Reviewed by Harriet
I suspect that neither of these two great classics has ever been out of print since their respective first appearances in 1719 and 1897, and a quick look at Amazon reveals that there are numerous editions available today.
Do we need any more?
Well, yes, if you are talking about what Alma Classics has done with these new reprints. Essentially, they have repackaged them for younger readers. This involves not just new, eye-catching covers and a smattering of new illustrations in the text, but also a section at the end called Extra Material for Young Readers. I’m not sure what age group they have in mind, but my thirteen year old grandson – admittedly quite a precocious reader – is reading Dracula at the moment and will appreciate the extra information about the writer, the book, and the characters, and may find the glossary helpful too. Because although both novels have become such cultural icons that it’s hard to believe there’s anyone in the world who hasn’t heard of them, it’s questionable how many people have actually read the originals. Neither was intended as a book for children, and though there have been numerous repackagings, of Crusoe in particular, aimed at them, these are usually heavily abridged and stripped of difficult, challenging language and ideas. Indeed, even adult students have trouble getting past the archaic language, so anything that can help with this must surely be very welcome. However, if you can get past all the stumbling blocks, it’s easy to understand why these two very different novels have caught the public imagination so forcibly.
Robinson Crusoe, of course, is an archetypal story of adventure and survival. Crusoe has sometimes been described as an Everyman figure – in other words, he could stand for you and me, and most people who read the novel will surely be asking themselves how they would survive in a similar situation. He is, of course, amazingly resourceful, but also reassuringly human in his reactions to his many initial failures, and this aspect of the book is certainly what has drawn readers of all ages to it over the centuries and inspired the many films, TV series, parodies, and theme parks that have sprung up in recent years. But with the advent of literary criticism and theory, the novel has also been read as an allegory of English colonialism, with Crusoe, as James Joyce wrote, representing:
the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.
Much has also been made of the religious aspect of the novel, with Crusoe’s diary as a type of spiritual autobiography, as he wrestles with his views of providence, sin and redemption. Then there’s Crusoe as a representation of 18th-century economic man, carefully keeping his accounts, whether of gold or of goats and cats, and somehow managing to leave the island after 27 years, richer than he was when he was shipwrecked. Some of these issues are raised in the Extra Material at the end of this edition, which also helpfully notes some of Defoe’s probable sources, all of which may provide some food for thought to younger readers.
Dracula is a very different but equally challenging read. For many young people it will be their first encounter with an epistolary novel, as the whole thing is composed of letters sent between the various protagonists, plus some newspaper articles and diary extracts. But concealed, as it were, behind the old-fashioned seeming form and the rather formal late Victorian language is a story of such powerful gothic horror that it is hardly surprising that it took such a hold on the pubic imagination – a hold that has only grown over the years. Needless to say, like Defoe, Stoker has been subjected to various forms of interpretation over the years –Dracula as the Freudian id, as embodying homosexuality, as respresenting Oscar Wilde, or the actor Henry Irving (whose secretary Stoker was for many years), as a response to the New Woman, and more besides. But few of us, old or young, will be reading the novel with these interpretations at the forefront of of minds. Although vampire novels had existed before Dracula, it is Stoker’s novel that has created the archetypal image of the deathless bloodsucker, who moves to England because there’s more fresh blood available there. Certainly the obvious sexual undercurrents (played up to the hilt in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film) add a tremendous frisson to the story, but basically it is an absolutely gripping horror story, which confronts the age-old problems of good and evil in an irresistibly attractive way.
So I’m wishing Alma Classics good luck with these new reprints. I’m giving them to my grandson, and I hope they’ll find their way to many intelligent young people who want a great story with a bit of a challenge thrown in. It’s been a pleasure to reaquaint myself with them.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (Alma Classics, 2015). 9781847494856, 372pp., paperback original. BUY at Blackwell’s.