Friday, March 07, 2008

Matter of fact

At the Guardian, John Kerrigan considers Daniel Defoe's history as a spy and the importance of his Scottish experience for the technical breakthroughs of Defoe's prose:
Take the moment in 1706 when the Edinburgh crowds attacked the house of Sir Patrick Johnston, one of the treaty negotiators:
His Lady, in the utmost Despair with this Fright, comes to the Window, with two Candles in her Hand, that she might be known; and cryed out, for GODs Sake, to call the Guards: . . . one Captain Richardson, who Commanded, taking about thirty Men with him, March'd bravely up to them; and making his way with great Resolution thro' the Croud, they Flying, but Throwing Stones, and Hallowing at him, and his Men, he seized the Foot of the Stair Case; and then boldly went up, clear'd the Stair, and took six of the Rabble in the very Act; and so delivered the Gentleman and his Family.
It was Sir Walter Scott who noticed that Defoe creates "an appearance of REALITY" as a novelist by presenting himself as "a man of plain sense" and by including "some point which ascertains the eyewitness". In the assault on Johnston's house, we are persuaded that Defoe was there by the two candles in the lady's hands, by the mixing of honest-sounding approximation ("about thirty Men") with persuasive exactness ("six of the Rabble in the very Act"), and by Defoe's location as an observer: "the Author of this had one great Stone thrown at him, for but looking out of a Window". All this is designed to convince us that Defoe knows enough to sustain his charge that the protesters were a rabble led astray by Jacobites, yet the construction of the scene recalls the milling crowds in Moll Flanders. The motive is propagandist, but the fruit is a breakthrough in realism.

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