Category Archives: Defoe

A party in Pall Mall: location, location, location

While teaching Defoe’s Roxana to my students, I was sent an intriguing book entitled A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature by Suzette Field. Now I’m not qualified to talk about all the works discussed here: from the Book of Daniel through Proust to Hollinghurst there is surprising variety of balls, routs, revels, masques, orgies, feasts, banquets, proms, weddings, birthdays and even a wake (Finnegan’s, of course). But I am able to comment on what Field calls ‘A Little Ball at Roxana’s House’. In common with all the parties, each entry has sections entitled ‘The Hostess’, ‘The Invitation’, ‘The Venue’, ‘The Guest List’, The Food and Drink’, ‘The Dress Code’, ‘The Entertainment’, ‘The Outcome’, and ‘The Legacy’. It all works rather neatly for Roxana’s ball at which she appears in her Oriental masquerade (also, Field has obviously done her research: she even notes ‘there is no definitive evidence that Defoe wrote Roxana’). However, my eye was caught by Field’s description of the party’s location in Roxana’s ‘handsome apartments in Pall Mall’.[1]

Pall Mall, Rocque, 1746, via Old Bailey Online, courtesy Motco Enterprises Limited Ref:
Pall Mall, Rocque, 1746, via Old Bailey Online, courtesy Motco Enterprises Limited Ref:

Described by Edward Hatten as a ‘fine spacious’ street, Pall Mall’s grandeur reflected the lives of its wealthy, if transient, population of visiting dignitaries and pleasure-seekers.[2] John Macky described Pall Mall as ‘the ordinary residence of all Strangers’ because of its proximity to the ‘Palace, the Park, the Parliament-House, the Theatres, and the Chocolate and Coffee-Houses, where the best company frequents.’ In fact Macky painted the life in the Pall Mall area as one continual party, at least for men:

We rise at Nine, and those that frequent great Mens Levees find Entertainment at them until Eleven … about Twelve the Beau Monde assembles in several Coffee or Chocolate-Houses … If it is fine Weather we take a turn in the Park until about Two, when we go into Dinner, and if it be dirty you are entertained at Picket or Basset at White’s, or you may talk Politicks at Smyrna or St. James’s.

After dinner there was the theatre (Haymarket theatre was at the end of Pall Mall); and after that,

the best Company generally go to Tom’s and Will’s Coffee-Houses, near adjoining, where there is playing at Picket and the best of Conversation until Midnight. Here you will see Blue and Green Ribbons and Stars, sitting familiarly … Or if you like rather the Company of Ladies, there are Assemblies at most People of Qualities Houses.[3]

Clearly, Macky was fascinated by the pleasures of the area and the status of its denizens.

It’s a key context to Defoe’s Roxana, whose apartment in fashionable Pall Mall reflects her wish to appear as a ‘soi-disant wealthy widow’, as Field nicely puts it. Yet as she rightly points out, in one regard Roxana’s choice of location is not entirely well calculated: despite Macky’s excitement at the wealth on display in Pall Mall, the residents of the West end of London are also those who ‘tended to live beyond their means’. As Roxana declares, she finds herself harassed by ‘Fortune-Hunters and Bites … to make a Prey of me and my Money … Lovers, Beaus, and Fops of Quality’ (1724, p.210). Field picks up on Roxana’s fascination with status, noting, in the section entitled ‘The Invitation’, that ‘[n]evertheless she is not averse to a bit of social advancement’. Now this is either an ironic understatement more suitable to an Austen novel, or a fudging of Defoe’s intent to underline Roxana’s crucial weakness: ‘I aim’d at other things, and was possess’d with so vain an Opinion of my own Beauty, that nothing less than the KING himself was in my Eye’ (1724, p.210).

However, the voice in Field’s book is frequently that of the understated party hostess that does not obtrude upon or overly manage her guests. For example, in common with all the entries in the book, the next section is called ‘The Venue’. Here Field quotes Roxana’s description that her apartment was in a house ‘out of which was a private Door into the King’s Garden’ (1724, p.200). Defoe places Roxana’s comment some time before her comment on catching the King’s eye, separated as they are by the discussion of Roxana’s financial dealings with Sir Robert Clayton. Presumably Defoe intended for us to remember the significant topography of her apartment when he has Roxana admit her vanity. Coming immediately after her comment on social advancement, Field manages to infer just as much as Defoe intended about Roxana’s social vanity and her choice of location. In ‘The Outcome’, she comments, in another understatement, that ‘Roxana has succeeded in catching the royal eye’, footonoting that ‘It is perhaps no coincidence that Roxana resides on Pall Mall, as did the King’s most famous mistress, Nell Gwynne.’ Location, location, location: Defoe’s interleaving of sexuality, historical allusion and moral topography is clear in Roxana’s party.

[1] Suzette Field, A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature (London, Picador: 2012), pp.33-38.

[2] Edward Hatton, A New View of London. London, 1708, p.61.

[3] John Macky, A Journey Through England. London, 1714, pp. 107-109. Macky later breathlessly lists the members of the aristocracy living on Pall Mall and the streets around, p. 128.


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.

Suzanne Beleau, a.k.a. Roxana.

Should we call Roxana ‘Suzanne Beleau’? This admittedly fanciful question turned into an interesting thought experiment while I have been teaching Defoe’s novel to my students. So, here’s my thinking.

It is worth emphasizing that the novel now known and published as ‘Roxana’ did not originally have that as its main title when it was first published in 1724. It was, as you can see hereThe Fortunate Mistress (image from Lilly Library, Indiana University).

The novel’s main title was not Roxana until the 1742 edition which, like all the subsequent editions in the eighteenth century, was significantly altered and amended (John Mullan usefully summarises the history of the various versions of Roxana throughout the eighteenth century in the 1996 Oxford edition). The original title, as a number of commentators have pointed out, might have been either reacting to or piggy-backing upon a novel published the previous year entitled Idalia; Or, The Unfortunate Mistress by another successful contemporary novelist, Eliza Haywood. It’s perhaps significant that Haywood chose to name her heroine and Defoe did not – was Defoe signalling that the theme of identity was going to be crucial in way that it wasn’t in Haywood’s novel? Certainly, the other two names mentioned on the title page of The Fortunate Mistress – ‘Mademoiselle Beleau’ and ‘Countess de Wintelsheim’ – underline that this is going to be a ‘History’ of ‘Vast Variety’ and that our heroine’s ‘Fortunes’ are centrally concerned with an exciting and perhaps morally dubious kind of shape-shifting and self-fashioning.

All the subsequent versions after the 1724 edition, then, make one scene in the novel central: that of the ball held by our heroine (note I do not call her by that name yet):

At the finishing the Dance, the Company clapp’d and almost shouted; and one of the Gentlemen cry’d out, Roxana! Roxana! by —, with an Oath; upon which foolish Accident I had the Name of Roxana presently fix’d upon me all over the Court End of Town, as effectually as if I had been Christen’d Roxana. (1724, p.215)

Joshua Reynolds, Mrs Abingdon as Roxalana, Courtesy of

So it is only at this point that our heroine becomes named as ‘Roxana’. It is at this point in the novel that she becomes mistress to a man with whom she is obliged to live ‘retir’d’ and conceal from us his name. It’s clearly an allusion to being mistress to Charles II (and an allusion to another famous name – that of Nell Gwynne; and like ‘Roxana’, she also lived in apartments at Pall Mall). Clearly, then, all the subsequent editions chose this moment as the emblem of our heroine’s career as a prostitute, representing the apogee of her reign as a mistress and courtesan of high status. However, it is also undoubtedly significant that this career high is achieved in conjunction with her masquerade in Oriental costume. It is as if when she is most artificial that she is named; that when she is in masquerade she is most herself – at least what other people understand to be herself. And it is an irony not lost on ‘Roxana’ (let’s call her that now) when she characterizes the naming as a ‘foolish Accident’. The irony deepens and darkens when the artificiality becomes a revelation:

it began to be publick, that Roxana was, in short, a meer Roxana, neither better or worse; and not that Woman of Honour and Virtue that was at first supps’d. (1724, p.223)

She now finds herself trapped in an identity not of her own choosing, one thrust upon her. It’s an irony that draws upon the contemporary notion that masquerades could actual reveal.

Defoe demonstrates an impressive control of the novel’s narrative arc when he later introduces her daughter, abandoned after the failure of her first marriage early in the novel. Her recognition of her mother depends upon her recognition of the Oriental costume ‘Roxana’ had worn at the ball, again linking disguise with revelation.

But importantly for my point, the daughter’s name is ‘Susan’ – as ‘Roxana’ remarks, ‘she was my own Name’ (1724, p.252). Defoe only reveals this in the latter third of the novel; he pointedly does not even give our heroine a name at the beginning of the novel. He also makes her family migrants, Protestant refugees fleeing France in the late seventeenth century, so that right at the opening of the novel Defoe loosens the ground beneath our heroine’s feet condemning (or freeing?) her to a life of constantly mutating identity. However, we know she was born in Poictiers, France. Given her French background, we might think of the name mentioned in the title page ‘Mademoiselle Beleau’ to have been her birth-name, although one could also say that ‘Susan’ isn’t a particularly French-sounding name. But I was reminded of a comment Defoe has Crusoe offer about his own name: ‘I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe’ (1719, p.1). So Susan could have been a mutation in the same way. Perhaps, I thought to myself, her name could be Suzanne Beleau?

Now I know she isn’t a real person, so it’s fanciful to argue what her real name is. But as a pedagogical experiment I suggested to my students that we call her either Susan or Suzanne. There were some mixed reactions to this thought experiment in the class, and perhaps it was too contrived (although given how contrived ‘Roxana’s’ identity is, this might be appropriate). It did indeed feel strange to refer to her as Susan or Suzanne instead of ‘Roxana’, as we did in one of the classes. However, shuttling back and forth through the novel using the name Susan / Suzanne brought to light the novel’s insistent concerns of secrecy, naming and self-fashioning in a way that I’ve not been able to emphasise before. It helped open up that gap between the identities our heroine fashions for herself, to underline Susan / Suzanne’s anxieties about the daughter’s discovery of her real mother, to in effect reveal quite how far Susan / Suzanne had come from herself by the end of the novel.

Ropemaker’s Alley and Digital Maps

Recently I’ve been playing around with the digital maps of London available online. Primarily, Allison Muri’s The Grub Street Project, Locating London’s Past and the map search function in Old Bailey Online. This inevitably led me to look at those places in London associated with Daniel Defoe. At about the same time, I had been re-reading Pat Roger’s Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture and was again impressed by his detailed ecology of the parish of St Giles, Cripplegate ward. It is an area closely associated with Defoe, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to use some of these databases to briefly map out Defoe’s place of death.

Here’s a view of Cripplegate, or ‘Creplegate Parish’ in Strype’s edition of Stow’s Survey of the cities of London and Westminster (1720, 2 vols), courtesy of The Grub Street Project (click to see a zoom-able image):

As Rogers argues, Defoe’s honorary membership of the Dunces club owes much to his beginning and ending his life within the purlieu of that home of the Dunces, Grub Street (Grub Street, 311-27). On Strype’s 1720 edition of Stow’s Survey (above), Grub street runs roughly North-South between and parallel to Moore Lane and White Cross Street. According to John R. Moore (Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World, 3) Defoe’s father ran a business from Fore Street: on the Strype map this began at St. Giles, ran into Moore Street which then became Posterne Street at its eastern end. The minister of St. Giles, Samuel Annesley, was praised in an elegy by Defoe in 1697. In the section of John Rocque’s A New and Accurate Survey of the cities of London and Westminster (1746), below, you can also see Grub Street running North off Fore Street (via Old Bailey Online, images courtesy of Motco Enterprises Limited Ref:

In the last months of his life Defoe was hiding from creditors, and between August 1730 and April 1731 he took lodgings in Ropemaker’s Alley, in the decidedly mixed environs of Cripplegate. Ropemaker’s Alley was just a few streets East of White Cross Alley where his wife, Mary, had property and Max Novak suggested that this might have enabled Defoe to keep in touch with his family (Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions, 702). Ropemaker’s Alley cannot be seen in Strype’s Map: it is just North of the City Walls in the area known as the ‘Freedoms’. If you look on the Strype map it would be just above and just outside the far North-West corner of Cripplegate ward. On the next section of Rocque’s 1746 map, below, you can see it fairly clearly as a thin street running North-West from Finsbury, bordering Moorfields (‘a moorish rotten Ground’, Strype, 1.70). South East off Finsbury and below Moorfields was Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam. The dotted line represents the boundary chains of the City.

Strype describes Ropemaker’s Alley, in ‘Cripplegate Ward without the Wall’, as ‘pretty broad, with several Garden Houses, which are well built and inhabited’, which sounds rather genteel. Nearby, however, alleys and streets were ‘meanly built and inhabited’ and ‘very mean’ (Strype, 1:92) and the proximity to Grub Street would have confirmed for many Defoe’s association with the profession of hacks. Defoe died on the 24th or the 25th April 1731 and was buried in Bunhill Fields, just North from Chiswell street, and which is now the location of the nineteenth-century memorial to Defoe.

Our Summer Friends the Swallows

It is a nice coincidence that I’m thinking about a scene concerning the migration of swallows in Defoe’s A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain just at the time when the swallows are returning for the British summer. Early in the Tour, describing the town of Southwold during the first circuit up the East coast, Defoe offers this ‘trifling’ digression:

At this Town in particular, and so at all the Towns on this Coast, from Orford-Ness to Yarmouth, is the ordinary Place where our Summer Friends the Swallows, first land when they come to Visit us; and here they may be said to Embark for their Return, when they go back into warmer Climates.[1]

What follows is Defoe’s memory of previous visit, when he saw swallows flocking for migration:

some Years before …about the beginning of October, and lodging in a House that looked into the Church-yard, I observ’d in the evening an unusual multitude of Birds sitting on the Leads of the Church. Curiosity led me to go nearer to see what they were, and I found they were all Swallows; that there was such an infinite Number that they cover’d the whole Roof of the Church, and of several Houses near. (1:83-84)

Defoe then relates a conversation with a ‘grave Gentleman’ who explains that the birds are waiting for the right wind:

you must then understand first, that this is the Season of the Year when the Swallows, their Food here failing, begin to leave us, and return to the Country, where-ever it be, from whence I suppose they came; and this being the nearest to the Coast of Holland, they come here to Embark. (1:84)

Given that at this time no-one knew for certain the swallows’ ultimate destination, it is perhaps understandable that Defoe presumed that if they are gathering on the coast they are about to fly over the nearest stretch of sea. In fact, we now know a fair amount about the migration habits of Hirundo rustica: rather than cross the North Sea to Holland from Suffolk, it is likely that the swallows were gathering to fly further south to cross the English Channel since their route would take them over France on their journey to Africa. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the disappearance of birds in winter was a mystery and an active topic of debate. So what were some of the potential contexts for Defoe’s thinking on the migration of swallows?

Tim Birkhead’s wonderful history of bird lore and ornithology, The Wisdom of Birds, spends some time on the various theories concerning the disappearance of birds in winter. Since the classical period, the debate had veered between the conception of migration as we now understand it and the notion that birds, in a condition of ‘torpor’, hibernate inside trees, in rock crevices or even under water. But it was during the seventeenth century that ‘the view that swallows, along with swifts and martins, spent their winters under water  became increasingly entrenched. Sucked into the debate, some claimed to have witnessed the phenomena and seen swallows taken from their watery resting place.’ While by the mid-eighteenth century natural philosophers were increasingly likely to dismiss this, the idea of torpor and underwater hibernation persisted and the debate rumbled on over the course of the century.[2]

From the period most relevant here – the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries – there were just a few tracts debating the question of bird migration, including those by John Ray, William Derham and Charles Morton. The move from theories of torpor and submersion to migration can be seen in the work of John Ray: in Ornithology he hedges his bets by including both possibilities for the Swallow: ‘To us it seems more probable that they fly away into hot Countries, viz. Egypt, Aethiopia, &c. then that either they lurk in hollow trees, or holes of Rocks and ancient buildings, or lie in water under the Ice in Northern Countries.’[3] But his later book, The Wisdom of God, focuses upon the idea of the ‘migration of Birds from an hotter to a colder Country, or from a colder to an hotter, according to the Seasons of the Year’ and he suggests, though without any confidence, that birds are reacting to either changes in temperature or food supply.[4] William Derham’s slightly later tract Physico-Theology  also posits that changes in temperature ‘are great Incentives to those Creatures to change their Habitation’, though, like Ray, is still baffled as to exactly why.[5] Most surprising of all is the argument put forward by Defoe’s old Dissenting Academy tutor, Charles Morton. Morton clearly dismisses the theories of submersion and torpor, but only to offer the theory that ‘it is not impossible that divers of these Fowls, which makes such Changes, and observe their Seasons, do pass and repass between this and the Moon.’[6]

By the time the first volume of Defoe’s Tour appeared, The Wisdom of God was in its eighth edition and Physico-Theology in its sixth, and Defoe may also have been aware of his old tutor’s tract on the subject. Defoe has his ‘grave Gentleman’ offer an explanation of the disappearance of swallows not unlike all three tracts, in that it is based upon migration. But the gentleman’s explanation for why they migrate is then amplified by Defoe:

Certain it is, that the Swallows neither come hither for warm Weather, nor retire from Cold, the thing is of quite another Nature; they, like the Shoals of Fish in the Sea, pursue their Prey; they are a voracious Creature, they feed flying; their Food is found in the Air, viz. the Insects; of which in our Summer Evenings, in damp and moist Places, the Air is full; they come hither in the Summer, because our Air is fuller of Fogs and Damps than in other Countries, and for that Reason, feeds great Quantities of Insects; if the Air be hot and dry, the Gnats die of themselves, and even the Swallows will be found famish’d for Want, and fall down dead out of the Air, their Food being taken from them: In like manner, when cold Weather comes in, the Insects all die, and then of Necessity, the Swallows quit us, and follow their Food where-ever they go; this they do in the manner I have mentioned above; for sometimes they are seen to go off in vast Flights like a Cloud; And sometimes again, when the Wind grows fair, they go away a few and a few, as they come, not staying at all upon the Coast. (1:85)

Defoe’s theory of the swallow’s migration carefully rejects one explanation – that they migrate simply in response to changes in the weather – in favour of a more complex one: that their migration is based upon feeding habits which in turn, and only secondarily, are dependent upon the weather. There is a satisfying significance that, on this subject, Defoe breaks ranks with his old tutor (considering Morton’s influence on Defoe’s world-view). Defoe does not offer an accurate account of the swallows’ journey; however, it is important to note that he does offer a substantially more refined explanation of migration than can be found in either Ray or Derham’s tracts. So, while Tim Birkhead relegates Defoe to a footnote, and the scene is a mere diversion in the epic Tour, Defoe’s ‘trifling’ digression is a forthright and carefully thought-through intervention in a small but significant debate in eighteenth-century natural history.

[1] Defoe, A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, 3 vols (London, [1724]); 1:83.

[2] Birkhead, The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), pp.131-72 (p.144).

[3] Ray, The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton (London, 1678) p.212.

[4] Ray, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (London, 1701), p.143. The first edition was in 1691, although the swallows were not discussed until the enlarged third edition of 1701 and in subsequent editions.

[5] Derham, Physico-Theology: or, a demonstration of the being and attributes of God, from his works of creation (second ed.; London, 1714), p.358.

[6] Morton, An essay towards the probable solution of this question. Whence come the stork and the turtle, the crane and the swallow, when they know and observe the appointed time of their coming. Or where those birds do probably make their recess and abode, which are absent from our Climate at some certain Times and Seasons of the Year (1703), p.18.

The Defoe Society Panel @ ASECS 2012

I attended the panel sponsored by The Defoe Society at this year’s annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in San Antonio, Texas, and was pleased to find that all the panelists this year were addressing Defoe’s 1724 novel The Fortunate Mistress (more commonly known as Roxana).

Laura All’s (Virginia U) paper ‘Trade Names: Shifting Economics and Changing Identities in The Fortunate Mistress’ started in by drawing on Ashley Marshall’s paper questioning the attribution of this novel to Defoe, vigorously steer us away from interpretations of the novel that depended upon assumptions of Defoe’s concerns evidenced in other works, although carefully acknowledging that there plenty of reasons to believe that Moll Flanders and Roxana were by the same author – even if this is not Defoe. The idea of thinking about ‘trade names’ connected, in a new way for this novel, the discourses of economics and identity. Trade names in the predominantly male world of trade, function to make identity legible, or creditable: in Roxana, the figures of the Landlord, Brewer, Jeweller, Merchant – even the Prince – all sustain a legible relationship between who they are and their economic status. For women, however, their name, like their economic status, is highly mediated via the legibility of the patronym. Laura All’s discussion of Susan’s (Roxana’s real name) lack of patronym and her subsequent manipulation of her identity (especially that of ‘Roxana’) reveals a fundamental instability in legibility. By taking Defoe-as-author out of the picture, the paper enabled Laura to connect the novel to the wider and insistent debates about the movability of property and status fluidity in early eighteenth-century England and to women’s precarious position in relation to those debates. That Susan/Roxana is forced to come face-to-face with her self at the end of the novel is evidence of the precarious dangers posed by such female self-fashioning: as Laura concludes, “prying self away from self is an infernal process.”

Batya Unger-Sargon’s paper (U of California, Berkeley) ‘Any vs. Susan; Or, How Not to Read Roxana’ addressed the way in which previous criticism of this novel have had to deal with Roxana’s two “foils” – her daughter Susan and her maid Amy – separately and incommensurate methodological approaches. Susan is described as attempting to piece together the “broken fragments” of her mother’s story. When she comes face-to-face with her mother, her obsession with the few circumstantial details of her mother’s dress and the dance, rather than the actual women reveals, for Unger-Sargon, how Defoe is offering a critique of empiricism. In a striking turn of phrase, she argues it is an example of “fiction’s death drive.” Such a threat to “narrative pleasure” is also revealed by Amy. Unger-Sargon argues that Amy’s absorption into the fantasy of the romance narrative of Roxana’s life is in tension with, and even undermines, Roxana’s narrative which attempts to deal with facts. Both Susan and Amy, then, function to break the contract between reader and fiction. Only later am I reminded of J. M. Coetzee’s essay on Defoe where he contrasts the taken-for-granted contract in nineteenth-century realist fiction with the self-consciousness of Defoe’s writings.[1]

Sarah Rasher’s paper (U of Connecticut), ‘“She had never been a bride in her life”: the marriage of Amy and Roxana in Defoe’s Roxana’ started from what seemed an unlikely premise: that Amy and Roxana “act very much like a married couple” and closely follows Defoe’s debates on marriage. While there some generalisations about our own personal experiences of marriage, the strongest line of argument proceeded from Sarah’s point that, in a novel with so many poor marriages (Roxana’s “fool” of a husband; the landlord’s; the Prince’s; the Dutch merchants previous marriages), Amy and Roxana connect at many points with Defoe’s ideas on ideal marriages in Conjugal Lewdness. Amy, in this reading, is Roxana’s wife and becomes more so as the novel progresses. Sarah acknowledges that the aspect of ‘marriage’ as a divinely sanctioned state is crucial in Defoe’s thought and that in this respect Amy and Roxana do not fit this paradigm. I’m not sure this can be overlooked. But the paper offered some intriguing ideas. At an early point in the novel Roxana implores ladies to marry anyone rather than a “fool” – given this, Sarah concludes, Amy and Roxana are “ironically more like a legally sanctioned marriage.”

Whether fortunate or by design, the fact that we had a panel devoted entirely to Roxana, or, The Fortunate Mistress enabled a set of papers that spoke to each other in intriguing ways and provoked a lively Q&A that took us right up to the end of our time. A varied assortment of issues were raised: class, the choice of context (what happens if we use The Family Instructor, instead of Conjugal Lewdness?); and the uses of anonymity. One of the most interesting lines concerned the relationship between economics and affection and all panellists agreed that this was deeply marked by gender – an especially significant feature was how frequently female bonds of affection crumbled in the face of economic success. The debate on how we interpret these works was also subject to some discussion and the extent to which we can assign or detect a Defeovian hand to this novel’s ethical stance (and, indeed, whether we can even propose a stable ethical stance). It’s striking that this novel in particular still provokes and frustrates in equal measure: as the novel draws to a close, the uncanny figure of Susan, the ambiguity surrounding Amy’s actions and Roxana’s sudden fall unnerve the critic looking for closure or moral stability. G. A Starr, a while ago, drew on the tradition of casuistry to explain Defoe’s novels’ ability debate several different positions simultaneously: all three papers offered different twists to that interpretative position. In all, a thoughtful session that drew everyone in to the complexity of Roxana and yet also threw us out to issues of methodology and approach. It seemed entirely appropriate that this novel should be simultaneously alluring and yet strangely resistant.

[1] J. M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 (Vintage, 1999).