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The Life, Adventures & Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton


poet Montgomery, and it would be difficult now to find anybody writing
so confidentlyÑ"Unfortunately the taste or circumstances of Defoe led
him mostly into low life," however much the critic might believe it. But
let us glance at a few passages in "Captain Singleton," which may show
us why Defoe excels as a realist, and why his descriptions of "low life"
are artistically as perfect as any descriptions of "higher life" in the works
of the English novelists. Take the following description of kidnapping:Ñ
"The woman pretending to take me up in her arms and kiss me, and
play with me, draws the girl a good way from the house, till at last she
makes a fine story to the girl, and bids her go back to the maid, and tell
her where she was with the child; that a gentlewoman had taken a fancy
to the child and was kissing it, but she should not be frightened, or to
that purpose; for they were but just there; and so while the girl went, she
carried me quite away.ÑPage 2.
Now here, in a single sentence, Defoe catches for us the whole soul
and character of the situation. It seems very simple, but it sums up mar-
vellously an exact observation and knowledge of the arts of the gipsy
child-stealer, of her cunning flattery and brassy boldness, and we can see
the simple little girl running back to the house to tell the nurse that a fine
lady was kissing the child, and had told her to tell where they were and
she should not be frightened, &c.; and this picture again calls up the hue
and cry after the kidnappers and the fruitless hopes of the parents. In a
word, Defoe has condensed in the eight simple lines of his little scene all
that is essential to its living truth; and let the young writer note that it is
ever the sign of the master to do in three words, or with three strokes,
what the ordinary artist does in thirty. Defoe's imagination is so ex-
traordinarily comprehensive in picking out just those little matter-of-fact
details that suggest all the other aspects, and that emphasise the charac-
ter of the scene or situation, that he makes us believe in the actuality of
whatever he is describing. So real, so living in every detail is this apo-
cryphal narrative, in "Captain Singleton," of the crossing of Africa by a
body of marooned sailors from the coast of Mozambique to the Gold
Coast, that one would firmly believe Defoe was committing to writing
the verbal narrative of some adventurer in the flesh, if it were not for cer-
tain passagesÑsuch as the description of the impossible desert on page
90, which proves that Defoe was piecing together his description of an
imaginary journey from the geographical records and travellers' tales of
his contemporaries, aided perhaps by the confused yarns of some sailor
friends. How substantially truthful in spirit and in detail is Defoe's ac-
count of Madagascar is proved by the narrative of Robert Drury's
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