Friend or Defoe?

What makes Robinson Crusoe so monumental is the moment of hesitation – brief for some readers, longer for others – during which the horizon of expectations definitively shifted and adjustments were made that ultimately forced such ‘historical’ narratives to be read as works of fiction. Defoe’s importance to the history of the novel lies principally in the fact that his narratives were a key part of the process in the course of which readers created a new narrative category, eventually labeled ‘novel’.







In History And The Early English Novel: Matters Of Fact From Bacon To Defoe, Robert Mayer contends that the novel as we know it evolved out of historical writing, and his study makes a case for Daniel Defoe as the critical figure in the development of the novel, based upon Defoe’s unique melding of history and fiction in those works which we now call his “novels” – but which were not generally recognised as novels at the time.

The first half of this book traces “the history of history”, the development of historical writing in England and the different forms in which it appeared before what we might now consider “proper” historical writing emerged, including history with a frank political or religious agenda, or history that was also autobiography, such as the Earl Of Clarendon’s History Of The Rebellion.

Although it covers a great deal of ground, Mayer’s main thrust here is his examination of how legendary or fantastic material, most notably the stories of King Arthur, was handled over the years by various categories of historians. He shows that even with a strong push towards factual and unbiased history, the old stories continued to be included and treated with respect. It was the attitude of the historian that changed, from one of declared belief to an acknowledgement that the stories were just stories. Many historians took the view that a respect for tradition demanded the inclusion of these tales; others recognised that a fabulous beginning was better than no beginning at all (harder-line historians tended to begin their work with the first Roman invasion); while others still, significantly, simply recognised that their readers liked stories.

The upshot of all of this, according to Mayer, is that the English people were not merely used to having, but happy to have, “fabulous” material included in their history; that they were accustomed to a little fiction mixed into their facts. And this, he contends, paved the way for the idiosyncratic writings of Daniel Defoe, who took the opposite tack of producing fictions that read like histories, and that challenged the reading public to categorise them correctly – and indeed, do so to this day.

Mayer uses Robinson Crusoe and The Journal Of The Plague Years as the basis of his argument, examing the puzzlement, the confusion and the outrage that greeted the former, and the way in which history and fiction are blended in the latter. Some of this we have glanced at before, courtesy of Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions, which Mayer references here, but which is considerably more critical of Defoe’s manoevrings than this study. Mayer makes a strong case, but a highly selective one; and the more I thought about his assertions the more I felt inclined to argue.

Mayer’s stance – and he uses the word repeatedly – is that Defoe’s writing is “revolutionary”; that it literally changed the landscape and determined the course of the development of the novel. There are, of course, quite a number of studies of the history of the novel that make a case for a single critical figure, an ur-figure, as Mayer puts it; and while I do not dispute the importance of Defoe or the uniqueness of his writing, my issue with this approach to literary history is that by definition it requires an accompanying argument as to why other writers are not important…and that’s where I start to get uncomfortable.

In fact, the main case that Mayer makes against Defoe’s “rivals” – and we are, of course, talking mainly about Aphra Behn, but also Eliza Haywood – is that their writings were not “revolutionary”; that readers were not confused and uncertain about them, as they were about the status of Defoe’s “histories”; that they didn’t change anything, or not immediately. This seems to me an odd sort of argument, but I suppose it is an unavoidable one once you start insisting upon a single writer, a single work, as responsible for the rise of the novel. In making this assertion, and dismissing Aphra Behn and her followers from the history of the novel, Mayer makes use of what seems to me some fairly specious arguments, which confuse the writings themselves with their changing public reception.

The inescapable fact of the history of the English novel is that the so-called “novel of amorous intrigue” has been marginalized for two-and-a-half centuries, and no amount of criticism will change that.

One immediate problem I have here is the snarkiness of that final clause. I would argue, on the contrary, that criticism has changed everything: that thanks to the hard work of some very determined academics, we have not only witnessed the rehabilitation of the personal and professional reputations of Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, but seen, not just Behn and Haywood, but other writers like Delariviere Manley, Sarah Fielding, Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, among others, take their rightful places in the timeline of the novel’s development.

But if we’re only arguing the immediate effect of  the works in question, well, I feel inclined to dispute that point, too. Mayer seems to be suggesting here that the “marginalising” of certain writers meant that they could not be an influence upon the course of the development of the novel. If that is his contention, he’s rearranging the facts to suit himself. The marginalisation to which Mayer refers happened well subsequent to the original publication dates of the works in question, which were successful and popular to a degree that should not be underestimated.

For example, Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister ran through something like eighteen editions between the time of its publication and the turn of the century, that is, better than one a year: hardly evidence of “marginalisation”. It was years, in some cases decades, before the writings of Behn and Haywood did fall out of favour, and then it was the result of shifting social mores, that is, a judgement made not upon the quality of the writing, but upon its content.

I also take issue with the implication that these writers wrote only “novels of amorous intrigue”. This may or may not be true of Eliza Haywood, or true of the first phase of her career – I haven’t examined her writing closely yet, so I can’t at the moment say – but you can hardly call Oroonoko a “novel of amorous intrigue”. Nor, in spite of its sex and manoeuvring, can Love Letters… possibly be dismissed as nothing more than a cheap thrill, as we have seen. What’s more, having now really sat and studied Behn’s first attempt at fiction, it seems to me Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana owe more than a little to the character of Sylvia, but there’s no consideration here of any such possible influence.

More importantly, however, at least to my mind, is the fact that if you dismiss Aphra Behn from the novel’s timeline, you lose along with her a proper understanding of the development of the epistolary novel, so dominant a form all the way through the 18th century, and so critical a factor in the emergence of true psychological writing. Here, too, Mayer strikes me as disingenuous: while arguing for Defoe’s creation of a new form of writing, he takes no notice of the fact that Behn did the same; his account of the novel, as all these “single figure” studies do, then jumps from Daniel Defoe to Samuel Richardson, where we find him simultaneously admitting Aphra Behn’s influence upon Richardson while dismissing her as an important influence. He also skates over the fact that Richardson plundered Behn’s work while leading the growing wave of criticism, moral rather than literary, against her.

(While I wouldn’t call Pamela “a novel of amorous intrigue”, exactly, I do find its prurience much more offensive than Behn or Haywood’s frank approach to sex.)

I suppose  in the end it comes down to whether you want to posit the history of the novel in terms of a single individual, or whether you prefer see it as a stepwise process involving any number of writers. Mayer argues strenuously for Defoe’s writing as causing a “literary revolution” that expanded the “horizon of expectatations” for the early 18th-century reader. The trouble is, having made this assertion, and having dismissed Behn and Haywood for their failure significantly to alter the literary landscape, he then makes little effort to show how Defoe’s “revolutionary” writing actually changed anything, either for the contemporary reader or for contemporary and subsequent writers.

And while Robert Mayer makes his case here by talking in historical terms, I feel compelled finally to answer him biologically, and to say with respect to his vision of a single progenitor, an ur-figure, that evolution really doesn’t work that way. It is true that nature sometimes throws up a spectacular mutation, a sport. However, these dramatically different entities rarely lead to anything, but are, on the contrary, usually sterile. Most of the time change occurs, not instantaneously, but gradually, by a process of action and reaction, with the individual, or the individual species, pushing against the prevailing environment, which pushes right back.

We can illustrate this in a literary context. We’ve seen already how Aphra Behn’s move to fiction writing was shaped both by her knowledge of pre-existing texts (chiefly Love Letters From A Portuguese Nun) and by political and economic factors (no new plays being commissioned): the result was Love Letters…, which in turn inspired Delariviere Manley, who was simultaneously influenced by the nature of the text and by her environment, in which politics were dominated by the Whigs she so despised. Eliza Haywood, noting the ephemeral nature of Manley’s texts, so much a product of a single time and place and milieu, shed the literal politics but kept the sexual kind; while Jane Barker and Penelope Aubin, strongly disapproving of the earlier publications but nevertheless adopting their forms, began to strive for the novel as a moral influence… And so on, to Richardson and Fielding, to Burney and Edgeworth, to Scott, and Austen, and beyond… All important figures, some truly great figures…but no ur-figures, if you please.

And now, to change the subject somewhat— Thinking over my reaction to History And The Early English Novel, and trying to articulate it, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, feeling somewhat reassured about this ridiculous blog project of mine*. Mayer, like many literary historians, simply steps over the intervening years between Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson…which are precisely the years that most interest me.

This may, at first glance, seem somewhat perverse. Off the top of my head, I can name only a couple of writers who worked during this time: Penelope Aubin, who certainly was influenced by Defoe (but perhaps that’s not considered anything to boast about?), but whose career ended in the 1720s; and of course Eliza Haywood – and the first part of her fiction-writing career came to a shuddering halt during the first part of this period, too, thanks largely to the limitless bile of Alexander Pope. So who else was publishing in the years before Richardson? Was it a wasteland, as most literary histories would suggest? – or were still further novelistic developments going on there in the shadows, in works perhaps more important than worthy? Do any forgotten gems lurk there? I don’t know…but it is these historical black holes that I’m finding increasingly fascinating…

(*Call it Robert Mayer’s revenge. I’ve come away from History And The Early English Novel with yet more additions to my wishlist, this time a set of publications that are for the most part either apologies for “the Glorious Revolution”, or reactions to those apologies. Never mind my hope of “getting the hell out of the 17th century“: at this rate I’m never going to make it out of the 1680s…)

24 Responses to “Friend or Defoe?”

  1. I think that the “revolutionary” aspect of Defoe and Robinson Crusoe can only be achieved by looking at him and it in vacuo: had that book really sprung directly out of seventeenth-century pamphleteering and Richard dratted Head, that would indeed have been a uniquely new and amazing thing. But once one remembers that Behn did exist, and that amatory fictions did manifest all the characteristics of what we’d recognise from a modern perspective as “a novel” (unless we allow ourselves to be thoroughly blinded by orthodoxy), Defoe looks less like a revolutionary and more like the guy who comes along and takes over once all the hard work of fighting the revolution is done

    Frankly, when one considers that all this work was by its nature blatantly commercial, I find a series of small changes in form much more plausible that the one huge change that Mayer seems to be proposing. If you write something too different from what people are used to, they won’t buy it; as a writer, you know this, and write at least approximately to what the market wants.

  2. So much of what happened was just out of economic necessity and political bias. We might prefer to think there was a great artistic breakthrough that gave birth to the novel, but personally I don’t buy it – and less the further my reading goes.

    Defoe’s writing is certainly different, but I’m not as yet convinced it was influential, in and of itself. Perhaps when (“when” – HA!!) I get to the 1720s and 1730s, I will see that it was, but at the moment I remain to be convinced. And too, Mayer’s claim that Defoe’s writing changed the way readers thought about fiction might be valid, but if no-one else followed or built upon his work, what was the practical outcome?

    I didn’t get into this because (i) it’s only a minor aspect of his book and (ii) it could also just be me being over-senstive, but I got the impression that Mayer is really irritated by the feminist aspect of recent literary history studies. He seemed quite keen not merely to leave Aphra & co. out, but to denigrate their writing too. I see him very much as a disciple of Ian Watt.

    • Yeah, I’m really not a fan of the fashion / personality cult school of literary theory. I’m basically a scientist by training, so what I want to know is “what does the evidence say, even if it’s inconclusive”, not “what can I make sound plausible”.

      The impression I’m getting at the moment is that Defoe was one of a lot of people producing prose fiction – and sure, his stuff was better than a lot of its contemporaries (not to mention less tied to a knowledge of politics, so that it can be read today with minimal explanation), and may well have had some literary innovations, but it was still recognisable as broadly the same sort of thing people were already reading.

      (Which means I’m trashing neither the feminists nor the anti-feminists, really, so neither will want to talk to me. 🙂

    • And too, Mayer’s claim that Defoe’s writing changed the way readers thought about fiction might be valid,

      It was my impression that the reading public didn’t have a clear concept of what a novel was supposed to be until after Tom Jones at the earliest.

      Maybe we could see Robinson Crusoe as Halloween and Tom Jones as Friday the Thirteenth — the former may be the inspiring prototype of eighties slashers, but the latter is the one that creates a recognizable “eighties slasher” genre.

  3. <>

    I think to english translations of french novels by Lafayette, Scudery and so long: the kind of novels mocked by Charlotte Lennox in “The female Quixote”. An Example is “La belle assemblee” by de Gomez, translated by Eliza Haywood, which gave also the name to an important magazine during the georgian and the regency period.

    By the bye: have you read Margaret Doody’s “The true story of the novel”? I’m still at its beginning in the pre-classical Greece, but probably in the next hundreds of pages it can give also some idea of the english novel in the early 18th Century. Doody’s starting point is the confutation of Mayer and Watt, quite in the same terms of your post.
    It is, of course, also a good source for a whising list.

    Not with english literature, but the same situation…as a member of the lutheran church in Milan, I checked among its german members (mostly middle-aged graduated professionists) and discovered that they have no idea of who August Lafontaine and August Kotzebue were.

    Last but not least: why don’t we open a mailing-list in yahoogroups about forgotten novels and authors?

    • Just as a very small side note: if Lyz would like a mailing list, I have a mailman setup I’d be happy to devote to the cause. I try to avoid YahooGroups for its spam-friendly policies and its horrible T&Cs.

  4. What I’m finding with this reading is that you often end up falling into an argument on gender where you don’t really intend one. 🙂

    But the fact that fiction writing at this time (by which I mean, say, 1680 – 1730) was so dominated by women, except for Defoe, means that these Defoe-centred studies tend to carry a sense that, since he was the only male writer, he was also the only important writer. You could, of course, talk up Defoe without talking down the others, but they never do.

    And I think we need to acknowledge that we’re into the second or third wave of feminist scholarship, which is very different from the first, which was (quite justifiably, in my opinion) mad as hell and not going to take it any more. From that initial point of simply demanding acknowledgement and inclusion, the scholarship has moved on into any number of fresh and interesting areas, which in many cases are “feminist” only as far as they focus upon women. (I’d like to think that you could talk about women’s writing without it necessarily being perceived as feminist to do so, but I’m probably dreaming.) Scholars like Mayer can sneer at feminist critics if they like, but while women writers are still being routinely excluded from mainstream literature courses at universities, and instead thrown together higgledy-piddledy in single classes where the subjects have nothing in common but their gender, the battle still needs to be fought and won.

    Luca, I would love to think that there are enough people like us out there to support a group or a mailing list, but honestly, I see how hard even groups dealing with “important” writers and “important” books struggle to attract interest, and I’m not sure it would work. There are a couple of people over at LibraryThing I talk to about obscure novels and novelists, but the most common response to my posts is a deathly silence, I’m afraid. (It’s lonely out there, when you’re not reading Stieg Larsson.)

    However, we can certainly keep your idea in mind, and if there seems to be a burgeoning interest, we can go ahead.

    I have Margaret Doody’s book on my wishlist, but haven’t read it yet. I’ll bump it up, though, if I can locate a copy – thanks for the heads-up!

    On the other hand, I do have an early, alternative “rise of the novel” study (whose title and author I can’t remember off the top of my head), which is the only one I’ve read to really deal with the influence of the French romances on English novels. I should dig that out…

    • Indeed, and I think this period is a great example of why having a “women’s writing” course that’s completely separate from the “normal i.e. male-written literature” course is wrong-headed – certainly better than ignoring Aphra Behn completely, but it means that any crossover influences are likely to be missed.

      • Yeah, that approach strikes me as being like a split-brain patient who sees half of an image with one brain hemisphere and half with the other, and never forms a complete picture out of them, but only thinks he does.

  5. Yes, as you say, particularly at this time, when the writing community was small enough, and localised enough, to be fully aware of itself and not only able to keep up with what was being written, but constantly responding. There are all sorts of threads there, once you start looking, and it seems to me that this “writer in isolation” approach misses out on so much that was important – and interesting – and just fun.

  6. As I always say, the “great”, canonic novelists are popular novelists with a good style and a not too much original idea. Boccaccio wrote his Decameron using latin and greek novels, exempla in religious sermons, popular anedoctes and middle age novellas collected in works such as the anonymous “Novellino”; “Pride and prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” are quite usual titles for their period, as well as “Oliver Twist” and “David Copperfield” 20 years later (we have, in the same decade, “Vivian Grey”, “Pelham”, “Godolphin”, “Ernest Maltravers” and many others eponymous heroes’ adventures and entrance into the world);”Vanity fair” is a response to 20 years of silver-fork novels and, if you read the catalogue of the library of Walter Scott, you’ll find a lot of popular narrative.
    As Ernest Hemingway said, it’s not important “what” you write, but the way in which you write it.

  7. Why don’t we stay in a canonic 18th Century “horror”…”The castle of Otranto” Vs “Udolpho”? 😀

  8. It’s okay, Luca – that’s just Supes talking to me in a language he knows I understand. 🙂

    Mayer has a point – up to a point. I don’t argue with either Defoe’s importance or his individuality, or dispute that his way of writing challenged his readers to recognise and classify what they were reading. But as we’ve seen through Reading Fictions and Factual Fictions, readers at the time were used to having to categorise their reading. Defoe may have presented a uniquely difficult instance, but it was not a new concept.

    Mayer does make an interesting argument (though for the life of me I couldn’t re-find the right quote, though I flicked back through twice) that Defoe paved the way for readers to be able to say what a novel “was”, by the way he forced them to think about what he had written. Tom Jones is the “first novel” in the sense that it may be the first to be completely a work of fiction and not pretend to be anything else – as the contemporaneous Pamela still does, for example.

    BUT…I’m still not comfortable with that twenty-year gap between Defoe and Richardson. I need to know what was going on in there, and how writers (novelists?) of those years were describing their own work.

    • I think it’s worth considering the relentless mundanity of Crusoe‘s opening chapter – echoed in Gulliver’s Travels a few years later, too. Both seem to me to be explicitly anchoring the reader’s perception in real life, in distinct contrast to the older openings of “I fell asleep and had a dream” or “this is the tale I heard on the road to Canterbury”. (And yet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight throws the reader straight in…)

  9. 😀 I was just kidding: me too, I’m a fan of horror movies 😀

    About Fielding and the definition of novel (or at least of romance) in his contemporary context, it’s very interesting his preface to “Joseph Andrews”; it goes around the concept of epic poem in prose, full of action, enterteinment, sentiment and so long and will be used by James Joyce, too, for the definition of his Ulysses.

    By the by: do you know Jasper Fforde’s “Fiction Island”? Very funny 😀

  10. I do, but I object to his “Books Only Students Read” Island…for obvious reasons. 🙂

  11. Yes, Super, it could be. Bertie Wooster must commit petty crimes by order of aunt Dahlia and he says, about his aunt Agatha, that she “kills rats with her teeth” and “eats broken bottles and is strongly suspected of turning into a werewolf at the time of the full moon”. So, the shift between the genres is in the perlocutory effects on allegories and similitudes. Of course, in the classic english “whodunit” there’s also a good dose of black humor.

  12. perlocutory effects “based” on allegories and similitudes…sorry for the typing mistake 🙂

  13. I think the simple answer is that we have here a British viewpoint of genre rather than an American one.


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