- Imagining the Nation in Defoe’s A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain
Admiring the “Gentlemen’s Houses” along the banks of the Thames from Richmond to London in his 1724–26 Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, Daniel Defoe admits that “many Descriptions have been accurately given” of their “separate, and distinct Beauties.” He continues:
But I find none has spoken of what I call the distant Glory of all these Buildings: There is a Beauty in these Things at a distance, taking them en Passant, and in Perspective, which few People value, and fewer [End Page 295] understand; and yet here they are more truly great, than in all their private Beauties whatsoever; Here they reflect Beauty, and Magnificence upon the whole Country, and give a kind of Character to the Island of Great Britain in general. . . . Take them in a remote view, the fine Seats shine among the Trees as Jewels shine in a rich Coronet; in a near sight they are meer Pictures and Paintings; at a distance they are all Nature, near hand all Art; But both in the extreamest Beauty. 1
Although this passage has often been noted by commentators on the Tour, little attention has been paid to the prominent role of its narrator, busily constructing and then interpreting the landscape he claims merely to see. The narrator, whom I will call Defoe, claims a unique vision, the capacity to see the cumulative and metonymic significance of what other writers have only catalogued piecemeal. The meaning of the scene, according to Defoe, is fully appreciated only when it is recognized that these houses are not the centerpieces of ancient estates, but rather “Gentlemen’s meer Summer-Houses, or Citizen’s Country-Houses; whither they retire from the hurries of Business, and from getting Money” (1:169). “All this Variety, this Beauty, this glorious Show of Wealth and Plenty” (1:169), rightly viewed, reveals the character of “the Island of Great Britain in general”: joined together, the private artifices of landless citizens form the public, naturalized landscape of the nation.
Defoe’s offer to the reader of what “none has spoken of,” like his claim to detect in the landscape what “few People value, and fewer [End Page 295a] understand,” is elaborated throughout the Tour. Rightly viewed—that is, as only he has viewed it—the nation provides the ideal literary subject, producing in “every subsequent Year . . . new Materials, and a Variety both profitable and delightful” (2:536). Beginning with his first preface, he repeatedly exploits the fact that a progressive portrait of Britain builds in the need for constant revision and enlargement:
No Description of Great Britain can be what we call a finished Account, as no Cloaths can be made to fit a growing Child; no Picture carry the Likeness of a living Face; the Size of one, and the Countenance of the other always altering with Time. . . .
Even while the Sheets are in the Press, new Beauties appear in several Places, and almost to every Part we are oblig’d to add Appendixes, and Supplemental Accounts of fine Houses, new Undertakings, Buildings, etc.(1:4)
In other words, this vision of the nation as an organic, temporally defined being creates a readership dependent upon an up-to-date image. The plan appears to be that in reading regularly revised editions of the Tour, the reader will reassert membership in a national community, while a uniform image of that community will be reinforced.
Despite Defoe’s claim that he is sketching for English readers the hitherto-unknown character of Great Britain, historians of British nationalism who look to the eighteenth century at all have tended to locate the first signs of nationalist vision in the mid-century georgic poets, in disgruntled post-Augustan intellectuals, or in the later primitivists. 2 Yet the Tour is surely significant in light of Benedict Anderson’s emphasis on the role of journalistic print culture in the rise of nationalistic discourse. Anderson argues that in exploiting a notion of a simultaneous present moment, shared by each reader with all others, serial publications create a “community in anonymity.” 3 Such a...