Robinson Crusoe has a strong claim to being the first real novel in English as well as the first colonial adventure story. But has it provided a fascinating legacy? Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s curator of rare books and university art, thinks so.

On 25 April 1719, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, ‘written by himself’, first saw the light of day. It was an instant best-seller, and by August another three authorised editions of about 1,000 copies per print run had appeared, with additional printers enlisted to meet the demand. A pirated Dublin edition appeared in June 1719, the first of numerous abridgements in early August, and the earliest of many imitations, Ambrose Evans’s Adventures and Surprizing Deliverances of James Dubourdieu, in October 1719.

The first popular serialisation ran in 78 condensed instalments between October 1719 and March 1720 in a halfpenny newspaper, The Original London Post, or Heathcot’s Intelligence, and made history as one of the earliest examples of fiction to be reprinted in serial form. Critics did not share the public fervour but the public cared nought for critical opinion. French, German, Dutch and Italian readers concurred with English opinion. Only Spain, where Robinson Crusoe was banned until the 19th century, remained outside the enchantment.

Whereas many books go in and out of fashion depending on the values of a particular time, Robinson Crusoe has consistently retained popularity. An important filip for its continuing appeal across Europe was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s embracement of it in Émile (1762) as ‘the most felicitous treatise on natural education’, with Émile’s tutor advocating it as the only book that the child should read. Samuel Johnson recommended it.

By the end of the 18th century, it had been canonised, and the first version to be illustrated by a significant artist, Thomas Stothard, had appeared (Stockdale, 1790). In the early 19th century, Sir Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge joined its champions. Its popularity continued to increase, as the book was increasingly marketed for children, especially boys.

Whereas early readers had appreciated the book above all as an adventure story, its continuing success lay in its appeal for diverse interest groups. As a narrative, certainly, but also as a message of colonisation and empire, as an evangelical message of sin, atonement, and redemption, and even as an economic treatise, with Karl Marx in Das Kapital using it to illustrate economic theory in action. Some adaptations targeted particular groups of people or professions, such as doctors, bakers, and ministers.

From a scholarly point of view, Robinson Crusoe is a literary landmark. Although by no means the first prose narrative in English, it has a claim to be the earliest novel in the English language. Pioneers of modernism in the 20th century regard it as the founding text of fictional realism.

Only one academic library has a special collection devoted to Robinson Crusoe and Robinsonades, the Crusoe Collection of more than 100 titles at the University of Reading. But other libraries can also provide a fascinating insight into the work. Senate House Library provides a window into the variety of Robinson editions, holding two copies of the first edition, as might be expected.

One is in the collection of Sir Louis Sterling, which centres on first editions of the highpoints of English literature, and one is part of a comprehensive set of first editions of the works of Daniel Defoe (mainly from the Huth Library). They were among the books owned by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, who also owned the third and fourth editions of 1719 in a conscious collecting exercise.

Other editions are in named special collections for different reasons. An outstanding Robinsonade is the first English translation (1782) of Joachim Heinrich Campe’s adaptation Robinson der Jüngere, meant for children and present among the educational books owned by Robert Hebert Quick (the Quick Memorial Library), a sign of the book’s pedagogical use.

Mabel Irene Martin had in her modest collection of 18th- and 19th-century children’s books an abridgement from 1818, a ‘new and improved edition’ with 11 engraved plates, which at 15 centimetres high would have been easy for a child to hold. Most unusual is E L Blanchard’s libretto for a 19th-century pantomime of Robinson Crusoe performed at Drury Lane, owned by the actor-manager and stage director Malcolm Morley in his collection of works pertaining to the theatre.

Yet more surprising are the translations: the French of 1768 and the first volume of the first French edition (1721); the first German edition of 1721 and later ones of 1754, 1833 and 1837, with a ‘new’ adaptation from 1829; and Italian from 1791 and 1842. These can express the growing esteem in which the novel was held. The 1826 French translation includes a large headpiece, covering two-thirds of the page, at the head of each chapter. The pictures are all framed possibly indicating importance and canonisation. The preface of the 1833 German edition starts: ‘There was a time when one could hardly confess to reading Robinson Crusoe. But that fashion passed quickly, and Robinson’s worth remains.’

Robinson CrusoeThe engraving shown here is from a two-volume 1820 edition of the complete text, described in Robert W Lovett’s bibliography of English-language editions of Robinson Crusoe as ‘one of the most elegant and handsome ever done’. The edition’s twenty engravings are those of Stothard, re-engraved by the prolific Royal Academician James Heath (1757–1834). They contrast with the crude wood engravings in the other illustration here, from a 1776 abridgement, which in marked contrast with the 1820 edition, is the rarer work and described as being ‘contracted into as narrow a compass as possible’ (134 duodecimo pages).

Apart from the Senate House Library copy, the only copy recorded on the ESTC is in the Emory University Library in Georgia. The frontispiece is copied from that of the first edition, with variations. While complete editions are differentiated from each other by editorial matter, illustrations, and bindings, the abridgements are fascinating for the variations of text, leading to different emphases. The initial paragraph of this one is a statement of auto-biographers’ obligations to remain ‘within the strictest rules of modesty and truth’, and the narrator’s declaration to do so.

It continues: I was born at York, in the year 1632, of a reputable Family: my father was a merchant born at Bremen; his original name was Kreutzuzer, which, for the sake of the English pronunciation, was afterwards changed into Crusoe. My mother’s name was Robinson, a native of the county of York, and for that reason I was called Robinson, after her maiden name. I was the youngest of three brothers …

Compare with this abridgement of 1815, also held at Senate House, which skips the assurance of veracity and most of the family background to launch immediately into the story: I was born of a good family in the city of York, where my father, who was a native of Bremen, had settled, after having got a handsome estate by merchandise. My heart began to be very early filled with rambling thoughts … The different weighting continues throughout.

Truly, Robinson Crusoe has, in the past three hundred years provided a fascinating legacy.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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