Robinson Crusoe: The original inspiration of Ripping Yarns

Introduction

Many of the heroic boy’s adventure novels of the Victorian and Edwardian eras owe their existence to the influence of Robinson Crusoe, even though it was certainly not originally written as a stirring adventure story for boys. In this post, I will discuss Robinson Crusoe and how it came to be in the form that many of us are now very familiar with, as a book for younger readers. In subsequent posts, I will explore the influence of Robinson Crusoe on later authors.

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Robinson Crusoe (1719)

The First Edition

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, to give a shorter form of its very long title was published by W. Taylor at the Sign of the Ship in Paternoster Row, London on 25th April 1719. It was advertised on the title page as “Written by Himself“, no doubt to give the impression that it was a true story, but as we all now know, it was written by a London-based puritan non-conformist writer, journalist, merchant and adventurer, Daniel Defoe (c1660 – 1731). The book was instantly a popular success and sold out four editions before the end of 1719. A rather less successful sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was published in August 1719, which was followed in 1720 by a final sequel Serious Reflections during the Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: With his Vision of the Angelik World, which was, perhaps unsurprisingly, even less successful that The Farther Adventures. Some reprinted editions appeared which contained all three books, but eventually only the original volume, with sometimes elements of The Farther Adventures were frequently republished under the title Robinson Crusoe.

Some people claim that Robinson Crusoe was the first novel written in English; others would claim that Aphra Behn’s novella Oroonoko (1688) better deserves that accolade. What most critics would agree is that Robinson Crusoe was the first great novel in English. Robinson Crusoe‘s influence is underscored by the fact that it has never been out of print during the last 300 years, and that it has been translated into hundreds of languages. Indeed, it appeared in Amsterdam in a French translation as early as 1720, which contained several illustrations as well as a frontispiece. In that same year, 1720, the first German translation was also published.

The Story

The basic story is very familiar to many people today, even if they have never read the book. Crusoe, a young man of 18, leaves his parental home to seek adventure and fortune at sea. He is shipwrecked, captured by Moorish slavers, but escapes by small boat to the coast of West Africa, where he is rescued by a Portuguese ship and taken to Brasil, where he lives as a plantation owner for several years. He heads out to sea again on a slaving voyage but is shipwrecked again off the coast of Venezuela, on an imaginary island set between the mouth of the Orinoco river and the large island of Trinidad. He learns to be self sufficient on the island and survives alone there for many years before he see a footprint, evidence of the presence of another human. He discovers that his island is occasionally visited by groups of cannibals who feast on their prisoners during their stay. He watches for their return and rescues one of the prisoners, who he calls Friday, for the day of his release, and proceeds to teach Friday English language and culture and converts him to Christianity. A few years later, Crusoe and Friday attack another visiting group of cannibals, and liberate two prisoners, who turn out to be Friday’s father and a Spaniard. Eventually, Crusoe and Friday are rescued by a visiting English ship, after Crusoe helps the captain defeat his mutinous crew. Crusoe returns to England after more than 35 years have elapsed since his departure.

Robinson Crusoe as a book for Juveniles

Defoe intended his book to be a moral tale that showed how a rather reckless youth can become a thoughtful, religious and worthy man, by application to work and devotion to the scriptures. The original text by Defoe contains many sections of religious or philosophical ruminations, that can make the book quite heavy going for the younger or indeed the modern reader. It was first recognised by a German writer that Robinson Crusoe contained the kernel of an exciting story for younger people. Accordingly, in 1779, Joachim Heinrich Campe translated and edited Defoe’s work to produce Robinson der J√ľngere (Robinson the Younger). Campe followed this with a similar treatment of The Farther Adventures published as a second volume in 1780. These two books came to the attention of the London publisher John Stockdale, who translated them back into English, and then published them in two volumes as The New Robinson Crusoe An Instructive and Entertainment History for the Use of Children of Both Sexes (1788). Stockdale claimed to have translated the book from a French text, but it was clearly a translation of Campe’s German texts. In the following year, Stockdale published a simplified single volume version of this treatment of Robinson Crusoe as a book for children as An Abridgement of The New Robinson Crusoe An Instructive and Entertainment History for the Use of Children of Both Sexes (1789). This was the real start in English of Robinson Crusoe as an adventure book for the younger reader.

The Classic Stockdale Edition of 1790

John Stockdale continued his interest in Defoe’s work by publishing a new two volume edition of the original Defoe text of the first two volumes of Robinson Crusoe in 1790. This was adorned with the first satisfactory and realistic set of illustrations for the book which were created by Thomas Stothard. The second volume concludes with a Life of Defoe by George Chalmers, together with an engraved portrait of Defoe which had first been published in 1703.

Several editions of Robinson Crusoe with Stothard’s illustrations were published by Stockdale over the next 15 years. Later editions by a range of publishers continued to use re-engraved versions of Thomas Stothard’s illustrations well into the first half of the 20th century. My copy of Stockdale’s original 1790 edition of Robinson Crusoe is shown below, together with some examples of Stothard’s illustrations.

Portrait and Life of Defoe, Stockdale’s Robinson Crusoe, Volume II, 1790.

Next time…

In the next posting, I will look at some other later editions of Robinson Crusoe from my collection. I will follow that by looking at the new genre created and inspired by Robinson Crusoe, the “Robinsonades”.


Return to Ripping Yarns: Adventure Books for Boys.

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