by JAMES SUTHERLAND (1965)
Defoe's literary idiom was much less refined and his public altogether less select than Pope's. In Defoe's prose fiction, he is not much more than a fascinating primitive, in his controversial and journalistic writings he is one of the great English masters. Most of these writings are too deeply imbedded in their contemporary setting to be immediately intelligible to the modern reader, and yet there is a quality in Defoe's style that keeps them obstinately alive.
It is mainly a matter of spiritual energy, a natural alertness and liveliness that kept him at a high pitch of intensity as he put his thoughts on paper. He spent his whole writing life of nearly half a century advocating causes, persuading men to change their minds, to abandon some established prejudice, to consult their own best interest; and on every occasion he wrote with utter conviction. He not only meant what he said, but he believed that it was tremendously important it should be said, and that it was his business in life to say it. God, in fact, had given him an insight- on such matters as trade, religious strife, and so on- that had been denied to other men, and he must publish the truth that was in him.
All this has a familiar sound: it is the voice of the Puritan. Defoe's Puritan ancestry and nonconformist upbringing left a permanent impression on his mind and character. Much of his writing in the Review and elsewhere is like nothing so much as an unusually lively sermon. He never lost the earnestness and the stubborn conviction of having an 'inner light' that are at once the source of the Puritan's strength and of his limitation. But when a man cares about things as much as Defoe did, he is unlikely to be dull. He can easily be wrong, he may be narrow-minded, he may be needlessly repetitive, he may be too exclamatory and over-willing to preach; but he is never likely to bore his readers, and at his best he will have the same absolute dominion over them as the Mariner had over the Wedding-Guest.
What Defoe wrote was intimately connected with the sort of life he led, with the friends and enemies he made, and with the interests natural to a merchant and a Dissenter. Defoe's prison experience completely altered the course of his life. It drove him finally into political journalism, and it led him into that strange underground sort of life he was to lead for the next twenty years. On the man himself, his experience as a prisoner in Newgate almost certainly made a deep and lasting impression; and it seems likely that his keen interest in the lives and minds of rogues and criminals dates from this period. It is worth noticing, too, that in The Shortest Way Defoe had already perfected a technique which was to serve him again and again when he took to writing his fictitious narratives late in life: the technique of putting himself in someone else's shoes and proceeding to write consistently from that person's point of view.
There is no fundamental difference between mimicking the outlook and idiom of an intolerant Tory, and adopting the intellectual and moral attitudes and the literary style of a Moll Flanders. That, at any rate, was Defoe's habitual method of writing prose fiction; it is a developed form of 'make believe'
When Defoe turned in the last decade of his life from fact to fiction, the change was not so remarkable as at first sight it might appear. For one thing, his fiction is remarkably like fact. That he invented most of the facts seems almost irrelevant; it is still the factual that interests him. Often, too, he found his information in some book he had been reading, and applied it, or adapted it, to his own purposes. Given his facts, however, he is a master at making truth seem even truer. No one was ever better than Defoe at turning his reading to the uses of fiction, appropriating it to some particular context, making it come alive and appear to be a matter of personal recollection. We are expected to admire the honesty and reliability of the narrator: since he is not perfectly sure he refuses to make it up, and so when he does commit himself to a definite statement we may be sure it is accurate. But Defoe's favourite method of authenticating his narrative is to overwhelm us with details so trivial, and so apparently irrelevant, that we feel the only possible reason for being given them at all must be that they are true. Like so much in Defoe, there is a description of something happening, and he makes an immediate bid for our attention and our credulity by his careful setting of the event.
This circumstantial method is to be found in all Defoe's fictitious narratives; it is the way he thinks a story should be told. As a means of giving fiction the appearance of truth it is certainly not economical; but it works, and the cumulative effect is overwhelming. When Moll enumerates the pieces of cloth or silverware she has lifted from some shop, or when Moll takes stock of her wordly possessions, we have the same satisfied dwelling upon solid objects; the luxuries and necessities with which civilized man has surrounded himself, the things that can be bought and sold. In his imaginative writing Defoe is still very much the merchant, aware of quality and price, deeply interested in all the material evidence of civilization. His characters live in a world of silks, watches and periwigs.
With some writers the solid weight of this environment would be enough to crush all the life out of the characters; but moving about in this dense undergrowth of material facts are bright-eyed, lively men and women to whom Defoe has somehow imparted his own restless- energy and his own indomitable will to live.
Our interest never stops short with what Moll stole; we become interested in how the theft was carried out, how Moll felt while she was about her business, and ultimately in Moll herself. And all the time Defoe is asking for more than our interest: he wants our belief. He is at his old game of make-believe, and the illision is often complete. The author fades from our consciousness, and we are aware only of Moll, endlessly communicative, tirelessly repetitive, and completely self-absorbed. All this is as Defoe would have it to be. The pretence of actuality no doubt made these and other of Defoe's books sell more readily; but it may also have consoled him for having abandoned the truth of history and politics for the profounder but less obvious truth of imaginative literature.
For Moll Flanders, Defoe probably relied much less on his reading than on first-hand information. Whatever means he may have used, Defoe had arrived at a thorough knowledge of the underworld of London. In Moll, he has managed to make her words sound authentic. He had clearly thought a good deal about the mind of the criminal. It is clear that Defoe's idea of a fictitious narrative was that it should present either unusual people or abnormal situations. But when he pleases he is quite capable of giving us a glimpse of a normal middle-class family that anticipates later novelists like Samuel Richardson.
Moll Flanders, abandoned by gypsies, has been adopted by a family in Colchester, and has grown to be a handsome young woman. Defoe is not always given enough credit for his close observation of contemporary manners and his lively interest in human behaviour. The form of all his works of fiction is that of an autobiographical narrative told by the hero or heroine. Time passes, sometimes slowly, sometimes in disconcerting jerks. When Defoe skips episodes, we know that he feels he has exhausted the possibilities of one episode, and is now getting ready for a change of scene and some new characters. New characters, indeed, continually make their appearance, and the old ones, having served their fictional purpose by crossing the path of the hero, either die or just fade out.
It is true that Moll meets again with her Lancashire husband and the story is all the better for it; but Defoe's normal method of securing our attention is to develop an unusual and dramatic situation or open up a succession of lively adventures rather than construct a plot sufficiently integrated to arouse the anticipation of the reader, and generate that tension which develops when the lives of different characters cross and re-cross.
Defoe was a puritan, and he enjoyed the idea of one's sins coming home to roost. Defoe's moral sincerity in those tales of thieves and adventurers has often been called into question, and critics have suggested that his primary aim in writing them was to achieve the highest possible level of sensationr an` in consequence, a maximum sale for his books. The moral observations which fall from time to time from the lips of Moll were only, it is suggested, put in to give those stories an appearance of decency: the real thing is the thieving and whoring, the risks and the escapes and the spectacle of vice triumphant, of wickedness getting away with it.
But this is to take too simple a view of Defoe's mixed motives. It must be conceded that his title-pages offe. no evidence of the author's moral intentions. Moll Flanders' title-page was surely drawn up with only one idea in mind: to catch the eye of the idle apprentice as he loitered past the bookstall. It can be granted, too, that Defoe's moral interpolations are often perfunctory, and sometimes a little forced. Sometimes Moll talks plain, harsh good sense, and Defoe means every word of it. His autobiographical form forced him to put such observations in to the mouth of his chief character, where they do not always carry conviction; if he had been writing in his own person, and therefore making those comments on his own account, his moral sincerity would probably have been accepted more readily. His own attitude to his erring heroes is never a simple one, however, for he is at once moralist and artist. The best reason for believing that he is never indifferent to the moral obliquity of his characters is the extent to which their stories fasten on our minds.
If Defoe himself had not been so sharply aware of right and wrong, if he had not felt all the time he was writing Moll Flanders and that these women were breaking the moral law, that they were 'wild outcasts of society', whose way of life was chaotic and unprofitable-if, in fact, he had not himself been shocked by such goings on- he would never have succeeded in holding our attention as he does.
Defoe,an Englishman by birth, a tradesman by choice and a writer almost by force of circumstances, had shown this presence of mind often enough in his troubled career, and a courage that matched his capacity for getting into trouble. He had the courage of the active man, the 'count your blessings' philosophy, and the patient fortitude of the tradesman. But this tradesman was a man of genius too, who was a dreamer, and who had dreams of fair women and gallant, gay highwaymen, of pirates, and of little children running away from gypsies, of banishment to foreign countries far away from his beloved London, his England.