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Post  eddie Sat Jun 25, 2011 5:08 pm

Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth by Katherine Frank – review

An alternative theory of the inspiration behind Robinson Crusoe drowns in its own watery metaphors

Peter Conrad, Thursday 23 June 2011 12.29 BST

Daniel Defoe 1954-ROBINSON-CRUSOE-007
Dan O’Herlihy in the 1954 film version of Robinson Crusoe. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext

Katherine Frank has a theory, which has sent her foraging across oceans in quest of wild geese and red herrings. She believes that Daniel Defoe based Robinson Crusoe not on the lonely ordeal of Alexander Selkirk, a cantankerous buccaneer dumped by his shipmates on an island off Valparaiso in 1704, but on the mishaps of Robert Knox, a trader taken captive by a native chieftain in Ceylon in 1660. Following Knox's trail, Frank even travelled to St Helena, where during the 1680s the accident-prone Knox was again captured (for a few days only, which hardly makes his experience comparable with the 28 years Crusoe spends on his island) while attempting to buy a cargo of slaves.

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Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox And The Creation Of A Myth by Katherine Frank

Selkirk receives only a couple of grudging mentions in Frank's book, since she prefers to believe that Defoe, "a congenital plagiarist", was cannibalising Knox's Historical Relation of Ceylon. With her blinkers on, she ignores the existential oddity of Selkirk, which is what impressed Defoe. The essayist Richard Steele, who met Selkirk on his return to England, said that his experience was unique in human history: no man had ever been so terrifyingly tested by solitude, which threatened to erode his reason and to undermine his very humanity.

In a century that regarded individuals as their own creation and not the copy of some divine prototype, Selkirk was a symbol of modern man's proud, plaintive autonomy. For Defoe the Londoner, who understood the cellular self-sufficiency of contemporary city dwellers, he also pointed to the way all men would live in the future – alienated from their fellows, recoiling in paranoid terror from the over-populated streets.

Robinson Crusoe is about the hero's management of a solitude that should have deranged and destroyed him. Knox, by contrast, was never alone, never menaced by a maddening solipsism. His life story was a narrative of a different kind, replete with exotic adventures and daring escape bids. Crusoe's enemy is duration – the passage of those drearily uneventful decades – and he triumphs because of his capacity for endurance. He retains his rationality by writing. Determined not to regress, he constructs his own small civilisation; indefatigably ingenious, he even reinvents the umbrella. Unlike Crusoe, who wears breeches and a jacket, refuses to go barefoot and keeps his hair and beard trimmed, Knox went native, stripping to a loincloth and allowing the sun to burnish his skin.

Frank admits that Knox's Historical Relation is a drearily prolix ramble, but she seems to admire it more than anything Defoe wrote: she regards the great novelist as a hack with overdue bills to pay, who "churned out" an "astonishing surfeit of work" while simultaneously breeding cattle, raising corn, tanning leather, importing anchovies and selling metal buttons. She misreads the books and mistakes their tone: convinced that Defoe's characters are thoughtless, go-getting profiteers, she overlooks Robinson Crusoe's battle against despair, the nonchalant fatalism of Moll Flanders, and the ghostly detachment of the narrator who wanders at night through a stricken city in A Journal of the Plague Year.

Although Knox and Defoe lived within a few miles of each other in London, they never met; Defoe read Knox's book, though the novel in which he makes use of it was not Crusoe but Captain Singleton, the story of a sailor who marches across Africa, panning rivers for gold and accumulating a hoard of ivory, pausing to gun down any natives who challenge him. Given the lack of any further connection between the two men, how can Frank justify forcibly coupling them in this dual biography? Only, I'm afraid, by over-stretched analogies and questionable metaphors. Because she has so little respect for Defoe's imagination, she treats Robinson Crusoe as a reflection on the novelist's internment in debtors' prison, not a reverie about Selkirk: "You don't have to go to sea to be shipwrecked," she remarks, as it's possible to "come to grief on dry land, as Defoe did". Knox, too, beached in London at the end of his life, "is like a castaway: alone with his thoughts". The same all-purpose cliche returns in Frank's account of Defoe's sad end: "He was in the midst of life's last and greatest storm and he was going under." Actually, it is Frank's theory that by this stage has foundered hopelessly.

Most depressing of all is her inability to appreciate the difference in quality between Knox's memoir and Defoe's novel. The myth that her subtitle invokes is our culture's most authoritative story about the glory and misery of individualism, about the ego's domination of the world and its reduction of other people to ownable, usable things, like Crusoe's compliant Man Friday. Frank treats this as just one more tired paraphrase of the devalued American dream: Knox and Defoe, she says, wrote interchangeable tracts about self-help, "books that tell you that no matter what your situation, you can survive and succeed". It's as if Crusoe were the winner of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Myths and fables, despite their extremism and their stretching of probability, tell us the truth about ourselves; the feel-good moral Frank propounds is a fatuous lie. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Post  eddie Sat Jun 25, 2011 5:23 pm

Moll: The Life and Times of Moll Flanders by Siân Rees – review

No more saucy winks for Defoe's heroine.

Kathryn Hughes, Friday 24 June 2011 23.55 BST

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Adventurous ... Alex Kingston as Moll Flanders in the ITV production, 1996. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

You may never have read Moll Flanders, but chances are you've got a pretty good idea what it's about. Moll – her person, her story – has come to stand as a cipher for the bump and grind of historical sex, poxy but tremendous fun. Thanks to screen adaptations, including the luscious 1996 TV outing with Alex Kingston, Moll is lodged in the public imagination as a good-time girl with a big heart, loose morals and a saucy wink as she picks a pocket or leads a punter up a dark alley. More specifically, Moll comes clothed in 18th-century costume, all heaving cleavage and dragging petticoats, as she hurries through streets that bear more than a passing resemblance to Hogarth's Gin Lane.

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Moll: The Life and Times of Moll Flanders by Siân Rees

Wrong, all wrong, as Siân Rees reveals in this detailed investigation into the real life and times of Moll Flanders. The backdrop to Moll's story is not Hanoverian raunchiness but Cromwellian prudery, not the hectic South Sea Bubble but the settled austerity of the Protectorate. To drive home the sheer ancientness of the book's setting, Rees reminds us that Moll's mother is actually an Elizabethan, born into a time when the smart new things are not coffee and chocolate but potatoes and tobacco.

This last point is important since, above all, Moll Flanders is a story about economic imperialism, that first century of expansion into the New World when the English planted flags on the south-eastern seaboard of America and claimed it as their own. Yet Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas are not simply places of economic possibility, but dumping grounds too. It is to Virginia that Moll's mother is sent in penal servitude, shortly after giving birth to Moll in Newgate. And it is here too that Moll herself will live for eight years in middle age as a prosperous planter's wife, using slave labour to accrue a nice little fortune from tobacco. Perhaps, most importantly, Virginia hangs over the novel as a place apart where characters take time out from the domestic narrative to reinvent themselves. Here on the Chesapeake Bay thieves become gentleman farmers, whores mutate into respectable matrons and, most worryingly for Moll, husbands turn out to be long-lost brothers.

A careful reader could get all this information from Defoe's novel, but what Rees does in this engaging book is to give us the extra historical information we need to create a richer context for Moll's story. So, for instance, Rees adds ballast to the colonial part of the book by telling us about the experiences of real historical adventurers, including the Jesuit priest Andrew White who made a white-knuckle crossing to Maryland in 1634 complete with lashing storms and the threat of pirates. She also makes us see why the discovery that Moll's husband Humphrey is actually her long-lost brother is not just a psychological shock but a potential death sentence. If things are a little preachy back in England, they are ardently biblical in the new territories: there's a fierce tariff of punishments for even the most fleeting of sins.

It is possible for Rees to make these smooth transitions in and out of Defoe's text thanks to the way that the novel is written, like so many early examples of the form, as a mock autobiography, a fiction masquerading as a documentary record of a single life. So while the speed and scope of Moll's adventures might alert you to the fact that hers is a made-up story, the deep texture that Defoe gives to her account – the jostle of court appearances, the push and shove of the dockside, the palaver of giving birth to an illegitimate baby – makes it feel as if it is written from lived experience.

Which in a way it was. Defoe might not have been reduced to prostituting his body as Moll does at the advanced age of 50, but pretty much everything else – his loyalty, his tongue and certainly his pen – were up for sale. Just like that of his heroine, Defoe's life was marked not so much by destitution as trepidation, a constant skirting of the abyss. He famously served time in the stocks for his satirical writing, was always on the hop from the bailiffs and turned to novel writing at the age of 60 not out of any inner compulsion to tell the stories of Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and Roxanne, but because he needed the cash to service his personal debt. Written pell mell, in crowded rooms with not enough elbow space, his novels were bulletins from a desperate life – his own.

Rees employs the present tense when she is talking about the fictional Moll, while real-life gets the perfect. At times the reader finds it hard to hold the two domains apart, but in a sense this doesn't matter. Rees's project is to demonstrate how "the novel" in general and this novel in particular is "news" from the frontline of history. More problematic is her determination to fold into the main narrative an account of various other Molls, real women whose life stories inspired Defoe. There's Moll Cutpurse, pimp and gangmaster; Kentish Moll who passes herself off as a German princess; and Moll King, whose light-fingered approach to life gets her sent to Virginia. All are certainly worth a narrative excursion, but here their stories threaten to wrench the focus away from our Moll. The result is a book that doesn't seem padded-out so much as broken-backed, unable quite to hold a steady course as it plunges through the choppy waters of real and imagined lives in early modern England and its empire.

Kathryn Hughes's The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton is published by Harper Perennial. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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