Monthly Archives: January 2013

Defoe at the 2013 BSECS annual meeting

The theme for the 42nd annual meeting of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies was ‘Credit, Money, and the Market’. Defoe, I thought, is going to be big at this conference.

Sadly, I had to miss Robert D. Hume’s  keynote lecture: from what I heard from others and from talking with Robert later, Defoe’s novels featured quite significantly. To an extent, I’d got the gist of this particular argument a couple of years ago from one of his postgraduate students at Penn State, David W. Spielman (those who attended the Defoe Society’s inaugural conference in Tulsa 2009 may remember David’s paper). Essentially, in calculating modern monetary equivalents, we’ve all being grossly underestimating the multiplier.[1] For Defoe’s novels such as Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana – in which the protagonists practically drool over their lists of wealth and goods – this is very important. Take Roxana’s estimate of her own and her Dutch husband’s final combined wealth: £100,000. Given that only 200 families in England, or 0.01% of the population, had more than £6,000 this astonishing figure places them at the very top of the English rich list. The modern equivalent, according to Hume and Spielman’s calculation, is between £20 – £30 million. As they have argued, such a remarkable figure asks us to seriously reconsider these novels’ supposed realism. More importantly I think, is the element of fantasy: this is wealth porn (and I always thank David Fairer for pointing out to me some time ago that Defoe’s lists of money and goods seem almost erotically charged).

Immediately following that was my own paper, ‘Swallows and Hounds: Defoe’s Thinking Animals’, so I can’t really report on that other than to say that you can get a partial sense of it by reading on this blog an earlier post entitled ‘Our Summer Friends the Swallows’.

On the Friday I chaired the Defoe Society-sponsored panel entitled ‘Defoe, speculation, and moral hazards’. Frauke Jung (Worcester) spoke on ‘Speculation, News, and Nation: Defoe’s Anatomy of Exchange Alley (1719). Jung’s close reading of Defoe’s pamphlet sought to underline the inextricability of those three terms. The images of what she called ‘malignant growth [and] uncontrolled speculation’ clearly relates to the pamphlet’s state-of-the-nation style. But Jung also emphasised the notion of speculation as bound to news and finance –‘analogous systems’ – as revealed in Defoe’s image of a doorway exchange of furtive stock-price gossip in the alley. Indeed, Jung’s discussion of Defoe’s minute topography of Exchange Alley, “the whole Stock-jobbing Globe” as he puts it, reveals his clever analysis of an ecology of speculative contagion undermining a more natural body-politic.

Jeanne Clegg (University of Venice), in her paper, ‘The market in stolen goods in Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack and Jonathan Wild,’ discussed Defoe’s analysis of the methods by which stolen goods are converted into ‘hard cash’. In Moll Flanders, our heroine has a ‘privileged’ relationship with her own fence – Moll’s old governess turned pawnbroker in the sense that Moll receives preferential rates and benefits from her fence’s very smoothly organized network. In Colonel Jack, Defoe reverses this picture by representing the gang’s receivers as corrupt and untrustworthy. Clegg then looked to Jonathan Wild, arguing that in this novel we see a picture of a receiver who is organized, professional and who has well developed systems, networks and markets. Intriguingly, Clegg measured this against evidence from Old Bailey Online, tracking criminals arrested for receiving and /or theft. Clegg notes that out of 18 trials (in the period of the early eighteenth century) only one criminal had a regular fence: the rest relied on a opportunistic method of choosing receivers which even included genuine pawnbrokers and shopkeepers (which goes far in explaining their lack of success!) Clegg’s argument was that Defoe emphasized the professional and systemized networks of fencing, rather than these haphazard practices, and so contributed to the myth of the organized criminal underground. However, her reliance on the evidence of Jonathan Wild – a work whose attribution to Defoe is now under question – potentially problematizes this as a reflection of Defoe’s particular vision.

The final paper of the panel, by Chris Borsing (Trinity College, Dublin), intriguingly paralleled Captain Singleton’s narrative contract with the reader with its narrative of economic transformation, in his paper ‘Daniel Defoe Names the Price; or, Captain Singleton (1720) Bargains with its Customers’. He wittily argued that this novel offers readers ‘voyeuristic pleasures’ of ‘money regeneration and spiritual laundering’. Bob Singleton and Williams Walters’ transformation from plundering pirates to wealthy citizens at the end of the novel is accompanied by and dependent upon a contract with the reader and their ‘willing collusion’ in their secrecy within British society. Moreover, Borsing’s summary – ‘buyer beware!’ – seemed to suggest that such a contract actually reveals more than it conceals: economic and narrative laundering are inextricable in this novel.

One paper that I was glad to have heard was during a panel organised by Sacha Klement (Exeter) entitled ‘Transgressive Enlightenment?’ After two excellent papers on the desert caravan route, Majid Alavi (Islamic Azad University of Tabriz) in his paper, ‘Similar Landscapes, Different Minds’, revisited the relationship between Robinson Crusoe and Ibn Tofayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzãn, the philosophical fiction written in twelfth-century Islamic Spain and regarded by some as one of the influences upon Defoe’s novel. Tofayl’s narrative was translated into English in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (an edition of Hayy Ibn Yaqzãn appeared in 1713). Surprisingly, it was the third most translated text after the Koran and Arabian Nights, and Locke, Spinoza and Leibnitz pressed for the propagation of Hayy Ibn Yaqzãn. Asking whether Defoe was following Tofayl or whether they were both addressing ‘global archetypes’, Alavi at first underlines the resemblance that despite isolation both Crusoe and Hayy evolved systems of philosophy and experienced spiritual enlightenment. However, Alavi convincingly argued that, by contrast, Hayy’s isolation ‘taught him endless tolerance’ and that Hayy returns to island to avoid the corruption of society and in order to better ‘serve god’. Clearly this is a very different outcome to the first two parts of Robinson Crusoe, although I wondered whether a consideration of the third part of the trilogy, The Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, might have added to this interesting discussion.

Due to an almost inevitable clash between panels, I was unable to see Nicholas Seager’s paper ‘“She will not be the Tyrant they desire”: Defoe on Queen Anne’, but I did catch the final two papers of the conference devoted to Defoe which were part of a panel chaired by Nick: ‘Defoe, Credit and Economic Imperialism’. Michael Genovese (University of Kentucky) presented us, in ‘Bankruptcy and Plague: Credit and Contagion in Defoe’, with the powerful proposition that Defoe’s economic theory suggested a ‘proto-sentimental’ alignment of ‘sympathy and commerce’. A 1707 Review piece established a distinction between the ‘knavish debtor’ and the sentimental victims of misfortune pictured as the ‘sons and daughters of sorrow.’ But strikingly, Defoe also included creditors as objects of sympathy; bound in a contagious chain of mutual ‘entanglement’, one ruin leads to another. Defoe, Genovese argues, suggests that it is only at such times that ‘society’ is revealed: ‘social integration’ paradoxically relies upon the feeling that financial ruin ‘lies just around the corner for everyone.’ In the second paper of the panel Captain Singleton once again came in for attention. Tsai-ching Yeh’s argument (Huafan University), in  ‘Piracy and Trade in Defoe’s Captain Singleton’, brought out tensions within the novel, especially those concerning value and the mobility of property. The novel, for instance, contrasts African ignorance of exchange value with the pirate’s manipulation of that ignorance. This scenario parallels the contrast between Bob Singleton’s unusual ‘apathy about wealth management’ and the narrative arc of the conversion of Bob’s pirate wealth into clean money – in other words, the realization of the value of their property.

It might be expected that Defoe would play a big part in these proceedings, given his substantial number of writings that deal with precisely the conference themes, and that the period in which Defoe was writing featured the rise of a British credit-based economy and the most crippling stock market crash of the century. Yet I was surprised that Defoe’s huge corpus of economic works did not receive more attention in their own right. Clearly, Defoe’s novels still exert a powerful pull on the direction of eighteenth-century studies at both doctoral level and at professional level. Together however, for me these papers evidenced Defoe’s considerable pleasure in economic processes, despite – or even because – they were criminal or immoral. Intriguingly, that pleasure can be felt in the anatomy of such systems as well as in his writings’ investment (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the magical alchemy of speculation, exchange and transformation.


[1] See Robert D. Hume, ‘The Economics of Culture in London, 1660-1740’, Huntingdon Library Quarterly, 69 (2006), 487-533.

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The Digital Miscellanies Index at BSECS2013

I’ve been following the work by the team on the Digital Miscellanies Index (hereafter DMI for short) for the last year and a half, but at this year’s annual meeting of BSECS I had the chance to attend a panel given by the team on some of their latest findings and also to test an early version of the database.

The roundtable panel ‘Compiling the Canon: what can poetic miscellanies tell us? New findings from the Digital Miscellanies Index’ comprised Jennifer Batt, Rosamund Powell, Adam Bridgen and Mark Burden. Jenny Batt – the project’s coordinator – announced the startling fact that the DMI has indexed approximately 1,400 miscellanies from the period. Her own piece exemplified how one would use the DMI by focusing upon Mary Leapor’s poems in various miscellanies; mapping their chronological spread, the source of the poems, and their destination. For example, the biggest number of her poems in the miscellanies were from her first volume of poetry, Poem on Various Occasions (1748). However, her poems also appeared anonymously in some miscellanies, so the DMI also challenges the traditional authorship-centric notions of poetic dissemination, or what Jenny called ‘authorial branding’. Ros Powell’s piece on the mentions of Horace’s Art of Poetry in miscellanies revealed the flexibility of the DMI: she was able to separate mere mentions of or quotations from Horace, translations of Horace, and imitations – whether attributed or unattributed. She was also able to break these varying uses of Horace down into percentages (some nice pie charts too, which I never thought I’d find myself saying in a literary context!). Adam Bridgen fascinatingly concentrated on a surprising and little-studied genre of poem to be found in the miscellanies – the last will and testament. Adam pointed that that the well-known literary genre of the ‘mock testament’ afforded much satiric potential, especially when wielded by Pope and Swift, but what he found in the miscellanies were frequently real wills and testaments rendered in poetic form. The disjunction between form and function in such poems did not necessarily undermine their moral or functional role. However, Adam could not help pointing out that this could go awry and create unintended comic consequences. The final piece by Mark Burden concerned the reconstruction of the reading of dissenting academies and looked to the DMI to be able to aid such research by asking what poetry was being read in the academies. Since I’m a big Defoe fan, I’m going to watch that for what might be revealed in Defoe’s old academy, run by Charles Morton.

The subsequent discussion really brought home the possibilities of the DMI when it is launched, since from these papers it looks like it can enable both close readings and identify larger literary-cultural patterns. Moreover, the DMI has a striking potential for shifting our notions of what was popular, how authors disseminated their work, and even how we conceive reading practices in the period. With that in mind, I was looking forward to the opportunity to play with the early test version of the DMI search interface. All I can say is that – even in this early and not fully integrated version – it was a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to the final version when it is launched.

The DMI blog can be followed here.

This review can now also be found on the BSECS online reviews page.