Casting around for something to read before going to sleep, my eye fell on an ancient copy of Robinson Crusoe. I smiled, thinking surely there must be something more suitably adult, but discovered I had read all the other books on the bedroom shelves fairly recently so it seemed the best option after all. When did I last read Robinson Crusoe? I wondered idly – and then, as I read the first few pages, I realized that in fact I had never read it at all before, except in a highly abridged children’s version when I was about 9.
Everyone has heard of Robinson Crusoe, cast away on a desert island, and his Man Friday. It is still a popular tale as a basis for annual pantomimes in England, and most people would, I think, as I did, classify it as a children’s book along with Treasure Island. That is far from the truth, in spite of Rousseau singling it out as the only book allowed to his fictional protégé Emile before the age of 12.
It has made fascinating reading. Not a book I would necessarily recommend for bedtime, because as one of the very first novels in the English language, it has no chapters and progresses from one adventure to another with no obviously convenient breaks. Once you have become accustomed to Defoe’s seventeenth century style, with long sentences broken up by a plethora of semicolons, it is actually a rip-roaring picaresque tale and hard to put down. Abridging it so extensively and emasculating it into a kind of Boys’ Own story has done it an immense disservice. My edition also contains the sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, in which our hero has encounters with wolves and a bear in the Pyrenees!
What is most striking for me, though, is the arrogant attitude of the author, which reflects all the prejudices of seventeenth and eighteenth century English society and implicitly assumes that the reader shares them. I’m sure Robinson Crusoe is still in print, in spite of being incredibly politically incorrect – for all he is a likeable hero arousing the reader’s sympathy, Crusoe is a racist, white supremacist, male chauvinist, British colonial imperialist and religious bigot.
Yet in his day Defoe was considered a dangerous liberal and even put in the pillory and imprisoned for expressing his seditious views (as well as for his debts, which were considerable). How our society has changed! Enid Blyton’s hooligan gollies have been expurgated, but Crusoe’s massacres of the cannibal “savages”, whose only error was to “trespass” on the island he claimed as his, continue to be applauded.
For Crusoe, king and governor of his island (which in the sequel has become a colony), to be English is next to divinity. The Scots and Portuguese are slightly less superior, the French and Spanish quite a few rungs down the ladder (the Spanish Inquisition partly accounting for their low standing); women and non-whites are scarcely human, in spite of Crusoe’s avowed affection for his wife and Man Friday, which is comparable to the feelings he expresses for his dog and parrot. They are devoted to him, and he is fond of them because of their faithful devotion. Slaves and savages are sub-human “creatures” – the reason for Robinson Crusoe’s ill-fated voyage that ends in his shipwreck is to undercut the slave merchants by sourcing Negros from Africa for his own plantation in Brazil. Yet he is clearly a devout Christian (protestant, naturally) and a man of high morals.
It is, of course, unfair to criticise Defoe for being a man of his time. He was far more enlightened than the majority of his countrymen. His most popular poem, The Trueborn Englishman, written partly in defence of the Dutch king, William of Orange, jocularly acknowledges that the English are far from racially pure:
Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend’ring off-spring quickly learn’d to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.
I have enjoyed this book and am ashamed of not having opened it before. My only excuse is that I thought I had! Next on my reading list? Well, what about Moll Flanders?