Daniel Defoe
(1660-1731)

This incident, which took place 'about 80 years ago', was related by Richard Polwhele in a letter dated 1822.

ABOUT 80 years ago, there was no place of worship at a large village to the west of Truro, distant at least five miles from its parish church; nor was there a Bible to be seen: but there were one Testament, and one Common Prayer-book, which were bound together. This valuable rarity was the property of an old woman who kept the village inn, and, with the celebrated history of Robinson Crusoe, was deposited on a shelf in the kitchen. On a summer's day, alarmed by a violent thunderstorm, the villagers sought shelter under the roof which contained this sacred deposit, as the only place of safety. To make assurance doubly sure, anxious inquiry was made for Jack, the landlady's apprentice, who had the rare good fortune to have learnt his letters. This lad was considered a prodigy; and, being found, was desired to commence reading prayers to the terrified auditory, who were on their knees in the common drinking room. Jack went to fetch the Prayerbook from the shelf, where it had long rested beside its companion. Unfortunately, as things were in a state of confusion, he took down the latter, and falling on his knees, began reading as fast as he could. And, from miscalling some words and misspelling others, the boy had continued some time before the error was discovered. At length, having stumbled upon the man Friday, his mistress cried out:

'Why, Jock! thee has got the wrong book! sure thee'st reading prayers out of Robinson Crusoe!'

— Jack felt this reproof as an insult offered to his superior understanding, and pertinaciously continued to read, declaring that

'Robinson Crusoe would as soon stop the thunder as the prayerbook.'

— Richard Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826), ii. 718-20.


A RESPECTABLE alderman of Oxford, Mr. Tawney, was so fascinated with Robinson Crusoe that he used to read it through every year, and thought every part of it as true as holy writ. Unfortunately for him, a friend at last told him that it was little more than a fiction; that Robinson Crusoe was but a Scottish sailor of the name of Alexander Selkirk, whose plain story of his shipwreck on the island of Juan Fernandez had been embellished and worked up into the narrative he so much admired, by an ingenious author, Daniel Defoe.

'Your information, sir,' said the alderman, 'may be very correct, but I wish you had withheld it; for in undeceiving me, you have deprived me of one of the greatest pleasures of my old age.'

The Percy Anecdotes, Collected and Edited by Reuben and Sholto Percy [i.e. J. Byerley and J. C. Robertson] (1868 edn. ), i. 544.

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