The Harbottle Review

Mr Justice Harbottle is an ageing gout-charged voluptuary and a judge at the Court of Common Pleas

Tag: Daniel Defoe

CAPTAIN SINGLETON by Daniel Defoe

singletonDaniel Foe, whose parents raised him up to the Puritan ministry, and who was out with Monmouth in the last English army ever likely to proclaim itself ‘Godly’, subsequently declined the pulpit, adorned his name with a prefix, and set out to make a fortune. And though he has lived since as a man of affairs, he yet remains devout; thus his new work, Captain Singleton, may be seen as an expression of his life, in its attempt to reconcile the spiritual with the worldly; or the securement of salvation with the getting of money.

Bob Singleton, of uncertain parentage, and scant education, goes to sea in his thirteenth year, and after several voyages falls in with a group of Portuguese mutineers. Although Bob deems these men “perfidious and debauched, insolent and cruel,” he sees that they are biddable, and wanting a leader; which part Bob takes up, and very soon suborns them into piracy. Events, however, dictate another course, as the crew find themselves cast on the hostile shores of east Africa, upon which they take the wild africaresolution to traverse the continent on foot. After seasons of hardship and horror, in uncharted lands and among savages who know not whether Singleton’s crew are devils or gods, (and neither does the crew care which they appear to be), they emerge upon the safety of the Dutch Gold Coast as rich men, having amassed a fortune in gold and elephants’ teeth in their way.

Bob’s boldness throughout these adventures is untempered by either religion or reflection; he has no notion of home, since all the world is alike to him; and he cares nothing for riches, since he can not conceive of how they might be used. His only thought for God arises in the presence of savages, and consists in an aversion to their superstitions rather than an inclination to religion. He seems, as yet, hardly born.

After quickly running through his money, Singleton goes back upon the cruise, or upon the account, as pirates term their business, in full earnest, and with his own command, as Captain Bob. Plying the waters from Cuba to the Spice Islands, he steadily acquires another fortune and an infamous name. His unlikely lieutenant is the Quaker, William, a man of enterprise and courage, who yet refuses to raise his hand in violence, in accordance to the injunctions of his Society. He begins to lead Bob out of his ignorance, showing him that there is more to the world than sensation and the moment at hand. As might be supposed, given his collusion in rapine and robbery, William’s morals are trickily contorted, yet they constitute some manner of a code; enough at least to institute him as Bob’s spiritual counsellor, or ghostly father.

frigate_skirmish_by_janborutaBob thinks on God once more when his ship is struck by such a force of lightning as terrifies him to the last degree and sends his men deaf; but it is his limitless regard for William, who is never wrong in any matter, that finally draws Bob into the Christian fold. William calls upon him to consider death, and what follows it, which Bob is first very loth to do; and he maintains that now they have made their fortune, they must break off their wicked course and repent; though in the manner of St. Augustine, he does not think they should do it yet. The prudent Quaker notes that certain transactions are pending which will top up their accounts; and that they must then arrange how to give their crew-mates the slip and make off with the money; but this done, they may, and certainly will, repent with all their hearts.

All is accomplished in due course, upon which Bob settles snug into domesticity, in household with William, whose sister he has married. For a time, he is troubled by his conscience in living on the lucre of crime; but William, who is wise enough for both of them, assures him that since they have thrown themselves on God’s mercy, and professed their willingness to atone, the rest is in His hands; and in the interim, they may give to charities.

Captain Singleton is printed by J. Brotherton, at the Black Bull in Cornhill, and costs a measure of idle scruple and superfluous guilt.

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MOLL FLANDERS by Daniel Defoe

best-moll-flanders-titleDaniel Defoe’s satire is drier than Canary sack, and credulous readers have ere been known to swallow it whole. His pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, called for the crucifixion of Presbyterians, a suit so glaringly ironic that it could have been taken in earnest only by High Churchers; and so it was. These gullible Tories, to redress their embarrassment, felt justified in committing Mr Defoe to Newgate, standing him three times in the pillory, and bankrupting his brick-&-tile-works. I wonder how they will wear Moll Flanders, a true account concerning the decency of sinners and the doubtful purpose of the church in a mercantile society.

The frontispiece proclaims that the heroine of this biography was born in Newgate Prison, was twelve year a whore, five times a wife, and twelve year a thief, after all of which she repented. Throughout these travails she is used with great kindness by all she consorts with, whether bankers or low criminals, gentlemen or debauchers, sea-captains or prostitutes. It is the world that is wicked, not these that dwell in it, and their goodness derives from fellow-feeling, not the pulpit.

mollflandersIn the case of marriage, Moll finds that she is but a commodity in a market place, and an under-valued one at that; yet the world says she can not live without a husband, or money, and if she lacks one, she must get the other. Moll seeks out men in order to live; yet she cares for them all, though rarely so far as to grieve for them after. These good-hearted souls, her husbands, variously dying, deserting, or turning out to be her brother, leave Moll alone at the age of fifty, upon which she utters a feeble prayer: ‘Give me not poverty, lest I steal,’ before becoming the most accomplished thief in all London.

It is a sure walk, though not a short one, nor a straight one, from there back to Newgate, where she was born, and now lies under sentence of death. At this low ebb she finds God, and begins to look back at her life with abhorrence, and finally repents of it. This, at least, until she is reprieved and meets up again with an old husband, upon which she charms and dissembles her way to Virginia, where she and the husband become rich without ever setting foot in church nor opening a Bible. Defoe revisits the notion of penitence, for an ironical sting in the tail, while being content meerly to have left Moll well set up at home, which is all she had long strived for.

Moll Flanders is printed by Mr W. Chetwood, at Cato’s-Head in Russel-street, Covent-Garden, and costs ten Our Fathers at any High Anglican confessional.

ROBINSON CRUSOE by Daniel Defoe

crusoeIn his sixtieth year, and after having pursued chequered careers in trade, spying, pamphleteering &c., Daniel Defoe now presents us with this long fable. Withal it takes the form of a popular adventure story, it is chiefly concerned with Religion, Commerce, and Law.

As to the first, Religion, here is a tale of sin and retribution, Crusoe’s eight-and-twenty-year sojourn on an island being not an accident, but a punishment. In following the sea, he has defied the wishes of his father and bucked the natural order that would have had him a merchant or clerk in the middling station of society. In short, he did not know his place. His first voyages are beset by storms, to the degree in which his captain marks him as a Jonah; and on a subsequent voyage he is enslaved by Moors. He was given fair warning then, and he persisted in his error; yet the judgement is too harsh. If his vicissitudes were warnings from God, he did not know it; indeed he knew nothing of God, and did not discover Him until his second year on the island.

Here, having suffered the terror of an earthquake, and then a hurricane, Crusoe falls to an ague that lasts for many days, and during which he has a nightmare of a giant flaming angel that would kill him for his failure to repent. At this low ebb, Crusoe finds God, and acknowledges his own guilt, which consists in having gone out into the world to find adventure and fortune, while not caring for anyone’s blessing about it.

My judgement on this, per contra, is that Crusoe is guilty of nothing but youthful dash; and that this ought to be admired as a virtue, and not condemned as a sin; and I further query what kind of timid tepid piety is being peddled here, that approves only bloodless stay-at-homes, and whether any person of character and enterprise ought to credit it, and how long England would remain England if they did. And there I let the matter of Religion rest.

firstfrontisAnd so, to the second, which is Commerce, or more particularly, the nature of Value. Crusoe, being removed from the spheres of exchange, finds that the Value of things is altered. Money is worth nothing: when he finds a great sum of it aboard a wreck, he would trade it all for a few pairs of shoes and stockings, these things being of great use. Value, now, bears no relation to exchange, but only to use. Similarly, he is unable to exchange his labour, which is of such small worth that he spends it very freely, devising himself a great many contraptions and comforts, all of which require a prodigious time; time being in no way scarce.

Commerce can be done now only with God, who pointedly reveals scripture to Crusoe: “Call on me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver, and thou shalt glorify me.” The bargain is duly struck. Being acquainted with Mr Defoe, I have it from his own mouth that he believes Commerce to be an expression of the divine order of human affairs; this despite the Gospels’ enjoining us to renounce all our wealth. My judgement is that Mr Defoe, and not the Gospels, is in the right on this point, and I doubt of any respectable Christian who would dispute me. And there I let the matter of Commerce rest.

1354678789_Cannibal-Stories-Human-Cannibalism-CaribsAnd so, to the third, which is Law. The fount of the Law is natural Law, which has two pillars, as set forth by Hugo Grotius, and later Thomas Hobbes, viz.: 1. all have the right to gather the necessaries of life about them; 2. none has the right to injure another but in self-defence. Crusoe, though ill-educated, and in the state of nature, recognizes this Law. When he witnesses a party of cannibals at feast, he first designs to destroy them by ambush; but reflection informs him that he has no competence to judge these savages, and that since they are not about his business, he ought not be about theirs.

Later, when his island becomes populated by Christians, social compacts are formed, and Crusoe is recognised by all as governour of his island, now an English colony; and powers are transferred to him that he might judge men, and hang them. Thus we see the world he has inhabited pass from the state of nature to one of civilisation. And there I let the matter of Law rest.

Robinson Crusoe costs five shillings and is published by Mr William Taylor at the Ship in Pater-Noster Row, London. A faithful pirate edition may be had from Mr George Grierson of Dublin. Avoid the Amsterdam Coffee-House piracy: it is an Abridgement.