Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 23. Miscellaneous later writings: Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell, A Journal of the Plague Year, Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders, Colonel Jacque, Roxana, Memoirs of Captain George Carleton, The Complete English Tradesman

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

§ 23. Miscellaneous later writings: Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell, A Journal of the Plague Year, Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders, Colonel Jacque, Roxana, Memoirs of Captain George Carleton, The Complete English Tradesman

That Robinson Crusoe was written “all in the day’s work” is clear to the student of Defoe’s bibliography for 1719, which includes, in addition, an attack on Bishop Hoadly, a biography of baron de Goertz, a tract on stock-jobbing—precursor of many pamphlets on the South Sea Bubble,—a life of captain Avery, introducing the long series of tracts devoted to pirates and other criminals, an account of that extraordinary prodigy Dickory Cronke, otherwise known as “the Dumb Philosopher,” contributions to Mercurius Politicus, Mist’s, The Whitehall Evening Post, and a new paper founded by Defoe, The Daily Post—but the list seems endless. There is little reason, however, for believing that he kept his copy by him and poured it forth at specially favourable times, or that he had a “double” whose style is undistinguishable from his. He was, rather, the most practised and versatile journalist and hack writer of the day, known to publishers as willing to turn every penny, unhampered by regular official or commercial employment, and obliged to keep up his income in order that he might continue, as during the past five or six years, to live at Stoke Newington in a condition approaching affluence. One change, however, as has been noted, is apparent in Defoe’s literary habits during the last twelve years of his life. Throughout his early career, the pamphlet was the form of composition best adapted to his genius, and the books he attempted were somewhat laboured and amorphous. During his later period, while he still wrote pamphlets freely, he tended more and more to the production of elaborate books, in the construction of which, despite continual lapses into garrulity, he displayed remarkable skill. Except for the summer journeys, which, from 1722 to 1725, may be presumed to have furnished him with materials for that delightful and invaluable guidebook in three volumes, A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, and for short periods when he was disabled by the stone, Defoe’s old age, up to the autumn of 1729, must have been that of an animated writing machine. Was he seeking to dull the pangs of conscience, or to live down a scandalous past? Probably the latter, and, more probably still, to lay by money for his daughter Hannah, who was certain to be an old maid.

The next book of importance after the two parts of Robinson Crusoe was The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell, the deaf and dumb conjurer, which appeared at the end of April, 1720. A bibliographical mystery hangs over this curious production as well as over other books and tracts relating to Campbell. That Defoe is the main author of the original History and of a pamphlet entitled The Friendly Demon (1726) seems clear: that he may have been aided in the first of these either by William Bond or by Mrs. Eliza Haywood is probable, and that he had nothing to do with the other works relating to Campbell, save, possibly, the posthumous Secret Memoirs of 1732, is likely. In May, 1720, came the book, which, together with A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), shows that Defoe possessed, not only a genius for producing effects of verisimilitude, but, also, a considerable share of something which it is hard to distinguish from historical imagination. This is, of course, The Memoirs of a Cavalier, the absorbing story of the wars in Germany and England, for the accuracy of which so many untrained persons have been willing to vouch that some critics have assumed for it a superfluous manuscript source. A month later appeared that fine example of the fiction of adventure, The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton, which is a proof at once of Defoe’s extensive knowledge of geography and of his power to extend his imagination, not only back into the past, as in The Memoirs of a Cavalier, but out into the regions of the far away and the strange. Singleton also holds attention by that interest in criminals which Defoe naturally began to display in greater degree so soon as he formed his six years’ editorial connection with John Applebee, the chosen publisher of the confessions and biographies of noted malefactors. It has, moreover, another link with Defoe’s next great book, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (January, 1722), for, in Singleton, we find Defoe beginning to display a power of characterisation which is seen in very respectable measure in Moll Flanders and, also, in Colonel Jacque and Roxana. It is, however, as a realistic picture of low life in the large that Moll Flanders is supreme, just as the book of the next month, Religious Courtship, is the unapproachable classic of middle class smugness and piety. It is pious middle class folk that figure in the two books devoted to the great plague; but it is the pestilence itself that dominates our imagination and fills us with unstinted admiration for Defoe’s realistic power. That power is seen to a less extent in The Impartial History of Peter Alexowitz the Present Czar of Muscovy and in The History and Remarkable Life of the truly Honourable Colonel Jacque; but, so long as the latter book has readers, Charles Lamb’s praise of the affecting picture of the little thief will command grateful assent. If Lamb had gone farther and asserted that the year 1722, the year of Moll Flanders, of Religious Courtship, of the Due Preparations and A Journal of the Plague Year, of The History of Peter the Great, and of Colonel Jacque, was the greatest annus mirabilis in the career of any English writer, who would have been rash enough to say himnay?

The next year is almost a blank unless we accept indecorous contributions to a controversy about the use of cold water as a specific in fevers—and an undignified Defoe is a person of whom some credulous students will form no conception. By March, 1724, however, we have our prolific and masterly writer once more, for that is the date of The Fortunate Mistress, better known as Roxana, the story in which Defoe makes his greatest advance, not a very great one after all, toward the construction of a well ordered plot. This, also, is the year of one of the best of his sociological works, his treatise on the servant question, The Great Law of Subordination Considered, as well as of the first volume of the Tour. Before the year closed, he had written his popular tracts on Jack Sheppard, and the last of his generally accepted works of fiction, A New Voyage round the World, notable for its description of the lower parts of South America and for the proof it affords that its author’s powers of narration and description were on the wane. From 1725 to his death, Defoe is a writer of books of miscellaneous information rather than a pioneer novelist, yet there is reason to believe that he did not abandon the field of narration so entirely as has been generally held. The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts (1726) may be, in considerable measure, the dull record of the experiences of a real seaman, but it bears almost certain traces of Defoe’s hand. The far more interesting Memoirs of Captain George Carleton (1728) has for its nominal hero a man who is known to have existed, and who may have taken a direct or indirect share in its composition; but it is now clear, almost beyond dispute, that the shaper of Carleton’s book, the writer who has vitiated many of the accounts given of the career of Peterborough in Spain, is not dean Swift, as has been acutely argued, but our protean scribbler Daniel Defoe. It is less certain, perhaps, that Defoe, in 1729, performed for Robert Drury’s entertaining Journal of his captivity in Madagascar precisely the services he had rendered to Carleton’s Memoirs; but there is very strong evidence to support this view, which is that of Pasfield Oliver, the latest editor of the book.