When the formidable Leslie Stephen dismissed Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as "a book for boys rather than men" (56), he was not far off the mark. By the time Stephen penned his disparaging comments in 1868, Robinson Crusoe had inspired numerous progeny earmarked for the young. Following the 1814 English translation of J.D.R. Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson, among the most famous of the so-called Robinsonades that explore and adapt the premise of Defoe's novel, Robinsonades commanded an eager juvenile readership ready to devour the latest fiction about castaways, no matter how didactic or improbable the tale. In the nineteenth century, Robinson Crusoe itself became a prized nursery book, favored by children for its detail and adventure, by parents for its religious sentiment and work ethic. Indeed, Stephen's unfavorable assessment of Crusoe is anomalous. The popular nineteenth-century reading of Robinson Crusoe celebrates the tales of redemption and of hard work rewarded. Crusoe heroically combats madness and despair, builds himself a veritable empire on his island, transforms Friday into a loyal manservant, defends against heathen savages (native and European), and ends up with a fortune—all in all a favored son of God, an exemplary man. The words of the minor Victorian novelist, George Borrow, typify nineteenth-century admiration, as he reaches a pitch of Crusoe idolatry in Lavengro (1851): Robinson Crusoe "was a book which has exerted over the minds of Englishmen an influence certainly greater than any other of modern times . . . a book from which the most luxuriant and fertile of our modern prose writers have drunk inspiration; a book, moreover, to which from the hardy deeds which it narrates, and the spirit of strange and romantic enterprise which it tends to awaken, England owes many of her astonishing discoveries both by sea and by land, and no inconsiderable part of her naval glory" (19-20).
Reviewers like Borrow omit mention of Crusoe's introspection, his inner torment and fear; instead, Crusoe, whose proportions and reputation grow increasingly sentimental, shrilly patriotic in nineteenth-century reviews, comes to signify Empire, the outer world of action, power, and expansion. His ability to subdue, to husband intractable nature into compliance; his reacceptance of both heavenly and earthly favors; his own metamorphosis into a patriarchal father of sorts prove invaluable archetypal matter to nineteenth-century writers and readers alike. Moreover, reviewers, whether praising or condemning Crusoe's vogue, agree on one thing: his tale is peculiarly suited to a boy's taste. It is significant that Stephen specifically relegates Robinson Crusoe to the hands of boys—for its textual mixture of adventure and enterprise, of survival and subjugation, as Mary F. Thwaite asserts, "marks the true beginning of the adventure story for young people" (157).
The transmutation of Robinson Crusoe by nineteenth-century readers into an imperialist fantasy explains its power over adventure fiction written for boys. Adventure, though read by girls, evolved into a distinctly masculine story type. By mid-century, as Patrick Brantlinger has suggested, "much imperialist discourse was . . . directed at a specifically adolescent audience, the future rulers of the world. In the works of Haggard, Captain Frederick Marryat, Mayne Reid, G.A. Henty, W.H.G. Kingston, Gordon Stables, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many others through Rudyard Kipling, Britain turned youthful as it turned outward" (190).1 As Robinson Crusoe became codified by its Victorian audience, so, too, did its offspring, adventure books. Crusoe's boys'-book imitators simplify its interplay of romance and realism in order to articulate a myth of cultural superiority. They recast their Crusoes into quintessential empire builders, create islands that signify a hierarchy of culture and race, and ultimately mirror a conquering people's mythology. The Robinsonade also suited the immediate professional aims of boys'-book writers, who sought to enlighten as well as entertain their young audience, to educate as well as exhilarate. Boys'-book writers, constrained by market forces, closely monitored by the champions of virtue, and saddled in an adventure formula, found in the Robinsonade the perfect sugared pill. Indeed, once writers for children seized upon the Robinsonade, writers of adult fiction left the genre well enough alone.
By the time the century's...