Book of a Lifetime: Robinson Crusoe, By Daniel Defoe

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The Independent Culture

Over the years, Robinson Crusoe has become my best-loved novel. I feel happy when I see it on a shelf, on a bus, in somebody's hand, even my own, old copy now on the desk, a beautifully illustrated edition inscribed "Peter from Mum 1919". Crusoe was never meant to be a children's book and I didn't begin to understand it until I had written novels. Defoe was nearly 60 when he wrote it, and he wrote at tremendous speed in the midst of his tumultuous life, section by section with a hungry public waiting, as Dickens's readers did. Dickens hated Robinson Crusoe. He said it had never made anyone laugh or cry.

Well, I suppose we know what he meant. Fashion changed. Defoe came to be thought of as a journeyman, the book unsubtle, repetitive and too long. It may have been "the granite rock on which all English fiction is based", but Defoe was thought a primitive. Even in the 1980s, when I was writing Crusoe's Daughter, the head of literature at an Oxford college said to me, "Of course, I would never teach Crusoe."

Next, everybody began to find sinister sides: racism, anti-feminism, the glorification of the oligarch. It has become usual in modern Crusoe novels to demonise the hero and make Man Friday the fairy prince.

But the book, like the Odyssey, has a life of its own. It was frequently adapted "for children" and into plays, films, opera even Crusoe on Ice! There's a beloved children's book, The Dog Crusoe. Each year, he makes a wonderful panto.

Like Odysseus, Crusoe can be ridiculous, but both are brave and enduring. Both are filled with lust - lust for travel and adventure. After 30 years on the island, Crusoe is off again!

Defoe was not well-travelled. He was born in east London and died, running from creditors, in Bunhill Fields. He'd never seen the coast of Sallee or met a cannibal. He lived in shadow the dark alleys that Coetzee describes in Foe. His bust used to stand in Walthamstow Public Library; it is now in a museum. He was a toad of a man who sometimes worked as a back street government spy.

Yet Robinson Crusoe is bathed in sunlight. He is more honest than Odysseus was and straightforward as he is brave. Yet he can be pathetically insecure. After seeing a human footprint in the sand, he hides for two years! He passionately calls on God but seldom thinks about the family he abandoned. Sex does not seem to occur to him except once, when he finds himself fancying Friday and hastily recovers himself. The island where Crusoe is "lord of all he surveys", for all its shining beauty, he hates. There is not a trace of the romantic in Crusoe or in Defoe. When at last he is rescued he says little, sheds simple tears. No, academics cannot teach Crusoe. You can't "teach" a rock anything.

Jane Gardam's 'The People on Privilege Hill' is published by Chatto & Windus