- Defoe and the Whig Novel: A Reading of the Major Fiction by Leon Guilhamet, and: Defoe’s Footprints: Essays in Honour of Maximillian E. Novak ed. by Robert M. Maniquis and Carl Fisher
Politics has always mattered in Defoe studies, and today it is more common than ever to modify interpretations of texts and assign significance for literary history through consideration of political positions. Mr. Guilhamet’s Defoe and the Whig Novel joins an absolute stampede to identify as many writers as possible as Whigs. Books with titles such as Poetry and the Creation of a Whig Literary Culture, 1681–1714 (Abigail Williams) and The Cultures of Whiggism (David Womersley, ed.) pile up around us, and Addison, Davys, Richard Blackmore, Charke, Dennis, Mary Hearne, Watts, Congreve, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Akenside, Lennox, and even a category of children’s literature are swept into the tent (most correctly). [End Page 235]
This labeling works as long as Whiggism refers to today’s use of the term for general characteristics and for the modern identification of the methods of Whig historians and propagators of a broad ideology. Allegedly, Whig writing rejected obeisance to landed aristocracy, monarchy, and the Church, even as it turned from “the oppositionalist tradition in English politics” to a discourse that focused on virtue and cultural rather than civic liberty. As Lawrence Klein wrote in Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness, “The product was a cultural politics that aimed . . . to present a characteristic feature of eighteenth-century culture as a partisan achievement.” Anyone who has worked closely with political parties and alliances in the first third of the eighteenth century, however, knows how complex, divided, and evolving Whigs were. For most of the early period, the concept of party was disputed, and critics or historians traveling through the century suddenly find themselves in a swamp peopled by “old Whigs,” “new Whigs,” “opposition Whigs,” “Rockingham Whigs,” and more. In fact, the same dangers we recognize in using “The Puritans” or “The Victorians” seem inherent in the contemporary use of “Whiggism.” Just living outside London, valuing almost any kind of liberty, celebrating international trade and empire, or setting poems and fictions largely in the countryside (or gardens with vague locations) can get a writer classified as Whig.
Perhaps because Mr. Guilhamet is working on Defoe, unlike most of the authors of these studies, he carefully illustrates what the concept of Whiggism means to him. He is in line with current thinking in seeing “Whiggism as a culture, and only secondarily as a political force,” but he recognizes the term never lost its political associations. By pushing the concept of Whig culture back to Defoe’s novels and slightly earlier by looking at social, economic, religious, and political domains and moving to pick them out in the later work of Hume, he is contributing to our understanding of the triumph of the politeness movement. His first chapter carefully explains Whig values beginning with liberty, property, and trade, but continues refreshingly into “Education, Feminism, and Marriage” and “Repentance,” which he links to Grotius, John Bellers, and Locke and illustrates with plays by Rowe. His assertion that “The Whig Myth of Success meant acceptance of economic prosperity and religious redemption as important personal and national goals” certainly captures Defoe’s core aspirations. Crusoe’s repetition of “Improvement” in Robinson Crusoe, almost always meaning both personal and national, captures his striving and illustrates Mr. Guilhamet’s argument.
In this carefully organized and argued book, Mr. Guilhamet devotes his second chapter to finding the principles identified in chapter one in Defoe’s “attitudes” expressed in his nonfiction work. This chapter is a bit too compressed. Major works such as Jure Divino and The Original Power of the Collective Body of the People of England do not get their due, and, because of its brevity, quotations give us the Defoe that has consistently provoked ridicule: “Then no damn’d...