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Classics in Short No.98 Brian Alderson

An adventure story for children before such a thing seemed possible: Robinson Crusoe

“Poor Robin Crusoe!

Where are you, Robin Crusoe? Where are you? Where have you been?”

Thus Poll, the parrot, when the shipwrecked mariner returns to his homely bower after a day or two’s survey of his island kingdom. And perhaps we can concur with Poll, not so much because of the fate that had brought her master to his lonely residence or for his eight and twenty years, two months and nineteen days of practising survival techniques, but more for what has happened during the two hundred and ninety-four years (almost exactly) since he gave the world an account of his ‘strange surprizing’ adventures.

There had been nothing like it before.

That a life, seemingly so exactly minuted, could be a work of fiction – the first modern novel as it happens – was altogether strange and surprizing in itself. Whether true, as some believed, or not, the tale was met with wonderment and instant bestsellerdom when it came out in April, 1719. At least four editions of the book went through the press before the year was done and Mr Crusoe, a shrewd enough business man, saw to it that some Further Adventures got into print within five months of the first volume. But the book pirates were active alongside the maritime ones and poor Robin found the first assailants of his success in coffee-house abridgments and in serializations in the weekly press.

The graphic instancy

of his story as well as its immediate newsworthiness would surely have penetrated the neglected world of the child-reader along with the busy one of adults. (In 1728 little Jemmy Yorke only agreed to suffering an anal clyster on promise that he should have a copy of Robinson Crusoe as a reward.) Like their elders they suddenly discovered the potential of a written story as a source of entertainment and, with nothing to speak of devised for them by the publishers at that time, they look to have tackled the substantial volumes of the original or its re-workings with readerly zest. It was not until mid-century that the one-, two-, or even three-hundred pages of Robinson Crusoe were shrunk down to a 24-page chapbook. (And once done, such drastic shortenings became legion, many – from Plymouth to Glasgow – using the same texts and hacking out the same illustrations.)

Poor Robin indeed.

He didn’t just create a story but a genre. Jean-Jacques Rousseau can hardly be blamed for requiring his Emil’s first book to be Robinson Crusoe, an example of practical resourcefulness, free of the corruptions of civilised life, but it focussed the attention of would-be educators on the story and produced its conversion to a fireside tract. This was the

32 Books for Keeps No.199 March 2013

German Robinson der Jűngere of 1779-80 by Joachim Campe who had his youthful hero washed up on the island without all the accoutrements that the original gained – a more fully Rousseauesque instruction manual that swept Europe. (Britain had it as The New Robinson Crusoe, illustrated by John Bewick no less, but it went everywhere, sometimes being attributed to Defoe himself.)

Adventure was nonetheless more profitable.

The first abridgment specifically for children (unlike the chapbooks which were


everybody) was a sixpenny one from Newbery’s


round about 1768, ‘printed for the inhabitants of [Robinson’s] island and sold by all the booksellers in the world’ with education and moral reflections giving way to a selective treatment of Events. Those at the start, when Crusoe is enslaved by the Moors, are often passed over in order to get him to the desert island and, once there, his protracted spell of housekeeping is also much abridged in order to get to Man Friday, the cannibals, and corpses all over the beach.

Having opened up so exotic a seam,

Defoe and Campe came to be seen as a mite circumscribed and, as the trade in children’s books grew and flourished, the variants became legion. Whole families are wrecked (Marryat wrote his Masterman Ready because he couldn’t do with the inaccurate topographies foisted on the Swiss bunch by Johann David Wyss). There were Dog Crusoes, Rival Crusoes, Arctic Crusoes; there were Crag Islands, Invisible Islands, and Coral Islands, long before the Treasure one turned up. And Ro-binson himself is often traduced. (There is, for instance, a Victorian version by Mary Godolphin all in short words for the child who is but new to print and can cope with but one syl-lab-le at a time.)

What though of the original ?

Has any serious attempt been made to offer children a worthy version of the whole of

Defoe’s great book since the admirable edition edited by Kathleen Lines in 1968 with its masterly line-drawings by Edward Ardizzone? And indeed, how many children would have read that book then or would read it now? It lives only as a name and a theme, fit for pantomimes, or such modern chapbooks as Ladybird’s I Can Read It Myself version, or as the source for that now overpopulated site to which celebrities retire in order to play shellac records on a wind-up gramophone.

Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.

Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe, 272pp, Wordsworth Editions 978-1853260452, £1.99.

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