Chapter LXII: Defoe--"Robinson Crusoe"
FOR more than a year and a half Defoe remained in prison; then he was set free.
A new Government had come into power. It was pointed out to the Queen that it was a mistake to make an enemy of so clever an author as Defoe. Then he was set at liberty, but on condition that he should use his pen to support the Government. So although Defoe was now free to all seeming, this was really the beginning of bondage. He was no longer free in mind, and by degrees he became a mere hanger-on of Government, selling the support of his pen to whichever party was in power.
We cannot follow him through all the twists and turns of his politics, nor through all his ups and downs in life, nor mention all the two hundred and fifty books and pamphlets that he wrote. It was an adventurous life he led, full of dark and shadowy passages which we cannot understand and so perhaps cannot pardon. But whether he sold his pen or no we are bound to confess that Defoe's desire was towards the good, towards peace, union, and justice.
One thing he fought for with all his buoyant strength was the Union between England and Scotland. It had been the desire of William III ere he died, it had now become the still stronger desire of Queen Anne and her ministers. So Defoe took "a long winter, a chargeable, and, as it proved, hazardous journey" to Scotland. There he threw himself into the struggle, doing all he could for the Union. He has left for us a history of that struggle,* which perhaps better than any other makes us realize the unrest of the Scottish people, the anger, the fear, the indecision, with which they were filled. "People went up and down wondering and amazed, expecting every day strange events, afraid of peace, afraid of war. Many knew not which way to fix their resolution. They could not be clear for the Union, yet they saw death at the door in its breaking off--death to their liberty, to their religion, and to their country." Better than any other he gives a picture of the "infinite struggles, clamor, railing, and tumult of party." Let me give, in his own words, a description of a riot in the streets of Edinburgh:--
*History of the Union of Great Britain.
"The rabble by shouting and noise having increased their numbers to several thousands, they began with Sir Patrick Johnston, who was one of the treaters, and the year before had been Lord Provost. First they assaulted his lodging with stones and sticks, and curses not a few. But his windows being too high they came up the stairs to his door, and fell to work at it with sledges or great hammers. And had they broke it open in their first fury, he had, without doubt, been torn to pieces without mercy; and this only because he was a treater in the Commission to England, for, before that, no man was so well beloved as he, over the whole city.
"His lady, in the utmost despair with this fright, came to the window, with two candles in her hand, that she might be known; and cried out, for God's sake to call the guards. An honest Apothecary in the town, who knew her voice, and saw the distress she was in, and to whom the family, under God, is obliged for their deliverance, ran immediately down to the town guard. But they would not stir without the Lord Provost's order. But that being soon obtained, one Captain Richardson, who commanded, taking about thirty men with him, marched bravely up to them; and making his way with great resolution through the crowd, they flying, but throwing stones and hallooing at him, and his men. He seized the foot of the stair case; and then boldly went up, cleared the stair, and took six of the rabble in the very act, and so delivered the gentleman and his family.
"But this did not put a stop to the general tumult, though it delivered this particular family. For the rabble, by this time, were prodigiously increased, and went roving up and down the town, breaking the windows of the Members of Parliament and insulting them in their coaches in the streets. They put out all the lights that they might not be discovered. And the author of this had one great stone thrown at him for but looking out of a window. For they suffered nobody to look out, especially with any lights, lest they should know faces, and inform against them afterwards.
"By this time it was about eight or nine o'clock at night, and now they were absolute masters of the city. And it was reported they were going to shut up all the ports.* The Lord Commissioner being informed of that, sent a party of the foot guards, and took possession of the Netherbow, which is a gate in the middle of the High Street, as Temple Bar between the City of London and the Court.
*Gates in the City Wall.
"The city was now in a terrible fright, and everybody was under concern for their friends. The rabble went raving about the streets till midnight, frequently beating drums, raising more people. When my Lord Commissioner being informed, there were a thousand of the seamen and rabble come up from Leith; and apprehending if it were suffered to go on, it might come to a dangerous head, and be out of his power to suppress, he sent for the Lord Provost, and demanded that the guards should march into the city.
"The Lord Provost, after some difficulty, yielded; though it was alleged, that it was what never was known in Edinburgh before. About one o'clock in the morning a battalion of the guards entered the town, marched up to the Parliament Close, and took post in all the avenues of the city, which prevented the resolutions taken to insult the houses of the rest of the treaters. The rabble were entirely reduced by this, and gradually dispersed, and so the tumult ended."
Although Defoe did all he could to bring the Union about he felt for and with the poor distracted people. He saw that amid the strife of parties, proud, ignorant, mistaken, it may be, the people were still swayed by love of country, love of freedom.
Even after the Union was accomplished Defoe remained in Scotland. He still wrote his Review every week, and filled it so full of Union matters that his readers began to think he could speak of nothing else and that he was grown dull. In his Review he wrote:--
"Nothing but Union, Union, says one now that wants diversion; I am quite tired of it, and we hope, 'tis as good as over now. Prithee, good Mr. Review, let's have now and then a touch of something else to make us merry." But Defoe assures his readers he means to go on writing about the Union until he can see some prospect of calm among the men who are trying to make dispeace. "Then I shall be the first that shall cease calling upon them to Peace."
The years went on, Defoe always living a stormy life amid the clash of party politics, always writing, writing. More than once his noisy, journalistic pen brought him to prison. But he was never a prisoner long, never long silenced. Yet although Defoe wrote so much and lived at a time when England was full of witty writers he was outside the charmed circle of wits who pretended not to know of his existence. "One of these authors," says another writer, "(the fellow that was pilloried, I have forgotten his name), is indeed so grave, sententious, dogmatical a rogue that there is no enduring him."*
At length when Defoe was nearly sixty years old he wrote the book which has brought him world-wide and enduring fame. Need I tell you of that book? Surely not. For who does not know Robinson Crusoe, or, as the first title ran, "The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, who lived eight-and-twenty years all alone in an uninhabited Island on the Coast of America near the Mouth of the great River Oroonoque, having been cast on shore by shipwreck, wherein all the men perished but himself. With an account how he was at last strangely delivered by Pirates. Written by himself." In those days, you see, they were not afraid of long titles. The book, too, is long. "Yet," as another great writer says,* "was there ever anything written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers, except Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and the Pilgrim's Progress?"
The book was a tremendous success. It pleased the men and women and children of two hundred years ago as much as it pleases them to-day. Within a few months four editions had been sold. Since then, till now, there has never been a time when Robinson Crusoe has not been read. The editions of it have been countless. It has been edited and re-edited, it has been translated and abridged, turned into shorthand and into poetry, and published in every form imaginable, and at every price, from one penny to many pounds.
Defoe got the idea of his story from the adventures of a Scots sailor named Alexander Selkirk. This sailor quarreled with his captain, and was set ashore upon an uninhabited island where he remained alone for more than four years. At the end of that time he was rescued by a passing ship and brought home to England. Out of this slender tale Defoe made his fascinating story so full of adventure.
What holds us in the story is its seeming truth. As we read it we forget altogether that it is only a story, we feel sure that Crusoe really lived, that all his adventures really happened. And if you ever read any more of Defoe's books you will find that this feeling runs through them all. Defoe was, in fact, a born story-teller--like Sir John Mandeville. With an amazing show of truth he was continually deceiving people. "He was a great, a truly great liar, perhaps the greatest liar that ever lived."*
Finding that Robinson Crusoe was such a success, Defoe began to write other stories. He wrote of thieves, pirates and rogues. These stories have the same show of truth as Robinson Crusoe. Defoe, no doubt, got the ideas for them from the stories of the rogues with whom he mixed in prison. But they have nearly all been forgotten, for although they are clever the heroes and heroines are coarse and the story of their adventures is unpleasant reading. Yet as history, showing us the state of the people in the days of Queen Anne and of George I, they are useful.
Defoe was now well off. He had built himself a handsome house surrounded by a pleasant garden. He had carriages and horses and lived in good style with his wife and beautiful daughters. There seemed to be no reason why he should not live happily and at ease for the rest of his life. But suddenly one day, for some unknown reason, he fled from his comfortable home into hiding. Why he did this no one can tell. For two years he lived a homeless, skulking fugitive. Then in 1731 he died, if not in poverty at least in loneliness and distress of mind.
BOOKS TO READ
Robinson Crusoe, abridged by John Lang. Robinson Crusoe, retold by Edith Robarts, illustrated by J. Hassall, R. I. Robinson Crusoe (Everyman's Library).Next