The English novel was born with ‘Robinson Crusoe’ 300 years ago this year

A convincing case can be made for Daniel Defoe’s story about a castaway on a tropical island to be the first novel in English

Geoff Ward

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April 25, 2019, marks the 300th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe — and thus the 300th anniversary of the birth of the English novel. One can quite reasonably claim Robinson Crusoe was the first novel in the English language, if the novel is regarded as primarily, or necessarily, a realist form.

Defoe (1660–1731) wrote Robinson Crusoe in six months or less when he was in his late 50s and it became a publishing phenomenon.

By the end of 1719, there had been four editions, and it went on to become one of the most widely published books ever. By 1900, no book in the history of western literature had more editions, translations and imitations. The trend continued through the twentieth century, in film — more than 20 movies — television and radio, even in pantomime and opera, as well as in legacy fiction, leading to the founding of a genre, the ‘Robinsonade’. The book’s protagonists, Crusoe and ‘Man Friday’ (later ‘Girl Friday’, of course, in spin-off media) have become household words.

Robinson Crusoe masqueraded as a ‘true history’ — ‘history’ was the term used for such fiction until the word ‘novel’ came into use towards the end of the eighteenth century. Thus Robinson Crusoe was published to appear not as fiction, but as a chronicle of real events.

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

The author’s name does not appear here; indeed, Robinson Crusoe was credited as the author — ‘written by himself’ it says at the foot of the title page. Not only are all attributes of fiction avoided, the ‘editor’ of the book roundly dismisses any idea that the story might be invented.

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Geoff Ward

Writer, journalist, book editor, poet, musician and tutor in literature and creative writing (MA and BA Hons degrees in English literature).