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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3 thoughts on “Defoe at the 2013 BSECS annual meeting

  1. First of all many many thanks to Stephen for chairing our BSECS panel and for going to such trouble over his very useful round-up of the conference.

    I would however like to clarify a couple of points about my own paper. The main argument was that Defoe foregrounds professionalism in writing about the marketing of stolen goods, and in this departs from the picture which emerges from the Old Bailey Proceedings and from a ‘realistic’ representation of the market in stolen goods in the early 18th century (a point which chimes with the questions posed by Robert D. Hume’s in his key note address). This argument does not depend on my reading of the True and Genuine Account of … Jonathan Wild, though I do stand by the attribution to Defoe of this most serious of the lives of Wild (as does Novak). All the receivers mentioned in both Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack are professionals and all habitually squeeze their thieves mercilessly. Moll receives better prices from her Governess than do “the rest of her customers” only because she is her favourite. Colonel Jack and his comrades receivers have no ‘good fence’ to turn to, but manage to circumvent their receivers (who are also cheats), by learning how to sell their booty back to the rightful owners; in effect they add professional retail skills to their acquisitive ones.

    Jonathan Wild, of course, was the top professional player of his time when it came to marketing stolen goods, and the True and Genuine Account analyses his “system” in what seems to me fascinated detail. But what I find most interesting is the passage on the ups and downs in the market for stolen goods, and the knock-on effects of this on the “thieving trade”: this early contribution to a historical economics of crime is worth investigating further (certainly in relation to Mandeville). I would be glad to hear from anyone working on these lines.

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  2. I’m glad you enjoyed the panel and this round-up, Jeanne. Thanks also for your comments. Taking notes and summarising papers is always tricky, and nuances often get missed, so I’m grateful that you took the opportunity to clarify your adroit readings of these three novels.

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