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Aug 22, 2012

Colonel Jack

“COLONEL JACK” Daniel Defoe (first published 1722)

As you can see from the heading above, “Something Old” can mean “a venerable and antique classic”, and this is one of those weeks when I will make it mean just that.

Why should I choose to commend a book nearly 300 years old? Daniel Defoe’s Colonel Jack first appeared in 1722, in the same year that the inspired hack published both Moll Flanders and his fictitious (but convincing) Journal of the Plague Year. This was just three years after his Robinson Crusoe. As in so many early 18th century productions, the title page tells you explicitly what you’re in for. Title pages then were something like modern blurbs.

It runs in full as follows: “The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honorable Col. Jacque commonly call’d Col. Jack, who was Born a Gentleman, put ‘Prentice to a Pick-Pocket, was Six-and-Twenty years a Thief, and then Kidnapp’d to Virginia, married four Wives, and five of them prov’d Whores; went into the Wars, behav’d bravely, got Preferment, was made Colonel of a Regiment, came over, and fled with the Chevalier, and is now abroad compleating a Life of Wonders, and resolves to dye a General.”

Complete with original spelling and liberal use of capital letters (and dodgy mathematics about the number of Jack’s wives) this is indeed how the title page reads. And in case you were wondering, “the Chevalier” refers to the Jacobite Stuart claimant to the British throne, “the Old Pretender”, who had attempted to wrest it from those German Hanoverian usurpers just a few years before, in 1715. If Jack “came over” with the Chevalier, it means he was part of the 1715 Jacobite uprising.

But it’s not an obscure antiquarian point that makes me commend this book to you. Having just read this week’s “Something New”, I’m forcibly impressed with the idea that the first-person episodic story of young Enaiatollah Akbari is in a sturdy tradition that goes back at least as far as Defoe.

The modern young Afghani’s story is factual whereas Defoe’s stories were fiction (although Robinson Crusoe did borrow details from the life of the real castaway Alexander Selkirk). Even so, there is that personal confessional style and that loose plotlessness where one damned thing follows another (as in real life), and that driving energy that leads to some form of personal triumph or vindication.

No wonder literary historians have so often placed Defoe in the context of “early capitalism”. He had a basic vision of personal effort and ingenuity overcoming obstacles and perhaps leading to wealth, fame or happiness. Robinson Crusoe converts the desert island to his own uses. Moll Flanders is a whore and a thief who ends up happily married. And, as you can see from the title page, Jack at least attains to some sort of respectability after criminal beginnings.

Of course to modern readers there are details in Defoe’s world-view that are profoundly disturbing. Europeans subduing the world by their own efforts also meant Europeans subduing other non-European people. So roll on slavery, empire and colonialism. Just as Crusoe places his foot on Man Friday’s head, and claims him as a chattel, so is Jack involved in becoming the master of slaves in Virginia. Much academic ink has been spilt in recent times reminding us of the evil of this – and fair enough too. But I still read these early novels with pleasure, partly because of their frank openness about motives and assumptions, even in matters as questionable as these. In that way, they are an un-airbrushed snapshot of a past world.

I could rabbit on with much more about Defoe, especially his habit of scattering dates through his novels, with never a thought for consistent chronology. One wit once added up all the times a protagonist in a Defoe novel made such statements as “I spent ten years working in London” and “I was for nine years a soldier of the line” and so forth. The wit’s conclusion was that if all these statements were true, Defoe’s hero would have to have been about three hundred years old by the novel’s close. As has often been remarked, Defoe has many of the characteristics of an accomplished liar. who could engage the attention and keeps things moving without too much concern for accuracy. But he does engage the attention.

There is one overwhelming question on which I must close – why do I choose Colonel Jack in preference to the much-better-known Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders?

Partly it’s my delight in the specific details of a forgotten world – those details of Jack, as a child, warming his feet at night in the cinders of a workshop’s fire; or Jack as a soldier in old royal Europe.

Partly it’s the greater sympathy I feel for this character – Jack is a bit of a rogue, but not as much of a criminal as Moll Flanders at her worst. Jack does some sober moralising and reflecting, but never becomes as sententious as Robinson Crusoe does.

More than anything, though, it’s the unfamiliarity of the tale. Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are characters known to people who have never actually read the books in which they figure. They have become icons or clichés. With Colonel Jack there is the joy of discovery. I hope I have passed a little of that on.

Note on editions: Like many of Defoe’s works, Colonel Jack has been published in many editions in recent years. The best one I’ve come across is still the one that sits on my shelf – the Oxford University Press one in its “Oxford English Novels” series, with scholarly introduction and notes by Samuel Holt Monk. It was first published in this edition in 1965 and has been reprinted many times since.

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