Daniel Defoe is an excellent tour-guide to a lost world, says Desmond Albrow A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain by Daniel Defoe. Ed by PN Furbank, WR Owens and Al Coulson, Yale University Press, £16.95 paper, £27.50 cloth.
FOR MI THIS was not so much a serene read from cover to cover as a Big Dipper of a book.
Unless you are an 18th century historian or a student of the works of Daniel Defoe, I doubt whether you will settle down and read A Tour Through the Whole of Great Britain from beginning to end.
I certainly did not. I chose places (the old West Riding, Oxford, London, the West Country) that I know reasonably well to see what Defoe had to say about them. Rarely was I disappointed with his early 18th century views.
Thus Defoe on churches in the capital: "The churches in London are rather convenient than fine, not adorned with pomp and pageantry as in Popish countries: but, like the true Protestant plainness, they have made very little of ornament either within them or without, nor, excepting a few, are they famous for London steeples, a great many of them are very mean, and some that seem adorned, are rather deformed than beautified by the heads that contrived, or by the hands that built them.
"Some, however, hold up their heads with grandeur and magnificence, and are really ornaments to the whole, I mean by these, such as Bow, St Brides, the new church in the Strand, Rood Lane church, or St Margaret Pattons, St Antholins, St Clement Danes and some others...
"But the beauty of all churches in the city, and of all the Protestant churches in the world, is the cathedral of St Paul's..."
The editors have done at. excellent job, not only in reducing the considerable length of Defoe's original text, but in the introduction of text which sets the seem for its composition an outlines the aims of the author.
Defoe, as might have been expected from the author of Robinson Crusoe, was no lily-livered aesthete but a man forged in a cruel old world of religion and politics. At various stages in his life he was a pamphleteer, novelist, bankrupt, jailbird, secret agent and, it must be said, a bit of a political trimmer.
His aim in undertaking the Tour, according to th. editors, was to illustrate th power and the glory of tradin Britain and to boost th. patriotism of his readers. In modern parlance, Defoe could be seen as seeking th. "feel-good" factor.
This delightfully-produced book, with its captivating an. sometimes sumptuou pictures, undoubtedly I. a this effect on me.