter and a bit of silver (value exactly 13-1/2d.) to pay the hangman. When he turns to the owner, he has vanished. Occasionally, they are the legends told by some passing traveller from distant lands—probably genuine superstitions in their origin, but amplified by tradition into marvellous exactitude of detail, and garnished with long gossiping conversations. Such a ghost, which, on the whole, is my favourite, is the mysterious Owke Mouraski. This being, whether devil or good spirit no man knows, accompanied a traveller for four years through the steppes of Russia, and across Norway, Turkey, and various other countries. On the march he was always seen a mile to the left of the party, keeping parallel with them, in glorious indifference to roads. He crossed rivers without bridges, and the sea without ships. Everywhere, in the wild countries, he was known by name and dreaded; for if he entered a house, some one would die there within a year. Yet he was good to the traveller, going so far, indeed, on one occasion, as to lend him a horse, and frequently treating him to good advice. Towards the end of the journey Owke Mouraski informed his companion that he was 'the inhabitant of an invisible region,' and afterwards became very familiar with him. The traveller, indeed, would never believe that his friend was a devil, a scepticism of which De Foe doubtfully approves. The story, however, must be true, because, as De Foe says, he saw it in manuscript many years ago; and certainly Owke is of a superior order to most of the pot-house ghosts.
De Foe, doubtless, had an insatiable appetite for legends of this kind, talked about them with infinite zest in innumerable gossips, and probably smoked pipes and consumed ale in abundance during the process. The ghosts are the substantial creations of the popular fancy, which no longer nourished itself upon a genuine faith in a more lofty order of spiritual beings. It is superstition become gross and vulgar before it disappears for ever. Romance and poetry have pretty well departed from these ghosts, as from the witches of the period, who are little better than those who still linger in our country villages and fill corners of newspapers, headed 'Superstition in the nineteenth century.' In his novels De Foe's instinct for probability generally enables him to employ the marvellous moderately, and, therefore, effectively; he is specially given to dreams; they are generally verified just enough to leave us the choice of credulity or scepticism, and are in excellent keeping with the supposed narrator. Roxana tells us how one morning she suddenly sees her lover's face as though it were a death's-head, and his clothes covered with blood. In the evening the lover is murdered. One of Moll Flanders' husbands hears her call him at a distance of many miles—a superstition, by the way, in which Boswell, if not Johnson, fully believed. De Foe shows his usual skill in sometimes making the visions or omens fail of a too close fulfilment, as in the excellent dream where Robinson Crusoe hears Friday's father tell him of the sailors' attempt to murder the Spaniards: no part of the dream, as he says, is specifically true, though it has a general truth; and hence we may, at our choice, suppose it to have been supernatural, or to be merely a natural result of Crusoe's anxiety. This region of the marvellous, however, only affects De Foe's novels in a subordinate degree. The Owke Mouraski suggests another field in which a lover of the mysterious could then find room for his imagination. The world still presented a boundless wilderness of untravelled land. Mapped and explored territory was still a bright spot surrounded by chaotic darkness, instead of the two being in the reverse proportions. Geographers might fill up huge tracts by writing 'here is much gold,' or putting 'elephants instead of towns.' De Foe's gossiping acquaintance, when they were tired of ghosts, could tell of strange adventures in wild seas, where merchantmen followed a narrow track, exposed to the assaults of pirates; or of long journeys over endless steppes, in the days when travelling was travelling indeed; when distances were reckoned by months, and men might expect to meet undiscovered tribes and monsters unimagined by natural historians. Doubtless he had listened greedily to the stories of seafaring men and merchants from the Gold Coast or the East. 'Captain Singleton,' to omit 'Robinson Crusoe' for the present, shows the form into which these stories moulded themselves in his mind. Singleton, besides his other exploits, anticipated Livingstone in crossing Africa from sea to sea. De Foe's biographers rather unnecessarily admire the marvellous way in which his imaginary descriptions have been confirmed by later travellers. And it is true that Singleton found two great lakes, which may, if we please, be identified with those of recent discoverers. His other guesses are not surprising. As a specimen of the mode in which he filled up the unknown space we may mention that he covers the desert 'with a kind of thick moss of a blackish dead colour,' which is not a very impressive phenomenon. It is in the matter of wild beasts, however, that he is strongest. Their camp is in one place surrounded by 'innumerable numbers of devilish creatures.' These creatures were as 'thick as a drove of bullocks coming to a fair,' so that they could not fire without hitting some; in fact, a volley brought down three tigers and two wolves, besides one creature 'of an ill-gendered kind, between a tiger and a leopard.' Before long they met an 'ugly, venomous, deformed kind of a snake or serpent,' which had 'a hellish, ugly, deformed look and voice;' indeed, they would have recognised in it the being who most haunted De Foe's imaginary world—the devil—except that they could not think what business the devil could have where there were no people. The fauna of this country, besides innumerable lions, tigers, leopards, and elephants, comprised 'living creatures as big as calves, but not of that kind,' and creatures between a buffalo and a deer, which resembled neither; they had no horns, but legs like a cow, with a fine head and neck, like a deer. The 'ill-gendered' beast is an admirable specimen of De Foe's workmanship. It shows his moderation under most tempting circumstances. No dog-headed men, no men with eyes in their breasts, or feet that serve as umbrellas, will suit him. He must have something new, and yet probable; and he hits upon a very serviceable animal in this mixture between a tiger and a leopard. Surely no one could refuse to honour such a moderate draft upon his imagination. In short, De Foe, even in the wildest of regions, where his pencil might have full play, sticks closely to the commonplace, and will not venture beyond the regions of the easily conceivable.
The final element in which De Foe's curiosity might find a congenial food consisted of the stories floating about contemporary affairs. He had talked with men who had fought in the Great Rebellion, or even in the old German wars. He had himself been out with Monmouth, and taken part in the fight at Sedgemoor. Doubtless that small experience of actual warfare gave additional vivacity to his descriptions of battles, and was useful to him, as Gibbon declares that his service with the militia was of some assistance in describing armies of a very different kind. There is a period in history which has a peculiar interest for all of us. It is that which lies upon the border-land between the past and present; which has gathered some romance from the lapse of time, and yet is not so far off but that we have seen some of the actors, and can distinctly realise the scenes in which they took part. Such to the present generation is the era of the Revolutionary wars. 'Old men still creep among us' who lived through that period of peril and excitement, and yet we are far enough removed from them to fancy that there were giants in those days. When De Foe wrote his novels the battles of the great Civil War and the calamities of the Plague were passing through this phase; and to them we owe two of his most interesting books, the 'Memoirs of a Cavalier' and the 'History of the Plague.'
When such a man spins us a yarn the conditions of its being interesting are tolerably simple. The first condition obviously is, that the plot must be a good one, and good in the sense that a representation in dumb-show must be sufficiently exciting, without the necessity of any explanation of motives. The novel of sentiment or passion or character would be altogether beyond his scope. He will accumulate any number of facts and details; but they must be such as will speak for themselves without the need of an interpreter. For this reason we do not imagine that 'Roxana,' 'Moll Flanders,' 'Colonel Jack,' or 'Captain Singleton' can fairly claim any higher interest than that which belongs to the ordinary police report, given with infinite fulness and vivacity of detail. In each of them there are one or two forcible situations. Roxana pursued by her daughter, Moll Flanders in prison, and Colonel Jack as a young boy of the streets, are powerful fragments, and well adapted for his peculiar method. He goes on heaping up little significant facts, till we are able to realise the situation powerfully, and we may then supply the sentiment for ourselves. But he never seems to know his own strength. He gives us at equal length, and with the utmost plain-speaking, the details of a number of other positions, which are neither interesting nor edifying. He is decent or coarse, just as he is dull or amusing, without knowing the difference. The details about the different connections formed by Roxana and Moll Flanders have no atom of sentiment, and are about as wearisome as the journal of a specially heartless lady of the same character would be at the present day. He has been praised for never gilding objectionable objects, or making vice attractive. To all appearance, he would have been totally unable to set about it. He has only one mode of telling a story, and he follows the thread of his narrative into the back-slums of London, or lodging-houses of doubtful character, or respectable places of trade, with the same equanimity, at a good steady jog-trot of narrative. The absence of any passion or sentiment deprives such places of the one possible source of interest; and we must confess that two-thirds of each of these novels are deadly dull; the remainder, though exhibiting specimens of his genuine power, is not far enough from the commonplace to be specially attractive. In short, the merit of De Foe's narrative bears a direct proportion to the intrinsic merit of a plain statement of the facts; and, in the novels already mentioned, as there is nothing very surprising, certainly nothing unique, about the story, his treatment cannot raise it above a very moderate level.
Above these stories comes De Foe's best fragment of fictitious history. The 'Memoirs of a Cavalier' is a very amusing book, though it is less fiction than history, interspersed with a few personal anecdotes. In it there are some exquisite little bits of genuine Defoe. The Cavalier tells us, with such admirable frankness, that he once left the army a day or two before a battle, in order to visit some relatives at Bath, and excuses himself so modestly for his apparent neglect of military duty, that we cannot refuse to believe in him. A novelist, we say, would have certainly taken us to the battle, or would, at least, have given his hero a more heroic excuse. The character, too, of the old soldier, who has served under Gustavus Adolphus, who is disgusted with the raw English levies, still more disgusted with the interference of parsons, and who has a respect for his opponents—especially Sir Thomas Fairfax—which is compounded partly of English love of fair play, and partly of the indifference of a professional officer—is better supported than most of De Foe's personages. An excellent Dugald Dalgetty touch is his constant anxiety to impress upon the Royalist commanders the importance of a particular trick which he has learned abroad of mixing foot soldiers with the cavalry. We must leave him, however, to say a few words upon the 'History of the Plague,' which seems to come next in merit to 'Robinson Crusoe.' Here De Foe has to deal with a story of such intrinsically tragic interest that all his details become affecting. It needs no commentary to interpret the meaning of the terrible anecdotes, many of which are doubtless founded on fact. There is the strange superstitious element brought out by the horror of the sudden visitation. The supposed writer hesitates as to leaving the doomed city. He is decided to stay at last by opening the Bible at random and coming upon the text, 'He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.' He watches the comets: the one which appeared before the Plague was 'of a dull, languid colour, and its motion heavy, solemn, and slow;' the other, which preceded the Great Fire, was 'bright and sparkling, and its motion swift and furious.' Old women, he says, believed in them, especially 'the hypochondriac part of the other sex,' who might, he thinks, be called old women too. Still he half-believes himself, especially when the second appears. He does not believe that the breath of the plague-stricken upon a glass would leave shapes of 'dragons, snakes, and devils, horrible to behold;' but he does believe that if they breathed on a bird they would kill it, or 'at least make its eggs rotten.' However, he admits that no experiments were tried. Then we have the hideous, and sometimes horribly grotesque, incidents. There is the poor naked creature, who runs up and down, exclaiming continually, 'Oh, the great and the dreadful God!' but would say nothing else, and speak to no one. There is the woman who suddenly opens a window and 'calls out, "Death, death, death!" in a most inimitable tone, which struck me with horror and chillness in the very blood.' There is the man who, with death in his face, opens the door to a young apprentice sent to ask him for money: 'Very well, child,' says the living ghost; 'go to Cripplegate Church, and bid them ring the bell for me;' and with those words shuts the door, goes upstairs, and dies. Then we have the horrors of the dead-cart, and the unlucky piper who was carried off by mistake. De Foe, with his usual ingenuity, corrects the inaccurate versions of the story, and says that the piper was not blind, but only old and silly; and that he does not believe that, as 'the story goes,' he set up his pipes while in the cart. After this we cannot refuse to admit that he was really carried off and all but buried. Another device for cheating us into acceptance of his story is the ingenious way in which he imitates the occasional lapses of memory of a genuine narrator, and admits that he does not precisely recollect certain details; and still better is the conscientious eagerness with which he distinguishes between the occurrences of which he was an eye-witness and those which he only knew by hearsay.
This book, more than any of the others, shows a skill in selecting telling incidents. We are sometimes in doubt whether the particular details which occur in other stories are not put in rather by good luck than from a due perception of their value. He thus resembles a savage, who is as much pleased with a glass bead as with a piece of gold; but in the 'History of the Plague' every detail goes straight to the mark. At one point he cannot help diverging into the story of three poor men who escape into the fields, and giving us, with his usual relish, all their rambling conversations by the way. For the most part, however, he is less diffusive and more pointed than usual; the greatness of the calamity seems to have given more intensity to his style; and it leaves all the impression of a genuine narrative, told by one who has, as it were, just escaped from the valley of the shadow of death, with the awe still upon him, and every terrible sight and sound fresh in his memory. The amazing truthfulness of the style is here in its proper place; we wish to be brought as near as may be to the facts; we want good realistic painting more than fine sentiment. The story reminds us of certain ghastly photographs published during the American War, which had been taken on the field of battle. They gave a more forcible impression of the horrors of war than the most thrilling pictures drawn from the fancy. In such cases we only wish the narrator to stand as much as possible on one side, and just draw up a bit of the curtain which conceals his gallery of horrors.
It is time, however, to say enough of 'Robinson Crusoe' to justify its traditional superiority to De Foe's other writings. The charm, as some critics say, is difficult to analyse; and I do not profess to demonstrate mathematically that it must necessarily be, what it is, the most fascinating boy's book ever written, and one which older critics may study with delight. The most obvious advantage over the secondary novels lies in the unique situation. Lamb, in the passage from which I have quoted, gracefully evades this point. 'Are there no solitudes,' he says, 'out of the cave and the desert? or cannot the heart, in the midst of crowds, feel frightfully alone?' Singleton, he suggests, is alone with pirates less merciful than the howling monsters, the devilish serpents, and ill-gendered creatures of De Foe's deserts. Colonel Jack is alone amidst the London thieves when he goes to bury his treasures in the hollow tree. This is prettily said; but it suggests rather what another writer might have made of De Foe's heroes, than what De Foe made of them himself. Singleton, it is true, is alone amongst the pirates, but he takes to them as naturally as a fish takes to the water, and, indeed, finds them a good, honest, respectable, stupid sort of people. They stick by him and he by them, and we are never made to feel the real horrors of his position. Colonel Jack might, in other hands, have become an Oliver Twist, less real perhaps than De Foe has made him, but infinitely more pathetic. De Foe tells us of his unpleasant sleeping-places; and his occasional fears of the gallows; but of the supposed mental struggles, of the awful solitude of soul, we hear nothing. How can we sympathise very deeply with a young gentleman whose recollections run chiefly upon the exact numbers of shillings and pence captured by himself and his pocket-picking 'pals'? Similarly Robinson Crusoe dwells but little upon the horrors of his position, and when he does is apt to get extremely prosy. We fancy that he could never have been in want of a solid sermon on Sunday, however much he may have missed the church-going bell. But in 'Robinson Crusoe,' as in the 'History of the Plague,' the story speaks for itself. To explain the horrors of living among thieves, we must have some picture of internal struggles, of a sense of honour opposed to temptation, and a pure mind in danger of contamination. De Foe's extremely straightforward and prosaic view of life prevents him from setting any such sentimental trials before us; the lad avoids the gallows, and in time becomes the honest master of a good plantation; and there's enough. But the horrors of abandonment on a desert island can be appreciated by the simplest sailor or schoolboy. The main thing is to bring out the situation plainly and forcibly, to tell us of the difficulties of making pots and pans, of catching goats and sowing corn, and of avoiding audacious cannibals. This task De Foe performs with unequalled spirit and vivacity. In his first discovery of a new art he shows the freshness so often conspicuous in first novels. The scenery was just that which had peculiar charms for his fancy; it was one of those half-true legends of which he had heard strange stories from seafaring men, and possibly from the acquaintances of his hero himself. He brings out the shrewd vigorous character of the Englishman thrown upon his own resources with evident enjoyment of his task. Indeed, De Foe tells us very emphatically that in Robinson Crusoe he saw a kind of allegory of his own fate. He had suffered from solitude of soul. Confinement in his prison is represented in the book by confinement in an island; and even a particular incident, here and there, such as the fright he receives one night from something in his bed, 'was word for word a history of what happened.' In other words, this novel too, like many of the best ever written, has in it the autobiographical element which makes a man speak from greater depths of feeling than in a purely imaginary story.
It would indeed be easy to show that the story, though in one sense marvellously like truth, is singularly wanting as a psychological study. Friday is no real savage, but a good English servant without plush. He says 'muchee' and 'speakee,' but he becomes at once a civilised being, and in his first conversation puzzles Crusoe terribly by that awkward theological question, why God did not kill the devil—for characteristically enough Crusoe's first lesson includes a little instruction upon the enemy of mankind. He found, however, that it was 'not so easy to imprint right notions in Friday's mind about the devil, as it was about the being of a God.' This is comparatively a trifle; but Crusoe himself is all but impossible. Steele, indeed, gives an account of Selkirk, from which he infers that 'this plain man's story is a memorable example that he is happiest who confines his wants to natural necessities;' but the facts do not warrant this pet doctrine of an old-fashioned school. Selkirk's state of mind may be inferred from two or three facts. He had almost forgotten to talk; he had learnt to catch goats by hunting them on foot; and he had acquired the exceedingly difficult art of making fire by rubbing two sticks. In other words, his whole mind was absorbed in providing a few physical necessities, and he was rapidly becoming a savage—for a man who can't speak and can make fire is very near the Australian. We may infer, what is probable from other cases, that a man living fifteen years by himself, like Crusoe, would either go mad or sink into the semi-savage state. De Foe really describes a man in prison, not in solitary confinement. We should not be so pedantic as to call for accuracy in such matters; but the difference between the fiction and what we believe would have been the reality is significant. De Foe, even in 'Robinson Crusoe,' gives a very inadequate picture of the mental torments to which his hero is exposed. He is frightened by a parrot calling him by name, and by the strangely picturesque incident of the footmark on the sand; but, on the whole, he takes his imprisonment with preternatural stolidity. His stay on the island produces the same state of mind as might be due to a dull Sunday in Scotland. For this reason, the want of power in describing emotion as compared with the amazing power of describing facts, 'Robinson Crusoe' is a book for boys rather than men, and, as Lamb says, for the kitchen rather than for higher circles. It falls short of any high intellectual interest. When we leave the striking situation and get to the second part, with the Spaniards and Will Atkins talking natural theology to his wife, it sinks to the level of the secondary stories. But for people who are not too proud to take a rather low order of amusement 'Robinson Crusoe' will always be one of the most charming of books. We have the romantic and adventurous incidents upon which the most unflinching realism can be set to work without danger of vulgarity. Here is precisely the story suited to De Foe's strength and weakness. He is forced to be artistic in spite of himself. He cannot lose the thread of the narrative and break it into disjointed fragments, for the limits of the island confine him as well as his hero. He cannot tire us with details, for all the details of such a story are interesting; it is made up of petty incidents, as much as the life of a prisoner reduced to taming flies, or making saws out of penknives. The island does as well as the Bastille for making trifles valuable to the sufferer and to us. The facts tell the story of themselves, without any demand for romantic power to press them home to us; and the efforts to give an air of authenticity to the story, which sometimes make us smile, and sometimes rather bore us, in other novels are all to the purpose; for there is a real point in putting such a story in the mouth of the sufferer, and in giving us for the time an illusory belief in his reality. It is one of the exceptional cases in which the poetical aspect of a position is brought out best by the most prosaic accuracy of detail; and we imagine that Robinson Crusoe's island, with all his small household torments, will always be more impressive than the more gorgeously coloured island of Enoch Arden. When we add that the whole book shows the freshness of a writer employed on his first novel—though at the mature age of fifty-eight; seeing in it an allegory of his own experience embodied in the scenes which most interested his imagination, we see some reasons why 'Robinson Crusoe' should hold a distinct rank by itself amongst his works. As De Foe was a man of very powerful but very limited imagination—able to see certain aspects of things with extraordinary distinctness, but little able to rise above them—even his greatest book shows his weakness, and scarcely satisfies a grown-up man with a taste for high art. In revenge, it ought, according to Rousseau, to be for a time the whole library of a boy, chiefly, it seems, to teach him that the stock of an ironmonger is better than that of a jeweller. We may agree in the conclusion without caring about the reason; and to have pleased all the boys in Europe for near a hundred and fifty years is, after all, a remarkable feat.
One remark must be added, which scarcely seems to have been sufficiently noticed by Defoe's critics. He cannot be understood unless we remember that he was primarily and essentially a journalist, and that even his novels are part of his journalism. He was a pioneer in the art of newspaper writing, and anticipated with singular acuteness many later developments of his occupation. The nearest parallel to him is Cobbett, who wrote still better English, though he could hardly have written a 'Robinson Crusoe.' Defoe, like Cobbett, was a sturdy middle-class Englishman, and each was in his time the most effective advocate of the political views of his class. De Foe represented the Whiggism, not of the great 'junto' or aristocratic ring, but of the dissenters and tradesmen whose prejudices the junto had to turn to account. He would have stood by Chatham in the time of Wilkes and of the American War; he would have demanded parliamentary reform in the time of Brougham and Bentham, and he would have been a follower of the Manchester school in the time of Bright and Cobden. We all know the type, and have made up our minds as to its merits. When De Foe came to be a subject of biography in this century, he was of course praised for his enlightenment by men of congenial opinions. He was held up as a model politician, not only for his creed but for his independence. The revelations of his last biographer, Mr. Lee, showed unfortunately that considerable deductions must be made from the independence. He was, as we now know, in the pay of Government for many years, while boasting of his perfect purity; he was transferred, like a mere dependent, from the Whigs to the Tories and back again. In the reign of George I. he consented to abandon his character in order to act as a spy upon unlucky Jacobite colleagues. It is to the credit of Harley's acuteness that he was the first English minister to make a systematic use of the press and was the patron both of Swift and De Foe. But to use the press was then to make a mere tool of the author. De Foe was a journalist, living, and supporting a family, by his pen, in the days when a journalist had to choose between the pillory and dependence. He soon had enough of the pillory and preferred to do very dirty services for his employer. Other journalists, I fear, since his day have consented to serve masters whom in their hearts they disapproved. It may, I think, be fairly said on behalf of De Foe that in the main he worked for causes of which he really approved; that he never sacrificed the opinions to which he was most deeply attached; that his morality was, at worst, above that of many contemporary politicians; and that, in short, he had a conscience, though he could not afford to obey it implicitly. He says himself, and I think the statement has its pathetic side, that he made a kind of compromise with that awkward instinct. He praised those acts only of the Government which he really approved, though he could not afford to denounce those from which he differed. Undoubtedly, as many respectable moralists have told us, the man who endeavours to draw such lines will get into difficulties and probably emerge with a character not a little soiled in the process. But after all as things go, it is something to find that a journalist has really a conscience, even though his conscience be a little too open to solid arguments. He was still capable of blushing. Let us be thankful that in these days our journalists are too high-minded to be ever required to blush. Here, however, I have only to speak of the effect of De Foe's position upon his fictions. He had early begun to try other than political modes of journalism. His account of the great storm of 1703 was one of his first attempts as a reporter; and it is characteristic that, as he was in prison at the time, he had already to report things seen only by the eye of faith. He tried at an early period to give variety to his 'Review' by some of the 'social' articles which afterwards became the staple of the 'Tatler' and 'Spectator.' When, after the death of Queen Anne, there was a political lull he struck out new paths. It was then that he wrote lives of highwaymen and dissenting divines, and that he patched up any narratives which he could get hold of, and gave them the shape of authentic historical documents. He discovered the great art of interviewing, and one of his performances might still pass for a masterpiece. Jack Sheppard, when already in the cart beneath the gallows, gave a paper to a bystander, of which the life published by De Foe on the following day professed to be a reproduction. Nothing that could be turned into copy for the newspaper or the sixpenny pamphlet of the day came amiss to this forerunner of journalistic enterprise. This is the true explanation of 'Robinson Crusoe' and its successors. 'Robinson Crusoe,' in fact, is simply an application on a larger scale of the device which he was practising every day. It is purely and simply a masterly bit of journalism. It affects to be a true story, as, of course, every story in a newspaper affects to be true; though De Foe had made the not very remote discovery that it is often easier to invent the facts than to investigate them. He is simply a reporter minus the veracity. Like any other reporter, he assumes that the interest of his story depends obviously and entirely upon its verisimilitude. He relates the adventures of the genuine Alexander Selkirk, only elaborated into more detail, just as a modern reporter might give us an account of Mr. Stanley's African expedition if Mr. Stanley had been unable to do so for himself. He is always in the attitude of mind of the newspaper correspondent, who has been interviewing the hero of an interesting story and ventures at most a little safe embroidery. This explains a remark made by Dickens, who complained that the account of Friday's death showed an 'utter want of tenderness and sentiment,' and says somewhere that 'Robinson Crusoe' is the only great novel which never moves either to laughter or to tears. The creator of Oliver Twist and Little Nell was naturally scandalised by De Foe's dry and matter-of-fact narrative. But De Foe had never approached the conception of his art which afterwards became familiar. He had nothing to do with sentiment or psychology; those elements of interest came in with Richardson and Fielding; he was simply telling a true story and leaving his readers to feel what they pleased. It never even occurred to him, more than it occurs to the ordinary reporter, to analyse character or describe scenery or work up sentiment. He was simply a narrator of plain facts. He left poetry and reflection to Mr. Pope or Mr. Addison, as your straightforward annalist in a newspaper has no thoughts of rivalling Lord Tennyson or Mr. Froude. His narratives were fictitious only in the sense that the facts did not happen; but that trifling circumstance was to make no difference to the mode of writing them. The poetical element would have been as much out of place as it would have been in a merchant's ledger. He could not, indeed, help introducing a little moralising, for he was a typical English middle-class dissenter. Some of his simple-minded commentators have even given him credit, upon the strength of such passages, for lofty moral purpose. They fancy that his lives of criminals, real or imaginary, were intended to be tracts showing that vice leads to the gallows. No doubt, De Foe had the same kind of solid homespun morality as Hogarth, for example, which was not in its way a bad thing. But one need not be very cynical to believe that his real object in writing such books was to produce something that would sell, and that in the main he was neither more nor less moral than the last newspaper writer who has told us the story of a sensational murder.
De Foe, therefore, may be said to have stumbled almost unconsciously into novel-writing. He was merely aiming at true stories, which happened not to be true. But accidentally, or rather unconsciously, he could not help presenting us with a type of curious interest; for he necessarily described himself and the readers whose tastes he understood and shared so thoroughly. His statement that 'Robinson Crusoe' was a kind of allegory was truer than he knew. In 'Robinson Crusoe' is De Foe, and more than De Foe, for he is the typical Englishman of his time. He is the broad-shouldered, beef-eating John Bull, who has been shouldering his way through the world ever since. Drop him in a desert island, and he is just as sturdy and self-composed as if he were in Cheapside. Instead of shrieking or writing poetry, becoming a wild hunter or a religious hermit, he calmly sets about building a house and making pottery and laying out a farm. He does not accommodate himself to his surroundings; they have got to accommodate themselves to him. He meets a savage and at once annexes him, and preaches him such a sermon as he had heard from the exemplary Dr. Doddridge. Cannibals come to make a meal of him, and he calmly stamps them out with the means provided by civilisation. Long years of solitude produce no sort of effect upon him morally or mentally. He comes home as he went out, a solid keen tradesman, having, somehow or other, plenty of money in his pockets, and ready to undertake similar risks in the hope of making a little more. He has taken his own atmosphere with him to the remotest quarters. Wherever he has set down his solid foot, he has taken permanent possession of the country. The ancient religions of the primćval East or the quaint beliefs of savage tribes make no particular impression upon him, except a passing spasm of disgust at anybody having different superstitions from his own; and, being in the main a good-natured animal in a stolid way of his own, he is able to make use even of popish priests if they will help to found a new market for his commerce. The portrait is not the less effective because the artist was so far from intending it that he could not even conceive of anybody being differently constituted from himself. It shows us all the more vividly what was the manner of man represented by the stalwart Englishman of the day; what were the men who were building up vast systems of commerce and manufacture; shoving their intrusive persons into every quarter of the globe; evolving a great empire out of a few factories in the East; winning the American continent for the dominant English race; sweeping up Australia by the way as a convenient settlement for convicts; stamping firmly and decisively on all toes that got in their way; blundering enormously and preposterously, and yet always coming out steadily planted on their feet; eating roast beef and plum-pudding; drinking rum in the tropics; singing 'God Save the King' and intoning Watts's hymns under the nose of ancient dynasties and prehistoric priesthoods; managing always to get their own way, to force a reluctant world to take note of them as a great if rather disagreeable fact, and making it probable that, in long ages to come, the English of 'Robinson Crusoe' will be the native language of inhabitants of every region under the sun.