The man born Daniel Foe was an extraordinary man who lived in extraordinary times. Born in the year of the Restoration of Charles II, he lived through the Plague and Fire of London, the Glorious Revolution, the Union with Scotland, the first Jacobite risings, and the South Sea Bubble. He was a rebel, fighting with the Duke of Monmouth at the Battle of Sedgemoor, a hosier, a maker of bricks and pantiles, a bankrupt, a pilloried pamphleteer, a prisoner, a journalist, a secret agent and finally a writer responsible for Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and A Journal of the Plague Year as well as many other titles. With such a cv he is an obvious subject for biography.
Richard West faces some difficulties. Defoe loved to mix fact and fiction and his own accounts of his own life are inconsistent, contradictory and partial. There is no record of his birth. So West has relied a great deal on Defoe's own writings, whilst warning us about them. This means extensive quotes. West also quotes from historians about the period but concentrates almost exclusively on Macauley and Trevelyan. There is a feeling that West has done insufficient independent research and has relied too heavily on a limited number of sources.
But the book rattles on until the middle when the journalist becomes the author. You might think that this is where the story would become compelling. For 236 pages, Defoe has led an exciting life but now he is going to become the author of the famous books. Suddenly, West goes weird. Robinson Crusoe is described, with two other books, in twenty pages. Twenty three pages are devoted to A Journal of the Plague Year with two other works of historical fiction. Moll Flanders and Roxana merit twenty five pages. Then 84(!) pages are given to his three volume travelogue, A Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain. This one work is thus given more space than all his fiction put together!
Moreover, West attempts little in the way of literary criticism. Most of the descriptions of the books are taken up with an exhaustive summary of their plots. I would have been far more interested to know how Defoe came by the ideas for these books, what they shed upon his life (West does note the repeated obsession with money that was a probable legacy of Defoe's bankruptcy), how they were received by his contemporaries (both Crusoe and Flanders were best-sellers), and how they influenced future writers. But West only mentions in passing the fact the Moll Flanders was published the year before The Beggar's Opera was first performed and he is virtually silent on the presumable obsession with crime that Georgian society must have had at the time. As for the 84 pages on the Tour, most of this is devoted to discussing each place Defoe went to (or claims he went to).
In short, I felt the first half of the book was a triumph but I was extremely disappointed in the second half.
April 2014; 408 pages
In A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, Diana and Michael Preston make the point that Robinson Crusoe was in poart based on the best-selling travel books of William Dampier who was on the expedition that marooned Alexander Selkirk, the model for Crusoe, and on the expedition that rescued him!
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57