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Hugo Blumenthal © 2006

Robinson Crusoe, Pamela Andrews,


And The Writing Of The Self

by Hugo Blumenthal

That the assumed origins of the English novel should begin with Robinson Crusoe and
Pamela Andrews, two characters apparently quite able to write their own stories, almost to
the point of supplanting their respective authors, seems very remarkable; especially if we
consider that in the Eighteenth Century approximately only 60 percent of the adult men and
between 40 and 50 percent of the women population in England could read and write,
figures that were at least double those in the previous century.1 In such circumstances, and
within the limits of verisimilitude of the lives of Crusoe and Pamela (a verisimilitude that
Defoe and Richardson took so much care to create, pretending to be mere editors of their
texts), their capacity for writing is certainly exceptional. But leaving aside the improbable
amount of time Pamela spends writing (though it can be argued that she can hardly spend
time in anything else), this capacity for writing is more than justified within both novels.
Robinson Crusoe is not difficult to conceive within the approximately 30 percent of
literate men in England by 1659, when he starts his island diary, if we remember that he
belongs to a middle-class family and had received an education specifically directed
towards making of him a lawyer.2
Pamela, though, is more of a challenge. The novel doesn’t include explicit historical
dates or references, but it’s likely that her story could have taken place between 1715 and
1725.3 By that time, that a maid servant could have been able to achieve the style of
Pamela’s letters must be regarded as highly improbable, despite the fact –as Ian Watt
pointed out– that they enjoyed more privacy, artificial light and spare time to read than
many other women.4 But, according to Richardson’s novel, Pamela is not only the daughter
of two teachers (as Robert A. Erickson remind us, her father used to teach grammar, her
mother sewing) 5 but an exceptional young woman who has been placed quite above her

1 J. Paul Hunter, ‘The novel and the socio/cultural history’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth
Century Novel, ed. by John Richetti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 19-20.
2 Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, ed. by J. Donald Crowley (Oxford: Oxford, 1998), pp. 4, 6. Hereafter all
quotations, followed by the letters ‘RC’ and a page number between brackets, are from this edition.
3 Cf. Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely, note 58, in Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, ed. by
Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 527. For the ‘origins’ of
Pamela’s story, see also Alan Dugald McKillop, ‘The Story of Pamela’, Samuel Richardson: Printer and
Novelist (USA: Shoe String, 1960), pp. 26-27.
4 Ian Watt, ‘The Reading Public and the Rise of the Novel’, The Rise of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1985), p. 52.
5 Robert A. Erickson, ‘The Needle and the Pen’, Mother Midnight: Birth, Sex, and Fate in Eighteenth-Century
Fiction (Defoe, Richardson, and Sterne) (New York: AMS, 1986), pp. 74-75.
Hugo Blumenthal © 2006

social level by Mr. B’s mother. In other words, it is the exceptionality of her character that
helps to render her as probable.

That from all the possible forms of writing at their disposition Robinson Crusoe and
Pamela would ‘choose’ to write mainly letters and diaries (or journals) also helped to make
them more credible. Pamela writes mostly letters to her parents, and when she is
imprisoned and restricted from sending letters she starts a diary; a diary that is an extensive
and delayed letter, in the same way that from the beginning her letters are closer to the
entries of a diary. Robinson Crusoe’s writing of his life and adventures, on the other hand,
can be seen from the beginning more like a ‘spiritual autobiography’ (a genre from which
Pamela, as a novel, is not far removed, in its insistent didacticism), but all the same he
reveals the sources of his writing to be mainly ‘journals’: his well known island-diary, or
his ‘Sea-Journals’ and ‘Land-Journals’ (RC289). On top of that, if we agree with Donald
Crowley, for whom Defoe’s ‘rambling sentences, often paragraph-long, create a sense of
authentic life by seeming to render Crusoe’s experiences precisely at the moment he lives
them […]’, Robinson Crusoe doesn’t seem that far from the technique Richardson used
to call ‘writing to the moment’, by which the characters are supposed to consign
through writing their thoughts and emotions as closely as possible to the events that
have originated them. 6
On the popularity of journal-writing at that time, Michael McKeon notes that it was a
very common practice among travellers, in part due to a recommendation by the Royal
Society.7 But more significantly, Paul Hunter reminds us that:
Personal writings were in the seventeenth century private writings, and they
were legion. They came to exist because many Englishmen and Englishwomen
[…] believed that their eternal salvation was closely linked to the events of their
everyday lives […] The recording and analysis of these events, in minute and
painstaking detail, became a sacred duty and a common Protestant practice, and
diary keeping (although primarily insisted upon by Puritan theorists) became a
national habit practiced by a large percentage of those who were literate.8

The effectiveness in terms of verisimilitude of the recourse to first-person narratives is


evident in terms of authority, regarding experience and life. The format of letters, diaries
and journals serve to document ‘history’, rendering ‘fiction’ (in the broad sense of creation)
closer to ‘the reality of life.’ In that sense, neither Robinson Crusoe or Pamela is writing a
novel. The ‘editor’ of Robinson Crusoe’s writings ‘believes the thing to be a just History of
Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it […]’ (RC1), in the same way that the

6 Donald Crowley, ‘Introduction’, Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, ed. by J. Donald Crowley (Oxford:
Oxford, 1998), p. xvi.
7 Michael McKeon, ‘Parables of the Younger Son (I): Defoe and the Naturalization of Desire’, The Origins of
the English Novel 1600-1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), p. 316.
8 Paul J. Hunter, ‘The Self and the World: Private Histories’, Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of
Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (New York: Norton, 1990), p. 303.

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‘editor’ of Pamela’s writings believes they ‘have their Foundation in Truth and
Nature’ (P3).9
It could be said, then, that Crusoe and Pamela write to reproduce reality. What is real,
however, is shown to be subjective, because all they are interested in is their own individual
realities. As Pamela recognises, the truth represented through her writings is not necessarily
what others will agree is the objective reality:
[…] I think I have no Reason to be afraid of being found insincere, or
having, in any respect, told you a Falsehood; because, tho’ I don’t remember
all I wrote, yet I know I wrote my Heart; and that is not deceitful. (P230)

That her ‘Heart’ is not deceitful means that her letters may represent not what others
(like Mr. B) would acknowledge as the truth of what had happened but what she felt had
happened, reality as she lived it. On the other hand, according to G. A. Starr, Defoe’s
writing style in part can also be described as a rendering of things and events ‘as perceived,
as in some sense transformed and recreated in the image of the narrator.’10 Reality, then, is
not necessarily what is told; the reader just gets one version –as Mr. B at the beginning
repeatedly seems to try to warn the reader (see for example P36: ‘[…] she has written
letters […] to her Father and Mother, and others, as far as I know; in which she makes
herself an Angel of Light, and me, her kind Master and Benefactor, a Devil incarnate!’)
Curiously enough, later on the same character no longer recognises the difference
anymore between what Pamela writes and what happened. He even praises Pamela for her
memory: ‘[…] thou hast a Memory, as I see by your Papers, that nothing escapes it’ (P230).
For Pamela, though, there is nothing to be proud of. As she says:
[…] what poor Abilities I have, serve only to make me more miserable! – I
have no Pleasure in my Memory, which impresses things upon me, that I
could be glad never were, or everlastingly to forget. (P230)

But despite what Pamela says, in her peculiar inversion of the mechanics of memory
(where memory is an agent that impresses ‘things’ upon Pamela, rather than ‘things’
leaving impressions upon memory, or the mind, which is the usual metaphor, as in
Robinson Crusoe (RC88)), she is determined not to forget.11 As the ‘Editor’ points out,
mirroring Pamela’s own words (P44), her compulsive writing seems then due to her desire
to:

9 Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, ed. by Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2001). All quotations followed by the letter P (for Pamela) and a page number
between brackets are from this edition, which is based on the original text of 1740. Richardson’s rewriting
of Pamela, originally printed in 1801, posits slightly different questions on the subject of writing, which I
have preferred not to explore here.
10 G. A. Starr, ‘Defoe’s Prose Style: 1. The Language of Interpretation’, Modern Philology, 71 (1974), 281
(author’s italics)
11 Cf. Jacques Derrida, ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’, Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass
(London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 246-291.

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[…] amuse and employ her Time, in hopes some Opportunity might offer to
send it to her Friends, and, as was her constant View, that she might afterwards
thankfully look back upon the Dangers she had escaped […] that then she might
examine, and either approve of, or repent for, her own Conduct in them. (P98)

Memory, despite Pamela’s fears of not been able to forget, is evidently mistrusted from
the start. In fear of forgetting his ‘[…] Reckoning of Time for want of Books and Pen and
Ink […]’ (RC64), Robinson Crusoe, as well, mistrusts memory: life has to be recorded
through writing.12 Pamela and Crusoe resort then to writing as an aid to memory and a
guarantee of truth. Their letters and diaries are not only written close to the original events
they want to represent, but their function is to preserve their memories in the long term.
According to James H. Maddox Jr., however, Crusoe seems to prefer ‘the more distant
accounts he wrote later’, in which he ‘most clearly shows his ability to dominate his fate.’13
After all, Crusoe is also his own first editor. But even then he reverts to the ‘original’
versions written in his diaries and journals, refusing to write retrospectively.
Maddox Ford also points out that ‘there is from the very beginning of Defoe’s novel
writing a strong suggestion of disparity, a reminder of the distance between text and naked
event.’14 Such a distance, inherent to the act of writing, is mirrored by Crusoe’s and
Pamela’s take of distance from ‘reality’ in order to render it through writing: an inevitable
distance in time, since all narration is after the event (even if it pretends to be closer to its
origins), and a distance in ‘space’: Crusoe starts his diary in the solitude of his island,
Pamela has to retire to her closet.
Pamela, however, is more aware of her lack of mastery over her writings, not only
because of memory (‘I don’t remember all I wrote’ P230), but also because of possible
misinterpretations (‘that is your Comment; but it does not appear so in the Text’ P230),
one of her reasons for concealing her writings from Mr. B’s eyes. But despite the risk of
misrepresentation, writing is considered, above all, as a form to preserve or reveal the inner
truth of the self.
Pamela’s compulsive writing seems triggered as a defence mechanism against Mr B’s
attempts to her virtue; attempts that she perceives as the ‘greatest Harm in the World’ (P23)
because they entail forgetting herself along with the ‘memory’ that –to use Patricia
McKee’s words – ‘keep hold of things.’15 Her compulsive writing functions then as a way
to affirm her true self, against the censures and misinterpretations Mr B tries to impose on
her; a way to regain possession of herself through the memory of the dangers she has to
face, which threaten to change who she thinks she really is. What she ignores is that writing
would necessarily change her, since writing –as Jacques Derrida has pointed out– ‘is that

12 Cf. Homer O. Brown, ‘The Displaced Self in the Novels of Daniel Defoe’, ELH, 38 (1971), p. 587.
13 James H. Maddox, Jr., ‘Interpreter Crusoe’, ELH, 51 (1984), pp. 35-36.
14 ‘Interpreter Crusoe’, p. 35. See also Homer O. Brown, ‘The Displaced Self in the Novels of Daniel Defoe’,
p. 585.
15 Patricia McKee, ‘Corresponding Freedoms: Language and the Self in Pamela’, ELH, 52 (1985), p. 625.

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forgetting of the self, that exteriorization, the contrary of the interiorizing memory […]’16; a
‘forgetting’ by which she, rather than reproducing a supposedly stable self called Pamela,
cannot but become her own text, a ‘fiction’ with which Mr B, her most fervent reader,
would fall in love. Writing is then the forger of her happiness, because it is through her
writing (and ‘through the leading role that she plays in her own romance’)17 that Pamela is
rewarded, as she acknowledges to Mr Longman at the end: ‘[…] you don’t know how
much of my present Happiness I owe to the Sheets of Paper, and Pens and Ink you
furnish’d me with’ (P460).
Robinson Crusoe doesn’t have to struggle against censure or misrepresentations, but
against the unknown dangers of his adventures and his guilt for the ‘original sin’ of
disobedience to his father. Writing is then not only a recourse to memory, to not forget what
has happened to him, but a form of ‘thought’, to think about what has happened, in order to
understand the possible hidden reasons –a sort of rationalization of ‘Providence.’ (In that
sense writing also implies a reading of the world and the self.) By supposedly finding those
hidden reasons Crusoe justifies himself, tries to find an absolution for his ‘original sin’; a
‘sin’ he seems unable to stop performing in his incapacity to settle down, by his own will,
in one place. Like Pamela, then, Crusoe creates a new ‘self’ through his writing, becoming
the product of his writings –what he also sought from the beginning: a representation of his
life by which he has accomplished more than his father ever did –a representation that
could stand as a justification of his life, in the same way Pamela’s writing stands as a proof
of her virtue.

Hugo Blumenthal
London, 2006

16 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (London: John Hopkins
University Press, 1997), p. 24.
17 Sheila C. Conboy, ‘Fabric and Fabrication in Richardson’s Pamela’, ELH, 54 (1987), p. 82.