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On the attribution of novels to Daniel Defoe.

DID DEFOE WRITE MOLL FLANDERS AND ROXANA?" asks Ashley Marshall, in an acute and well-reasoned essay in the present issue of Philological Quarterly. It is a good question, and--maybe rightly?--Marshall thinks the answer we give about these famous novels in our writings about the attribution of works to Defoe is not satisfactory. We present these works as having a secure place in the Defoe canon, even though the evidence we bring forward for his authorship of them is, by our own admission, somewhat problematical. In Marshall's view, since no good case has ever been put forward, they cannot be regarded as "definitively" by Defoe. Scholars, including ourselves, ought to face up to this problem, and should in future present these novels as only "dubiously attributed to Defoe, and preferably with special emphasis on the uncertainty."

Defoe attribution is notoriously an extremely knotty problem, not really paralleled in the case of any other classic English writer, and the forming of bibliographical principles in regard to it calls for a certain understanding of its strange history. Attribution of works to Defoe has gone on for three centuries, and indeed is still going on; and to complicate matters further, many new attributions come later to be dropped, for one reason or another. Again, our confidence in any given ascription may depend on our estimate of the character and skill of the person who first made it. (1)

That said, it follows that, with Defoe, there is a particular need for strict principles of author-attribution, and before coming to the particular case of the novels, we would like here to quote the general principles we put forward in our Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe:

1. In arguing for an ascription, one should not "forge chains" of attribution, that is to say base any part of one's argument on some other merely probable attribution, but should draw solely upon works indisputably by the author in question.

2. If making a new ascription, one should always explain one's reasons.

3. One should not regard the fact that an ascription seems plausible--i.e, compatible with the author's known style or interests, etc.--as in itself sufficient reason for making it; nor should one be tempted to include a work in the canon "provisionally," i.e. until some better candidate for authorship appears. (The reason, in both cases, is that inclusion of a work in the canon causes a qualitative change in its status, transforming the way in which later scholars are expected to regard it. It is infinitely harder to get a work out of the canon than to put it there in the first place.) (2)

In attempting to set out a new bibliography of Defoe's works following these principles, we thought it necessary to distinguish clearly between attributions to Defoe which could be regarded as "certain" and those which could only be regarded as "probable," and so we divided items accordingly, with "probable" attributions being identified by a "(P)" added to their running numbers. It is worth summarizing briefly the reasoning by which we came to identify works as "certainly" or "probably" by Defoe, highlighting in particular our understanding of the different roles of "external" and "internal" evidence.

Some of the reasons why we can regard a work as certainly being by Defoe are quite obvious. For example, we may have a manuscript of the work in his handwriting, he may have signed it with his own name or initials, or he may have included it in the True Collection of the Writings of the True Born English-man (1703) or in A Second Volume of the Writings of the Author of the True-Born Englishman (1705). In other cases the reasoning will involve inference, or will depend on a convergence of external and internal evidence. On the vexed and complicated question of the relative rights of external versus internal evidence, our view has been that external evidence has a kind of logical priority over internal evidence. We do not of course mean by this that external evidence is per se conclusive: external evidence is just as liable to be misleading as internal evidence. Nor do we mean that external evidence is necessarily to be regarded as having more weight than internal evidence, for the contrary can often be the case. What we mean is that the presence of some, even very slight, external evidence has the effect of increasing enormously the weight we would place on any internal evidence, and the convergence of such evidence may even in some cases be conclusive.

For these reasons, we decided to make it a strict rule in our Critical Bibliography not to classify a work as "certainly" by Defoe on the basis of internal evidence alone. It is worth quoting again from our introduction, where we try to define what we mean by "external" and "internal" evidence:

Our definition of external evidence is, essentially, that it will take the form of contemporary witness--that is to say a contemporary affirmation as to a work's authorship, whether by a known person or otherwise.... We extend the term "contemporary" to include a posthumous attribution to Defoe during the years in which he was still a living memory, defining this latter as any time before the publication of Chalmers's "List of Writings" of 1790.

The question, what can properly be regarded as internal evidence, is complex. One important class of such evidence will be close resemblance to the author's known works, especially close verbal resemblance or unacknowledged quotation, but also close similarity in regard to some idiosyncratic train of thought. Internal evidence, to be convincing, is likely to consist of more than one piece, and a stylistic resemblance can be strengthened as evidence by known facts about the author--for instance, in Defoe's case, that he was closely associated with, and reputedly a hired advocate for, the Africa Company, the keelmen of Newcastle, and the Spitalfields weavers.

Lee, Trent and Moore all compiled lists of "favourite phrases" and assigned works to Defoe on the basis of them. Their lists were far from agreeing, and altogether we have come to regard a faith in "favourite phrases" as a false step and a dangerous delusion. For one thing, because it will always be the case that other writers use these phrases as well: they are not Defoe's private property. And for another, because it leads to the belief that attribution can be reduced to a system, whereas every anonymous work needs to be treated as a unique problem. On the other hand we regard it as legitimate in attribution to pay regard to favourite allusions (anecdotes, historical references, legendary stories, and the like) and also to favourite quotations. Defoe had many favourite and idiosyncratic allusions, some of them going back to his youthful anthology, the "Historical Collections," and it seems perverse not to allow them a certain weight as internal evidence. How much weight is a difficult question and will depend very much on the context and on how many of them there are in a given work; at best they are a relatively weak prop to an ascription, but sometimes they are all, or almost all, that one has to go on.'

This brings us to the attribution of novels to Defoe. In our Critical Bibliography we listed all the works of his now regarded as novels (with the exception of Memoirs of a Cavalier) as works "certainly" by Defoe, and in each case we presented the external evidence for his authorship. (4) For Robinson Crusoe, the earliest public attribution to Defoe was by Charles Gildon in his Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Mr. D-- De F-- of London, Hosier (1719); A Journal of the Plague Year was included (as "Memoirs of the Plague") in the list of Defoe's "principal performances" in the entry on him in The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, 4 volumes (1753), 4: 313-25; The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Col. Jacque appeared in an edition of 1738 with the title-page ascription "Written by the AUTHOR of ROBINSON CRUSOE"; and A New Voyage Round the World was described as "the well-known Daniel de Foe's New Voyage round the World" in Johann Reinhold Forster's History of the Voyages and Discoveries Made in the North (1786), 455.

It needs to be emphasized here that, as we have already said, a piece of external evidence is not necessarily conclusive by itself. So, for example, it is not a matter of our having "faith" in the "accuracy" of John Applebee's title-page ascription of Col. Jacque to the author of Robinson Crusoe. It is simply that this is a piece of external evidence pointing to Defoe's authorship, and as such to be weighed and considered like any other evidence. Similarly, the title pages of The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Serious Reflections ... of Robinson Crusoe must surely count as external evidence. Marshall notes that we do not explain our reasons for believing that these works are "secure attributions," but it seems obvious that if Robinson Crusoe is accepted as Defoe's, these two "sequels" identified as such on the title pages must also be accepted as his (in the absence of strong evidence pointing to another author).

The heart of Marshall's case, however, concerns our attribution of Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders, and The Fortunate Mistress. (5) The external evidence we presented for regarding Defoe as the author of these works was the fact that Francis Noble, the proprietor of a famous and highly successful circulating library in London, had published editions of them in the 1770s and 1780s, setting Defoe's name on the title pages. As we had pointed out in an article on Noble in 1992, he was a rascally character, who had no scruples about rewriting and wildly garbling the novels he attributed to Defoe. Nevertheless, as we said at the end of that article, the date of his attributions means that, in our view, they must count as external evidence, in that they appeared within a few decades of Defoe's death, and it is therefore possible that they reflect some living memory or firsthand tradition. (6)

Marshall is not the only scholar to have expressed doubts about our reliance on Francis Noble as external evidence for Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders, and The Fortunate Mistress. Other reviewers of our work on Defoe bibliography have worried about what they regard as the relative flimsiness of the case that we make for the novels--that is to say, for the works which are now regarded as among the most important of Defoe's writings--and some of these earlier critics are cited by Marshall. Tom Keymer, for example, writing in 1999, regarded our acceptance as external evidence of "any ascription of a work to Defoe during the first sixty years after his death ... (on the supposition that it may well represent a living tradition)" as a "judicious straining of categories" on our part: "It is hard not to feel that by drawing the line at such a point as to include Noble's attributions ... Furbank and Owens have found a convenient means of evading the startling logic of their position--which is to question Moll Flanders and Roxana." For G. A. Starr, likewise, the idea that so much of the case for the attribution of these famous novels rests on "the word of an unscrupulous, opportunistic rascal like Francis Noble so many decades after Defoe's death seems ... rather worrisome." Starr would have liked us to explain our reasons for defining "contemporary witness" as extending to sixty years, and no longer. Manuel Schonhorn understands the figure of sixty years as "the traditional number of two generations," thus enabling Defoe to be a "living memory," but he too implies that our decision to allow anything before 1790 to count as external evidence is rather too convenient. If we had shortened our period for external evidence by just a few years, he says, we would have had to "relegate to the frightening heap of probables Moll Flanders, Roxana, and Captain Singleton." (7)

Well, we freely admit that Francis Noble is a terribly unreliable witness, so that the suggestion that his attributing these novels to Defoe has any weight at all may seem a little hard to swallow; nevertheless we maintain it to be logical to regard his testimony as external evidence. Given, then, that we hold that for a "certain" attribution to Defoe to be made there must be some external evidence, even if only a small scrap, it is the Noble evidence that allows us to classify Moll Flanders and The Fortunate Mistress as "certain" attributions. In the absence of such evidence, an attribution can only be "probable"--which is why, in our Critical Bibliography, although we included firm and merely probable attributions in the same numbered sequence, we appended a "P" after the running number of items in the second category.

But a further point needs to be made clear here, for the purposes of the present discussion. It is that in our Critical Bibliography, we framed entries on "certain" attributions differently from those on merely "probable" ones. When we were categorizing a work as merely "probable," we assembled all the internal evidence we could find to support the ascription (or, where evidence was plentiful we set out the most significant examples). By contrast, in the case of a work which we categorized as a "certain" attribution, the presentation of internal evidence seemed not so necessary.

This policy of ours seems to have misled Marshall (and a number of other critics) into thinking that the only evidence for Defoe's authorship of works like Moll Flanders and The Fortunate Mistress is the "external" evidence provided by the Francis Noble ascriptions. Marshall says that in our Critical Bibliography we "offer such evidence as exists for assigning Moll Flanders and Roxana to Defoe." But in fact, of course, we offer only "such external evidence as exists." It does not mean that no internal evidence exists; and indeed if we had decided to discount entirely the external evidence provided by Noble, our entries on these novels would have been very different. We would have included a "P" after the running numbers, and would have presented such internal evidence as we could find to support "probable" attributions.

Marshall hopes that the case for Defoe's authorship of novels like Moll Flanders and The Fortunate Mistress can be strengthened. We will end the present article, therefore, by listing some of the items of internal evidence that seem to support the assignment of the novels (apart from the three volumes of Robinson Crusoe) to Defoe. For the most part, this evidence will consist of parallels between these novels and nonfiction works of which Defoe is known certainly to be the author. The notes that follow are thus designed to supplement the entry for each of these novels in our Critical Bibliography, and the running number for each work is included here. Page numbers are keyed to the relevant volumes in The Novels of Daniel Defoe, general editors, W. R. Owens and P. N. Furbank, 10 volumes (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008-9), abbreviated as "Novels." References to volumes in other sets of the Pickering and Chatto edition of The Works of Daniel Defoe, general editors, W. R. Owens and P. N. Furbank, 44 volumes (2000-9), are abbreviated as follows:

PEW Political and Economic Writings by Daniel Defoe, 8 volumes (2000);

RD W Religious and Didactic Writings of Daniel Defoe, 10 volumes (2006-7);

SFS Satire, Fantasy and Writings on the Supernatural by Daniel Defoe, 8 volumes (2003-4);

TDH Writings on Travel, Discovery and History by Daniel Defoe, 8 volumes (2001-2).

The Review is quoted from Daniel Defoe, A Review of the State of the British Nation, edited by John McVeagh, 18 volumes (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003-11).


On page 41, the Cavalier remarks admiringly of Cardinal Richelieu that "This politick Minister always ordered Matters so, that if there was Success in any Thing the Glory was his; but if Things miscarried it was all laid upon the King." This may be compared with a rather similar passage on Richelieu's political skills in the "Memorandum" Defoe wrote to his new employer Robert Harley in 1704: "If a pardon was to be granted, he took care the debt should be to the Cardinal, but, if justice was to be done, that was in the King" (PEW, 1:156). On page 138, a reference is made to the English Civil War, in which, the Cavalier says, "'Twas the general Maxim ... Where is the Enemy? Let us go and fight them." There is a close similarity between these sentences (and the whole paragraph in which they occur) and a passage in An Essay upon Projects (1697) on the eagerness to fight of the combatants in the Civil War (PEW, 8:116).


Near the beginning of the novel (23) Singleton expresses strong antipathy to the Portuguese, as "the most compleat Cowards that I ever met with." In the Review we often find Defoe criticising the Portuguese; see, for example, his descriptions of the Portuguese army as "An Army of Old Alms Women!" (Review, 24 June 1704), and as "not much to be rely'd upon in the Field" (29 May 1707; and cf. similar comments, 5 and 15 August 1707). On page 46, there is a description of a meeting with natives of Madagascar, in which their leader "caused two Men to go before him carrying two long Poles in their Hands." A more elaborate account of such a practice is to be found in the Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; see Novels, 2:128. On page 109, we are told how a naked Englishman who had been held as a prisoner in a village in the heart of Africa for two years exhibited "all the most extravagant Tokens of an ungovernable Joy" when discovered by Singleton and his colleagues. The physiological and psychological effect of "sudden joy" is a recurring theme in Defoe. In several works--most famously in Robinson Crusoe--he quotes a line from a poem by Robert Wild, "For sudden Joys, like Griefs, confound at first" (see Novels, 1:91; see also A New Family Instructor (1727), in RDW, 3:192, and compare the account in Farther Adventures of the reactions of a French crew and passengers when rescued from their burning ship, Novels, 2:17-19). Finally, one of the most suggestive pieces of internal evidence for Defoe's authorship of this novel is the clever presentation and characterization of Quaker William. Defoe often writes favorably of Quakers (see, for example, the Review for 13 December 1705, 5 February 1706, and 12 June 1708), and he uses a "Quaker" persona to striking effect in pamphlets such as The Secret History of the Secret History of the White Staff (1715; see PEW, 2:295-314) and A Declaration of Truth to Benjamin Hoadly (1717).


On page 69 Moll compares herself to "Lord Rochester's Mistress" who "lov'd his Company, but would not admit him farther," and who thus had "the Scandal of a Whore, without the Joy." The same line is paraphrased by Defoe in his poem An Elegy on the Author of the True-Born-English-Man (1704; see SFS, 1:279, lines 552-53), and is quoted in An Essay at a Plain Exposition of that Difficult Phrase a Good Peace (1711; see PEW, 5:131). A couplet from Rochester is quoted on page 75; the same couplet is quoted in The Great Law of Subordination Consider'd (1724; see RDW, 6:78). On page 77, we find the phrase "as a Horse rushes into the Battle" used of those who "run into Matrimony"; cf. Religious Courtship (1722) in RDW, 4:30, for a similar allusion to Jeremiah 8:6. Also on page 77, marriage for women is described as "a Leap in the Dark;" cf. Religious Courtship, in RDW, 4:173: "make your Marriage be ... A Leap in the Dark." On page 101, "felonious Treaty" (used here as a metaphor for a sexual relationship), alludes to William III's Partition Treaty; cf. Defoe's The Felonious Treaty (1711), in PEW, 5:155-77. On page 117 we read that "Vice came in always at the Door of Necessity, not at the Door of Inclination;" in The True-Born Englishman (1700), Defoe had remarked of Englishwomen that "where the Vice prevails, the great Temptation / Is want of Money, more than Inclination" (see SFS, 1:102, lines 614-15); compare also the Review for 24 October 1704 and 8 February 1709. On page 162 we are told that "to sink under Trouble is to double the Weight;" cf. the "Spanish Proverb" quoted by Crusoe in Farther Adventures (Novels, 2:76): "In Trouble to be troubl'd / Is to have your Trouble doubl'd." On page 163 Moll refers to "the wise Man's Prayer, Give me not Poverty least I Steal" (Proverbs 30:8-9). Defoe frequently quotes or alludes to this text; see, for example, the Review for 5 March 1706; Robinson Crusoe, in Novels, 1:58; Serious Reflections, in Novels, 3:80. On page 165, there is a close similarity between Moll's account of her robbing a child and that of the man tempted by the Devil to do likewise, as recounted in An Essay on ... Apparitions (1727); SFS, 8:185 (and cf. the very similar story in The Political History of the Devil (1726), SFS, 6:258-9). On pages 236-37, Moll describes her emotion when she hears that her sentence of execution has been reprieved: "as Grief had overset me before, so did Joy overset now, and I fell into a much more dangerous Swooning than I did at first." See note on Captain Singleton, page 109, above.


On page 41, four lines of verse are quoted ("So Hypocondriac Fancy's represent ... And all to its first Matter, Cloud, resolve") which come from Defoe's first published poem, A New Discovery of an Old Intreague (1697); see SFS, 1:49, lines 385-88. The same lines are also quoted, with variations, in Defoe's Review for 29 March 1705 and 24 May 1712, and again in An Essay on ... Apparitions (see SFS, 8:306). This fact alone strongly suggests his authorship of A Journal of the Plague Year.


On page 33 the hero's life is described as "a Checquer Work of Nature" In the Preface to the eighth volume of his Review, Defoe, speaking of his own life, says that "the same Checquer-Work of Fortune attends me still;" in Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe exclaims, "How strange a Chequer Work of Providence is the Life of Man" (Novels, 1:172). On page 51 we find "Joy is as Extravagant as Grief;" see note on Captain Singleton, page 109, above. On page 77 there is a passage on the evil of swearing, which may be compared with similar passages in An Essay Upon Projects (1697; in PEW, 8:32-33); in the Review for 30 December 1704 and 22 August 1706; and in The Family Instructor, volumes 1 and 2 (1715, 1718; in RDW, 1:23-24; 2:182-85). On page 154 we find cited the prayer "Give me not Poverty, least I Steal;" see note on Moll Flanders, page 163, above.


On page 25 we read: "Never, Ladies, marry a Fool; any Husband rather than a Fool"' etc. In the Review for 4 October 1707 there is a striking passage arguing that "the worst thing a sober Woman can be married to, is a FOOL" (compare also the Review for 19 September and 12 December 1704, and see The Compleat English Gentleman, in RDW, 10:200). A recurrent theme of Defoe's, that "Poverty is the strongest Incentive" to vice and crime, is given expression on page 40; cf. the note on Moll Flanders, page 163, above. On page 147, the reference to "a true-bred Merchant" being "the best Gentleman in the Nation" may be compared with a statement in the Review for 3 January 1706: "A True-Bred Merchant, is a Universal Scholar." Also on page 147, there is a favorite tag of Defoe's, "an Estate is a Pond; but ... Trade [is] a Spring"; compare, for example, the reference in the Review for 22 October 1706, and see also The Complete English Tradesman, volume 1 (1725), in RDW, 7:234; A Plan of the English Commerce (1728), in PEW, 7:177. Perhaps the most telling single piece of internal evidence is the quotation, on page 170, of a line from a poem published by Defoe in 1697, The Character of the Late Dr. Samuel Annesley ("For Honesty and Honour are the same" page 7).


The most important internal evidence for his authorship of this novel is its close resemblance to a favorite scheme of Defoe's, which we might call his "South Sea Scheme." (8) According to this scheme, Britain should establish a settlement in Patagonia--over which, in Defoe's view, the Spanish held no authority--as a preliminary to establishing a colony in and around Valdivia, on the western or Pacific side of the Andes. Defoe had outlined this proposal in a letter of 23 July 1711 to his employer Robert Harley, shortly after Harley had put forward in Parliament a plan for a South Sea Company, and it also appears--in veiled terms--in the Review (19 July and 7 August 1711), and in An Essay on the South Sea Trade (1711). It was a scheme that Defoe cherished, and he would return to it many times over the ensuing seventeen years, though the form in which he puts it forward varies a little, evidently in reflection of Britain's changing diplomatic relations with her neighbors. In its final version, in A Plan of the English Commerce (1728), published when Britain and Spain were technically at war, even the placename "Valdivia" is slyly suppressed (see PEW, 7:319-20).

The arguments used by Defoe to support his South Sea Scheme in these works are that, given the projected colony's access both to the Pacific and the Atlantic, it would open up great opportunities for maritime trade; that the climate in this part of Chile would be perfectly suited to British settlers, as would the grassy plains of Patagonia; that the Chileans hated their Spanish (and French) masters; and that the Andes abounded in gold, which the Spanish were too proud and slothful to exploit properly. R is hard not to interpret the second part of the New Voyage Round the World as an imaginary on-the-spot exploration of the possibilities and practicalities of Defoe's South Sea Scheme. The novel gives full value to the four central arguments used by Defoe in his known writings about the scheme: the vast opportunities it offered for trade (131); the suitability of the climate for British colonists (190, 225-26, 258); the hatred of the Chileans for their Spanish masters (152); and the incapacity of the Spaniards to exploit the gold of the Andes (see, for example, pages 173, 209-10).

The Open University


(1) We discuss some of these problems at length in our book The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (Yale U. Press, 1988).

(2) P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens, A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998), xxv.

(3) Furbank and Owens, Critical Bibliography, xxvi-xxvii.

(4) A number of scholars, including Marshall, have queried our classification of Memoirs of a Cavalier as only "probably" by Defoe, even though, as with Moll Flanders and The Fortunate Mistress, there is external evidence, in the form of an edition by Francis Noble in 1784, the title page of which described it as "By the late Mr. Daniel Defoe." Our reason for this is simply that, unlike the case of the two other novels just mentioned, there is conflicting external evidence as to its authorship. As early as the second edition it was being claimed that the author was one Andrew Newport.

(5) This is the correct short title of the novel which was renamed Roxana only in later editions, published after Defoe's death.

(6) See P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens, "Defoe and Francis Noble" Eighteenth-Century Fiction 4 (1992): 301-13.

(7) See reviews of A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe by Tom Keymer, in RES 50 (1999): 533-36; G. A. Starr, in Eighteenth-Century Fiction 12 (2000): 584-89; and Manuel Schonhorn, in The Eighteenth Century: A Current Bibliography 22-24 (2003): 86-88.

(8) For an account of which, see our article "Defoe's 'South-Sea' and 'North-Sea' Schemes: A Footnote to A New Voyage Round the World," Eighteenth-Century Fiction 13 (2001): 501-8.
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Author:Furbank, P.N.; Owens, W.R.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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