De Foe - PA Criticism Archive

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THE first publication which appears in this selection has so little the air of a common novel, that many will probably be surprised to see it included under that denomination; and some, who consider their old friend Robinson Crusoe as a mere school-boy acquaintance, may wonder to see him in such good company as the Sir Charleses and the Lady Betties of fashionable life. But the truth is, this favourite of our early years, though it has no pretensions to the graces of style, nor aims at touching the tender passions, yields to few in the truth of its description and its power of interesting the mind. Its author, Daniel de Foe, is a name well known in the political history of his age. He was born in London in 1663; his father was a butcher; his education was a common one, and none of his works bear any marks of that polish and elegance of style which is the mingled result of a classical education, and of associating with the more cultivated orders of society: but he was a man of a truly original genius, and possessed in a remarkable degree the power of giving such an air of truth and nature to his narrations that

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they are rather deceptions than imitations. In that particular cast of his genius he resembled Swift, his antipodes in politics and religion. The talent of grave irony, and the attention to those minute circumstances, those apparently undersigned touches, which cause the reader to exclaim, "No man could surely have thought of this if it had not been true," were alike in both. To the humour of Swift, De Foe had no pretensions. This author was educated a dissenter, and was greatly attached to the cause of liberty and protestantism: he was early in life engaged in the unfortunate rebellion of the duke of Monmouth, but had the good fortune to escape the severe vengeance which was exercised after his defeat, and to return unmolested to London, where he followed his business of a maker of bricks and pantiles. He was not however successful, and became insolvent; but he honourably paid his creditors as soon as his circumstances enabled him so to do. From this period he attracted great notice as a writer by a number of publications, chiefly political, which came from his pen. One of them, entitled The shortest Way with the Dissenters, drew upon him a severe punishment. It was written in 1702, when the high-church party were inclined to persecute the sectaries. The grave ironical style in which it was written, at first deceived the public, and many thought him in earnest. The same thing is said to have happened to Swift, on the publication of his Proposal for fattening and eating the Children of the poor Irish. [2]  The house of commons took up the


matter differently, they ordered the book to be burnt by the hangman; and a prosecution was begun against the publishers. De Foe had secreted himself, but honourably came forward to screen the publishers, and was sentenced to the severe and degrading punishment of the pillory, besides fine and imprisonment. The composure with which he bore his punishment gave occasion to the following sarcasm from Pope, who hated both whigs and dissenters,

Earless on high stood unabash'd De Foe. [3] 

While he was still in prison he commenced a periodical publication entitled The Review. It was published twice or thrice a week, and besides news, domestic and political, contained the fiction of a club discussing various topics of a miscellaneous nature, which in all probability gave the hint to Steele and Addison for the frame they used afterwards with so much success in the papers of The Tatler and Spectator. De Foe was liberated by the interposition of Harley, and afterwards employed by the queen in Scotland, when the union was projected. He had great knowledge of affairs of commerce and revenue, on which subjects he was often consulted. After the union had taken place, he wrote the history of it in a folio volume. It seems strange that one so much employed as he was at that time should obtain no settled provision; and still more, that upon the accession of George the Second, when the whigs were again in power, he was not rewarded for his sufferings in the cause of liberty civil and religious, a cause he certainly

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had at heart. But it is to be feared his integrity was not quite equal to his abilities, and he had given offence by some publications which were at least ambiguous, and laid him open to the censure of writing on both sides. He seems therefore from this time to have given up politics, and to have employed his pen in composing those works by which his name has been best known to posterity. Among these were his Family Instructor and Religious Courtship. They both consist of dialogues on religious and moral subjects, relative to the conduct of life in its various situations and occurrencess. They have not the least pretensions to elegance, and an air of religious austerity pervades the whole of them; but their dramatic form of dialogues, supported with much nature and feeling, and the interest which his manner of writing has thrown into the familiar stories and incidents of domestic and common life, has made these publications, especially the former, exceedingly popular to this day among those whose religious opinions are similar to his own. De Foe also wrote A Journal of the Plague Year. It is written in the person of a citizen, a shopkeeper, who is supposed to have staid in the metropolis during the whole time of the calamity; and the particulars are so striking, so awful, and so circumstantial, that it deceived most of his readers, and amongst others it is said Dr. Mead, into a belief of its authenticity;—an exercise of ingenuity not to be commended;—though, after all, the particulars were probably most of them true, though the relater was fictitious. De Foe also wrote many


pieces in verse, which, though they had no pretensions to poetry properly so called, had many passages that were nervous and pointed. One, entitled Reformation of Manners, contains a strong invective against the slave-trade. A satire called The true-born Englishman was much read in its time, though it gave great offence. Its purport was to parry the attacks made against king William as a foreigner, by showing that the English themselves were a very mixed breed, who had no purity of blood to boast of.—But the work by which this writer is best known, both at home and abroad, is that which is presented to the public in this selection, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

It has been translated into most modern languages, has passed through numberless editions, and has always been found particularly agreeable to the taste of youth. The story turns upon the ingenuity and contrivance with which a solitary being, wrecked upon a desert island, provides for his subsistence, and by degrees supplies himself with all the most desirable accommodations of life. The reader is wonderfully delighted to see him acquire one comfort after another, and grows at length almost in love with his solitude. Some have thought the author has shortened his labour too much by allowing him so many articles out of the ship; but without them the story, though it might have displayed more mechanical invention, would have gone on rather heavily. Besides the ingenuity of contrivance displayed in this work, there are many circumstances which strongly


affect the feelings. The terror inspired by the impression of the foot in the sand; the luminous eyes, glaring like two lamps, at the bottom of the cave; and the affectionate simplicity of poor Friday, agitate the mind in various ways. The latter has a great deal of simple and natural pathos; and nothing in description can be more lively than the account of his meeting with his old father, who is saved from the cannibals, and of the fond and animated expressions of his affection to him both then, and when he meets him again on the island.

A strong tincture of religious feeling runs through the work, not unmixed with superstition. Dreams, omens, and impressions on the mind occur, in which De Foe was either a believer, or at least he knew how to take advantage of them in impressing his readers. That he was not very scrupulous in this point, appears from the following anecdote:—Drelincourt on Death, a grave religious book, not going off so well as the booksellers wished, they applied, it is said, to De Foe to write something which might give it a lift; for which purpose he composed The Apparition of Mrs. Veal. Though pure invention, it was told in so natural and circumstantial a way, that it gained credit with hundreds of readers; and being prefixed to the work, the impression sold rapidly.—It is said that Robinson Crusoe has given many a boy a predilection for a seafaring life; which is not unlikely; for the variety of adventures it contains kindles curiosity, and even when the subject of them is in his most forlorn and solitary state, there is something gratifying


to the imagination in contemplating him as king and owner of every thing about him;

I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute. [4] 

Among the striking passages of the work may be mentioned the encounter with the wolves and bears in crossing the Pyrenees. The second part, like most second parts, is much inferior to the first. We lose our old acquaintance the Solitary, and are presented with a Missionary in his stead. The story is confused with a variety of adventures, in which however the author exhibits his knowledge of the course of trade, which he was well acquainted with, and manners and customs which he had heard or read of, in China, Tartary, Siberia, and other countries. The most striking passage in this volume is the lively description of the sufferings of a young woman dying in the agonies of hunger. De Foe has shown a candour, at that time not very common, in giving a very amiable character of a French catholic priest; but the adventure of burning the Tartar idol, if it is meant as a heroic exploit, shows very confused ideas of justice.—It must not be concealed that the originality of this work has been disputed to De Foe from the following circumstance. One Alexander Selkirk really passed some years alone on the island of Juan Fernandez, and a sketch of his story had been given in the relation of Woodes Rogers. This might very probably give the first hint of his romance; but as to the report that


he possessed papers of Selkirk's and had made unacknowledged use of them, it appears to have been propagated without any solid ground whatever; and indeed the situation in which Robinson Crusoe is placed, and from which most of the incidents arise, materially differs from that of Selkirk.—De Foe wrote many other lives and adventures, and employed his ready pen to the end of his laborious life, which took place in London, in April 1731, in his 68th year.


[1] The British Novelists; with an Essay; and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, by Mrs. Barbauld, 50 Vols. (London: Printed for F.C. and J. Rivington; W. Otridge and Son; A. Strahan; T. Payne; G. Robinson; W. Lowndes; Wilkie and Robinson; Scatcherd and Letterman; J. Walker; Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe; R. Lea; J. Nunn; Lackington and Co.; Clarke and Son; C. Law; Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme; Cadell and Davies; E. Jeffery; J.K. Newman; Crosby and Co.; J. Carpenter; S. Bagster; T. Booth; J. Murray; J. and J.M. Richardson; Black, Parry, and Kingsbury; J. Harding; R. Phillips; J. Mawman; J. Booker; J. Asperne; R. Baldwin; Mathews and Leigh; J. Faulder; Johnson and Co.; W. Creech, Edinburgh; and Wilson and Son, York, 1810), 16: i-viii. Evan DuFaux, Rachel Dejmal, and Mary A. Waters co-edited this essay for The Criticism Archive. BACK

[2] A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents, or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (1729). BACK

[3] The Dunciad Bk. II, 147. BACK

[4] William Cowper, Verses, Supposed to be Written by Alexander Selkirk, during His Solitary Abode in the Island of Jan Fernandez (1782) 1-2. BACK

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