I recently unearthed the intriguing book Good Morning, Mr Crusoe by Robinson, nom de plume of Charles Boyle, publisher of micropress CB Editions. Reflecting on an upbringing at “the posh end of education” in the 1960s, it was published in 2019 to coincide with 300 years of Daniel Defoe’s novel, a mainstay of children’s literature, in Robinson’s view, “incorporated into an education system designed to promote and maintain imperialist ambitions”.
EM Forster was an earlier critic, who described it as “an English book, and only the English could have accepted it as adult literature; comforted by the feeling that the life of adventure could be led by a man duller than themselves… boy scout material”.
James Joyce was also unimpressed. “The true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe, who, cast away on a desert island, in his pocket a knife and a pipe, becomes an architect, a carpenter, a knife-grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella maker, and a clergyman. He is the true prototype of the British colonist… The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity.”
Robinson is scathing of the racism and misogyny in this fantasy of solitary survival. “In 1719 Robinson Crusoe brought onto the page certain assumptions of its time – that slavery is OK and can be squared with Christianity, that the function of women in society is to serve men, that people whose skin colour is not white are savages – and did not challenge them. The book’s long-lasting popularity – not least among those who took it upon themselves to decide what should be popular, which books to offer to children (Crusoe) and which not (Moll Flanders) – largely derives from this failure to challenge.”
I believe many people see classic books – important works of art, so esteemed as to seem beyond reproach – as like a long, cold corridor in which they are not allowed to run.