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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

I. Defoe—The Newspaper and the Novel

§ 21. Defoe’s evolution as a Novelist

Our reference to Robinson Crusoe brings us to 25 April, 1719, the date of the publication of the first part of that immortal story. Defoe was nearly sixty years old, but he had hitherto written almost nothing that would have preserved his name for the general public. During the next five years, most of his fiction was to be composed, and, during the ensuing six, he was to become perhaps the most extraordinarily prolific old man in the history of English literature. Although he never ceased to be a journalist and pamphleteer, he became, for the last eleven years of his life, primarily a writer of books, and especially of fiction. The change has surprised many, and a word or two must be given to an attempt to describe in outline his evolution.

Although there is evidence that Defoe was rather widely read in English belles lettres, particularly in Rochester and other authors of the restoration, there is little or no direct evidence that he was a wide reader of fiction. It would be rash, however, to assume that he had not dipped into some of the reprinted Elizabethan romances; that he had not tried to read one or more of the interminable heroic romances, whether in the original French or in English versions or imitations; that he was ignorant of the comic and the satiric anti-romances, or that he had not read with some enjoyment the novels of his own time—the stories of intrigue by Aphra Behn, the highly coloured pictures of the court and of the aristocracy by Mrs. Manley, and the attempts at domestic fiction by Mrs. Eliza Haywood and other more or less forgotten women. If some bibliographers are right, we must hold that he wrote more than one tract which shows the influence of Mrs. Manley’s New Atalantis, and that he translated at least one picaresque story, abbé Olivier’s Life and Adventures of Signior Rozelli (1709, 1713). It is much more certain, however, that he must have been familiar with lives of criminals, with chapbooks and compilations such as those of Nathaniel Crouch (“R. Burton”), with the work of Bunyan and with The Tatler and The Spectator. In other words, it is chiefly to the popular narratives of his day and to contributory forms like the essay and biography that Defoe owes whatever in his fiction is not due to his own genius and experience as a writer.

As a matter of fact—setting aside the possibility that he translated the story of Rozelli and even added a somewhat questionable appendix to the edition of 1713 and a Continuation in 1724—one can find in Defoe’s writings, prior to 1719, grounds for believing that he may have evolved into a novelist of adventure and of low life with comparatively little indebtedness to previous writers of fiction. He had had great practice in writing straightforward prose since 1697; and, by 1706—witness Mrs. Veal—he had learned how to make his reporting vivid and credible by a skilful use of circumstantial detail. In his political allegory The Consolidator, he had begun, though crudely, to use his imagination on an extended scale, and he had already, in The Shortest Way, displayed only too well his gifts as an impersonator. In some of the tracts written between 1710 and 1714, notably in the two parts of The Secret History of the October Club, he had shown great ability in satiric portraiture and considerable skill in reporting speeches and dialogue. In 1715, he had introduced some mild religious fiction into The Family Instructor, and, three years later, in the second part of this book, he had made still greater use of this element of interest. In the same year, 1715, he had assumed the character of a quaker in some of his tracts; and, since 1711, he had been publishing predictions supposed to be made by a secondsighted highlander. Again, in 1715, he had described the career of Charles XII of Sweden as though he himself were “A Scots Gentleman in the Swedish Service”; and there is reason to believe that, in the following year, he wrote, as “A Rebel,” a tract dealing with the rebellion in Scotland. In 1717, he skilfully assumed the character of a Turk who was shocked by the intolerance displayed by English Christians in the Bangorian controversy, and it seems almost certain that, in 1718, he wrote for Taylor, the publisher of Robinson Crusoe, a continuation of the Letters of the famous Turkish Spy. Finally, when it is remembered that, in 1718, he was contributing to Mist’s, week by week, letters from fictitious correspondents, that his wide reading in geography had given him a knowledge of foreign countries, particularly of Africa and both Americas, and that he had long since shown himself to be a skilful purveyor of instruction and an adept at understanding the character of the average man, we begin to see that, given an incident like the experiences of Alexander Selkirk and an increasing desire to make money through his pen in order to portion his daughters, we have a plausible explanation of the evolution of Defoe the novelist out of Defoe the journalist and miscellaneous writer.