Happy birthday Robinson Crusoe: the fictional author of a “History of Fact”

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Daniel Defoe’s book was published 295 years ago today [25 April], marking the birth of the author Robinson Crusoe and a seriously playful entanglement of fact and fiction.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Frontispiece and title page from original 1719 edition

I hope plans are afoot to celebrate the tercentenary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 2019. With five years to go, however, 2014 also seems an apt time to take a look at this famous book, not least because this year is a celebration of all things Georgian: marking the accession of George I, we have the BBC’s Georgian Season, and exhibitions at the British Library and Queen’s Gallery. Signed just before George’s arrival, was the 1714 Longitude Act, the tercentenary of which is being marked with a Longitude Season at Royal Museums Greenwich.

Robinson Crusoe sits perfectly in the midst of this, highlighting new literary forms available to a growing reading public, and the interest in travel and the exotic at a time of expansion of maritime trade and empire.

While the book is seen today as an important precursor to the novel, as part of a new genre of realistic fiction, it was designed, at least in part, to confuse and to question. Robinson Crusoe was its purported author, not its title. The actual title of the first edition placed the book squarely in the realm of genuine (if sometimes embellished) travel narratives:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself.

Full of geographical detail, with the “author” clearly identified, there was nothing to distinguish this as fiction. The picturesque image on the frontispiece pointed to the remarkable experiences to be related, but would have reminded readers of images of peoples from other parts of the world, shown as “other” but rendered strangely familiar by European artists, used to depicting European faces, landscapes and dress.

Defoe’s title is worth comparing to those of other travel and adventure narratives. For example, that published in 1681, by a real sea captain: Robert Knox of the East India Company. Alongside the experiences ofAlexander Selkirk, who spent four years on an uninhabited island until being rescued in 1709, Knox’s adventures and narrative have been seen as one of Defoe’s inspirations:

An Historical Relation Of the Island Ceylon, in the East-Indies: Together, With an Account of the Detaining in Captivity the Author and divers other Englishmen now Living there, and of the Author’s Miraculous Escape. Illustrated with Figures, and a Map of the Island. By Robert Knox, Captive there near Twenty Years.

Knox’s book had been published by Richard Chiswell, identified on the title page as “Printer to the Royal Society”. As was typical of that Society’s tactics for underscoring the trustworthiness of new knowledge, emphasis was placed on the status of the author, the importance of eye-witness accounts and personal observation, told in plain writing and, as a bonus, supported by a map and illustrations.

Knox’s “Truth”, “Integrity” and “Credit” were attested to in statements from the very credit-worthy Christopher Wren and the Governor, Deputy-Governor and 24 named members of the Court of Committees of theEast India Company, who included a fair sprinkling of baronets and knights. A preface by Robert Hooke lauded Knox’s efforts, not least for doing what the Royal Society repeatedly asked of travellers by sharing potentially useful observations and experience of foreign lands with the public.

Defoe naturally also made use of such devices, playing with his readers’ understanding of truth and credibility in a way that alarmed some but was so popular with the public that the book went through several editions in its first year. In a preface the book’s “editor” commended it to the public as “a just History of Fact”, noting that “The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to which Wise Men always apply them”.

Rather than as simply a novel, then, Robinson Crusoe should also be read as a hoax or, perhaps more accurately, as a satire on travel narratives and other texts attempting to present reliable knowledge. Whether readers took his fiction as truth, or they doubted it effects, it raised questions about the acceptance of the words put down, however plain the language, by other travellers, experimenters and observers. This uncertainty was, as much as the adventure and exoticism, part of the book’s appeal.

Crusoe is our perfect guide to this year of Georgian exploration.

Science fictions and the history of science

Cross-posted from Science Comma blog.

For those who are fans of sci-fi, or interested in how sci-fi plays into the history of science, there are some things you might want to take a look at.

Firstly, this Friday there is a free lunchtime lecture at the Royal Society on “The Royal Society and science fiction”, being given by Professor Farah Mendlesohn, who is head of department for English, Communication, Film and Media at Anglia Ruskin University. The blurb reads:

The lone (mad) scientist is a common trope in science fiction, but hidden away is a fascination with secret and semi-secret societies who work for the future of all mankind. This talk will look at the representation of the Royal Society in science fiction and fantasy as fact, fantasy and metaphor.

For those who can’t make it to London, the talk should be available, like the Society’s other events, as a video afterwards.

Secondly, yesterday saw the republication of the 1870-71 short story, The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. It is being published by Jurassic London, along with a new story, Another Brick in the Moon, by Adam Roberts. Details of the publication are available here, and also from this post by Richard Dunn, Senior Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, who co-wrote the introduction with Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Cover of the newly published edition of The Brick Moon
Cover of the newly published edition of The Brick Moon

The original story is about an artificial satellite, the Royal Observatory, the Greenwich Meridian and possible solutions to the problem of finding longitude at sea. It is a perfect accompaniment to the Longitude Season, just getting underway in Greenwich.Secondly, yesterday saw the republication of the 1870-71 short story, The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. It is being published by Jurassic London, along with a new story, Another Brick in the Moon, by Adam Roberts. Details of the publication are available here, and also from this post by Richard Dunn, Senior Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, who co-wrote the introduction with Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Finally, as well as a major exhibition on the longitude story (opening in July), this season also includes an art and fiction response. Already open at the Royal Observatory is Longitude Punk’d, an intervention in, or takeover of, the pre-existing longitude galleries. Author Robert Rankin and other artists and makers have come up with a whole range of more or less ludicrous or plausible ideas about solving longitude or alternative realities in which clock maker John Arnold made himself clockwork legs and Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne built an airship and hoped to contact parallel universes – just in case they knew his longitude. Read more from the curator here.