That all Defoe's novels, with the exception of "Robinson Crusoe," should have been covered with the dust of neglect for many generations, is a plain proof of how much fashions in taste affect the popularity of the British classics. It is true that three generations or so ago, Defoe's works were edited by both Sir Walter Scott and Hazlitt, and that this masterly piece of realism, "Captain Singleton," was reprinted a few years back in "The Camelot Classics," but it is safe to say that out of every thousand readers of "Robinson Crusoe" only one or two will have even heard of the "Memoirs of a Cavalier," "Colonel Jack," "Moll Flanders," or "Captain Singleton." It is indeed distressing to think that while many scores of thousands of copies of Lord Lytton's flashy romance, "Paul Clifford," have been devoured by the public, "Captain Singleton" has remained unread and almost forgotten. But the explanation is simple. Defoe's plain and homely realism soon grew to be thought vulgar by people who themselves aspired to be refined and genteel. The rapid spread of popular education, in the middle of last century, was responsible for a great many aberrations of taste, and the works of the two most English of Englishmen, Defoe and Hogarth, were judged to be hardly fitting for polite society, as we may see from Lamb's Essay on Hogarth, and from an early edition of Chambers's "Cyclopaedia of English Literature" (1843), where we are told: "Nor is it needful to show how elegant and reflective literature, especially, tends to moralise, to soften, and to adorn the soul and life of man." "Unfortunately the taste or circumstances of Defoe led him mostly into low life, and his characters are such as we cannot sympathise with. The whole arcana of roguery and villany seems to have been open to him…. It might be thought that the good taste which led Defoe to write in a style of such pure and unpretending English, instead of the inflated manner of vulgar writers, would have dictated a more careful selection of his subjects, and kept him from wandering so frequently into the low and disgusting purlieus of vice. But this moral and tasteful discrimination seems to have been wholly wanting," &c. The 'forties were the days when critics still talked learnedly of the "noble style," &c., "the vulgar," of "sinking" or "rising" with "the subject," the days when Books of Beauty were in fashion, and Rembrandt's choice of beggars, wrinkled faces and grey hairs, for his favourite subjects seemed a low and reprehensible taste in "high art." Though critics to-day still ingenuously confound an artist's subject with his treatment of it, and prefer scenes of life to be idealised rather than realised by writers, we have advanced a little since the days of the poet Montgomery, and it would be difficult now to find anybody writing so confidently—"Unfortunately the taste or circumstances of Defoe led him mostly into low life," however much the critic might believe it. But let us glance at a few passages in "Captain Singleton," which may show us why Defoe excels as a realist, and why his descriptions of "low life" are artistically as perfect as any descriptions of "higher life" in the works of the English novelists. Take the following description of kidnapping:—
"The woman pretending to take me up in her arms and kiss me, and play with me, draws the girl a good way from the house, till at last she makes a fine story to the girl, and bids her go back to the maid, and tell her where she was with the child; that a gentlewoman had taken a fancy to the child and was kissing it, but she should not be frightened, or to that purpose; for they were but just there; and so while the girl went, she carried me quite away.—Page 2.
Now here, in a single sentence, Defoe catches for us the whole soul and character of the situation. It seems very simple, but it sums up marvellously an exact observation and knowledge of the arts of the gipsy child-stealer, of her cunning flattery and brassy boldness, and we can see the simple little girl running back to the house to tell the nurse that a fine lady was kissing the child, and had told her to tell where they were and she should not be frightened, &c.; and this picture again calls up the hue and cry after the kidnappers and the fruitless hopes of the parents. In a word, Defoe has condensed in the eight simple lines of his little scene all that is essential to its living truth; and let the young writer note that it is ever the sign of the master to do in three words, or with three strokes, what the ordinary artist does in thirty. Defoe's imagination is so extraordinarily comprehensive in picking out just those little matter-of-fact details that suggest all the other aspects, and that emphasise the character of the scene or situation, that he makes us believe in the actuality of whatever he is describing. So real, so living in every detail is this apocryphal narrative, in "Captain Singleton," of the crossing of Africa by a body of marooned sailors from the coast of Mozambique to the Gold Coast, that one would firmly believe Defoe was committing to writing the verbal narrative of some adventurer in the flesh, if it were not for certain passages—such as the description of the impossible desert on page 90, which proves that Defoe was piecing together his description of an imaginary journey from the geographical records and travellers' tales of his contemporaries, aided perhaps by the confused yarns of some sailor friends. How substantially truthful in spirit and in detail is Defoe's account of Madagascar is proved by the narrative of Robert Drury's "Captivity in Madagascar," published in 1729. The natives themselves, as described intimately by Drury, who lived amongst them for many years, would produce just such an effect as Defoe describes on rough sailors in their perilous position. The method by which Defoe compels us to accept improbabilities, and lulls our critical sense asleep, is well shown in the following passages:—
"Thieving, lying, swearing, forswearing, joined to the most abominable lewdness, was the stated practice of the ship's crew; adding to it, that with the most unsufferable boasts of their own courage, they were, generally speaking, the most complete cowards that I ever met with."—Page 7.
"All the seamen in a body came up to the rail of the quarter-deck, where the captain was walking with some of his officers, and appointing the boatswain to speak for them, he went up, and falling on his knees to the captain, begged of him in the humblest manner possible, to receive the four men on board again, offering to answer for their fidelity, or to have them kept in chains, till they came to Lisbon, and there to be delivered up to justice, rather than, as they said, to have them left, to be murdered by savages, or devoured by wild beasts. It was a great while ere the captain took any notice of them, but when he did, he ordered the boatswain to be seized, and threatened to bring him to the capstan for speaking for them…. Upon this severity, one of the seamen, bolder than the rest, but still with all possible respect to the captain, besought his honour, as he called him, that he would give leave to some more of them to go on shore, and die with their companions, or, if possible, to assist them to resist the barbarians."—Page 18.
Now the first passage we have quoted about the cowardice, &c., of the Portuguese crew is not in keeping with the second passage, which shows the men as "wishing to die with their companions"; but so actual is the scene of the seamen "in a body coming up to the rail of the quarter-deck," that we cannot but believe the thing happened so, just as we believe in all the thousand little details of the imaginary narrative of "Robinson Crusoe." This feat of the imagination Defoe strengthens in the most artful manner, by putting in the mouths of his characters various reflections to substantiate the narrative. For example, in the description, on page 263, of the savages who lined the perilous channel in a half-moon, where the European ship lay, we find the afterthoughts are added so naturally, that they would carry conviction to any judge or jury:—
"They little thought what service they had done us, and how unwittingly, and by the greatest ignorance, they had made themselves pilots to us, while we, having not sounded the place, might have been lost before we were aware. It is true we might have sounded our new harbour, before we had ventured out; but I cannot say for certain, whether we should or not; for I, for my part, had not the least suspicion of what our real case was; however, I say, perhaps, before we had weighed, we should have looked about us a little."
Turning to the other literary qualities that make Defoe's novels great, if little read, classics, how delightful are the little satiric touches that add grave weight to the story. Consider the following: "My good gipsy mother, for some of her worthy actions, no doubt, happened in process of time to be hanged, and as this fell out something too soon for me to be perfected in the strolling trade," &c.(p. 3). Every other word here is dryly satiric, and the large free callousness and careless brutality of Defoe's days with regard to the life of criminals is conveyed in half a sentence. And what an amount of shrewd observation is summed up in this one saying: "Upon these foundations, William said he was satisfied we might trust them; for, says William, I would as soon trust a man whose interest binds him to be just to me, as a man whose principle binds himself" (p. 227). Extremely subtle is also this remark: "Why, says I, did you ever know a pirate repent? At this he started a little and returned, At the gallows I have known one repent, and Ihope thou wilt be the second." The character of William the Quaker pirate is a masterpiece of shrewd humour. He is the first Quaker brought into English fiction, and we know of no other Friend in latter-day fiction to equal him. Defoe in his inimitable manner has defined surely and deftly the peculiar characteristics of the sect in this portrait. On three separate occasions we find William saving unfortunate natives or defenceless prisoners from the cruel and wicked barbarity of the sailors. At page 183, for example, the reader will find a most penetrating analysis of the dense stupidity which so often accompanies man's love of bloodshed. The sketch of the second lieutenant, who was for "murdering the negroes to make them tell," when he could not make them even understand what he wanted, is worthy of Tolstoy. We have not space here to dwell upon the scores of passages of similar deep insight which make "Captain Singleton" a most true and vivid commentary on the life of Defoe's times, but we may call special attention to the passage on page 189 which describe the sale of the negroes to the planters; to the description of the awakening of the conscience of Captain Singleton through terror at the fire-cloud (page 222); and to the extraordinarily picturesque conversation between William and the captive Dutchman (page 264). Finally, if the reader wishes to taste Defoe's flavour in its perfection let him examine carefully those passages in the concluding twenty pages of the book, wherein Captain Singleton is shown as awakening to the wickedness of his past life, and the admirable dry reasoning of William by which the Quaker prevents him from committing suicide and persuades him to keep his ill-gotten wealth, "with a resolution to do what right with it we are able; and who knows what opportunity Providence may put into our hands…. As it is without doubt, our present business is to go to some place of safety, where we may wait His will." How admirable is the passage about William's sister, the widow with four children who kept a little shop in the Minories, and that in which the penitent ex-pirates are shown us as hesitating in Venice for two years before they durst venture to England for fear of the gallows.
"Captain Singleton" was published in 1720, a year after "Robinson Crusoe," when Defoe was fifty-nine. Twenty years before had seen "The True-Born Englishman" and "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters"; and we are told that from "June 1687 to almost the very week of his death in 1731 a stream of controversial books and pamphlets poured from his pen commenting upon and marking every important passing event." The fecundity of Defoe as a journalist alone surpasses that of any great journalist we can name, William Cobbett not excepted, and we may add that the style of "Captain Singleton," like that of "Robinson Crusoe," is so perfect that there is not a single ineffective passage, or indeed a weak sentence, to be found in the book.