Cross-Grained Crusoe: Defoe and the
Contradictions of Englishness
FEW writers have been as insistent about their nationality as Daniel Defoe. He was a prolific journalist and author of histories, travel books, handbooks, and advice books, whose titles include A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–6), The Complete English Tradesman (1726), and A Plan of the English Commerce (1728). Not only is he the principal claimant for the title of father of the English novel, but his non-fictional writings amount to a kind of ramshackle encyclopedia, a comprehensive compendium of facts and opinions about the English nation. His greatest contribution to world literature was his creation of Robinson Crusoe, a fictional character who has long been regarded as an archetypal Englishman. Yet Defoe and his fictional creations have a more complex relationship to national identity than appears at first sight.
The historian Linda Colley argues that the construction of the sense of British national identity began with the union of England and Scotland in 1707, more than a century after the two countries were first brought together under the Stuart monarchy.1 The early eighteenth century was a time when nationalities were forcefully asserted and new national symbols invented. However, it is Englishness, not Britishness, that is stressed in Defoe's works and in the literary characterizations of his contemporaries such as Addison's Sir Roger de Coverly (the prototypical country squire) and Arbuthnot's John Bull. Sir Roger and his friends are old-timers who reflect the Whig belief in the healing of national differences and the mellowing of the English nation two generations after the Civil War. John Bull is a symbol of outwardly turned national aggression, an expression of England's growing readiness to challenge France, Holland, and Spain for dominance on the world stage.
In Joseph Addison's Spectator essays of 1711–12, the Tory country squire is shown on his visits to London attending the Club frequented by Mr Spectator, Will Honeycomb, and the City merchant Sir Andrew