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Reviewed by:
  • Defoe: Writer as Agent, and: Defoe and the New Sciences, and: Finance and Fictionality in the Early Eighteenth Century: Accounting for Defoe, and: Robinson Crusoe: Myths and Metamorphoses
  • David Blewett
Katherine A. Armstrong. Defoe: Writer as Agent. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies Monograph Series, 1996. Pp. 156.
Ilse Vickers, Defoe and the New Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xvi + 196. $54.95
Sandra Sherman. Finance and Fictionality in the Early Eighteenth Century: Accounting for Defoe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xii + 222. $54.95.
Lieve Spaas and Brian Stimpson, eds. Robinson Crusoe: Myths and Metamorphoses. London: St Martin’s Press, 1996. Pp. xviii + 328.

Defoe stocks have been doing exceptionally well in a bullish market. Even the decision by a leading firm of discount brokers to unload nearly 50 percent of their Defoe shares has done nothing to dampen enthusiasm. Three new accounts under review here are demonstrations of this impressive market vitality, while a fourth, the transactions of a conference held in 1993, examines the runaway success story of a single product of a prolific industry giant.

The three studies of Defoe’s writings are all strongly historical, albeit in quite different ways. By “Writer as Agent,” Katherine Armstrong refers to Defoe’s role as both a political agent (that is, spy) and, through his writing, a “practical agent of historical change” (27). Rejecting the widely accepted perception of Defoe as “protean,” a view enshrined in John Robert Moore’s biography and bibliography, she argues that “there are no rational grounds for continuing to foster the image of Defoe as a counterfeiting upstart who repeatedly changed sides with an eye to the main chance.” Rather, his political beliefs were consistent, even if the expression of them “was sometimes deliberately equivocal” (14). It is probably the case that Defoe’s deviousness, even though he had that reputation in his own day, has been exaggerated, and that a reading of his novels and other writings from a political standpoint might produce interesting results. Unfortunately, in her introduction Armstrong manages to tie her argument in knots, arguing both that Defoe’s “political beliefs were coherent in themselves” (14) and that they possessed “fundamental contradictions and weaknesses” (27). By doing so, she needlessly hobbles her own argument.

The antiformalist premise that “all Defoe’s novels were shaped first and foremost by their political and historical circumstances” (90) drives her consideration of five novels, with predictably mixed results. Exposing the political ideology works best in the Memoirs of a Cavalier, where the Cavalier’s behavior in the Civil War and the Thirty Years’ War uncovers the [End Page 543] motives of the royalists and implicitly justifies the Revolutionary Settlement of 1688; it works somewhat less well in Captain Singleton, where the little world of the pirates may be read as a comment upon the larger world, particularly with regard to such political questions as absolutism, contractual government, and the control of property. It really does not work very well at all in Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, and Robinson Crusoe. The omission of Roxana, often seen these days as Defoe’s most intriguing novel, is unexplained, and its absence seriously qualifies the book’s thesis.

One of Defoe’s reasons for writing Moll Flanders may have been to warn his readers about rising crime, particularly in London, as Armstrong avers, but if so, Moll is scarcely “the Georgian equivalent of the ‘urban guerrilla’ who terrorises twentieth-century cities” (70). And in a commentary so much concerned with crime in the 1720s, it is strange to find no mention of John Beattie, a leading authority in this area. Consideration of Robinson Crusoe is put off to the final chapter, essentially because it does not fit her framework: “Defoe’s political interests . . . cannot account for” Robinson Crusoe; “it is irreducible to anything remotely like a tract or a treatise” (113). Nonetheless, Armstrong tries valiantly to wrench Crusoe into the picture: “Robinson Crusoe was intended first and foremost as an indirect rejoinder to the proposals of the South Sea Company for dealing with the national debt in 1719” (114). Or again, “Everything in Robinson Crusoe . . . derives from Defoe’s evangelical belief in...

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pp. 543-545
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