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Real World Meets Realism – Will the Real Robinson Crusoe Please Stand Up? (Part 1 of 3)

This month’s site header (below) is of a painting called The Tooth Extractor, by Dutch artist Theodoor Rombouts (1597–1637), in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. The painting is of a quack doctor hauling out the tooth of a protesting patient with one of the array of gruesome-looking implements on the table nearby. My addition is an 18th century plague doctor in the corner, wielding his staff with the head of a winged hourglass that symbolizes the passing of life, and perhaps thinking to himself, “I know it hurts but it’s not half as painful as having the plague.”

The montage depicts the backwards and plain wrong quote of a “nameless critic”. It’s a funny quote though. Obviously the critic is not being serious, and anyone who’s ever read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, would know this. The Robinson Crusoe phenomenon highlights an important aspect of literature: factual accuracy and realism. Why should you care about that? Well, how could you, as a thoughtful reader, not care?

On April 25, 2019, it was the 300th anniversary of the first publication of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, by Daniel Defoe.

Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe is credited as the first example of Realistic Fiction as a literary genre. It is the first successful novel of its kind and it is Fiction based on an actual case of a man shipwrecked on a tropical island. The narrative has led to the creation of many books, films and spin-offs – for one, Castaway (2000), starring Tom Hanks and featuring “Wilson” the Volleyball. It was a lot more interesting than the dour written reports of other mariners and survivors, written in the peculiar and random form that English took in the 18th century.

Sorry about the grammar – I didn’t create this gif.

Will the real Robinson Crusoe please stand up?

The unfortunate man who inspired Defoe’s tale was most likely Scottish privateer (in other words pirate or mercenary) and Royal Navy officer, Alexander Selkirk, who made the news in Defoe’s time by being marooned on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean for four years and four months. He made it back to England eight years later to tell his tale, had many more adventures at sea and died much later of yellow fever. Selkirk is acknowledged these days to have been the model for the first “Robinson Crusoe”, but for a long time people also believed that the book was based on the adventures of one Robert Drury, who documented his shipwreck adventure in Madagascar; or Robert Drury’s Journal, during fifteen years captivity on that Island (1729).

During the nineteenth century scholars started to question almost everything about Drury’s book. They suspected that the book was actually a fictional account written by Daniel Defoe, and that Robert Drury didn’t even exist! The plot thickens! “In 1996, Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at Sheffield University, published evidence suggesting not only that Drury had lived, but that his description of early 18th century Madagascar was highly accurate… far too accurate to have been invented by Defoe.” Well, that’s a compliment to Defoe. But Pearson forgets that Robinson Crusoe is Fiction and was not required to be historically accurate.

The identities and authenticity of other adventurers who might have inspired Defoe’s “Crusoe” have inspired many literary debates. They include Ibn Tufail’s Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, a 12th century allegorical, philosophical novel, in which a boy grows up on an island in the Indies, isolated from the people and raised by animals, like “Mowgli” in The Jungle Book. Another is the story of Spanish sailor, Pedro Serranom, who was marooned for seven or eight years on a small desert island off the coast of Nicaragua in the 1520s. And yet another possibility was Robert Knox, who wrote an account of his abduction by the King of Ceylon, Rajasinha II of Kandy, in 1659, in An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon. Ultimately, Alexander Selkirk seems to be the most plausible candidate.


Everyone loves a drama

During the 1700s and 1800s, ordinary people were generally not well travelled and stayed put in their countries of birth, so they tended to (want to) believe stories about exotic adventures, island destinations and strange, foreign peoples. They were easily fooled by sensational tales, since they had no information other than the diaries and accounts that people had written and published. Besides, these stories, typically of brave underdogs surviving, beating the odds, and suffering but remaining civilized, appealed then and still appeal to people all over the world. Humans do like a heart-warming romantic drama.

An example of this is the case of “Princess Caraboo”, who was actually Mary Baker (born c. 1792) a servant girl from Bristol, England. On 3 April 1817, the pretty girl appeared on the streets of the small town of Almondsbury, seemingly disorientated, wearing a turban and a “foreign” outfit, and speaking gibberish. In a case of probable intentionally inaccurate translation, a Portuguese-speaking sailor explained to the fascinated local gentry that the woman was named “Caraboo” and was a princess in her own land, “Javasu”  (Java). That became her story. The deception worked for quite a while, finally petering out in 1824.

Regardless of the precise source, behind Defoe’s piece of Realistic Fiction is an actual piece of history. It was a success from the first printing for a number of reasons: the setting and happenings in the novel sounded authentic, it was written in a plain style, it came out in super-fast time right after Selkirk’s return to England, and the hero shows suitably noble spiritual growth. With that hit, Realistic Fiction was born. And with it developed a conundrum in the field of Literature – about which I’ll write more in the next post.

Next post: Real World Meets Realism – Is It Fact or Fiction? (Part 2 of 3)

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