Katherine Frank has written an interesting and agreeable account of the island stories of Daniel Defoe and Robert Knox, in particular Robinson Crusoe and An Historical Relation of the island of Ceylon. She attempts the impossible and one can only admire her persistence. As the title suggests, Frank seeks to attribute the creation of the myth of the desert island to these two writers. Of course, they did not create a myth but rather wrote into it and in so doing strengthened it. British people, as an island race, have always been fascinated by mythical accounts of strange and exotic islands to which Defoe and Knox added so brilliantly in a form of survival challenge.
The islands described and the experiences of their heroes are very different. Ceylon was inhabited and Knox was free to move around it while Defoe’s island was deserted. There were many other major differences that Frank does her best to ignore. Her attempt to describe two lives run in parallel does not work as a narrative. Defoe and Knox were contemporaneous but there is no evidence that they met.
Frank provides brief biographies of both writers and accounts of their island experiences. These accounts add nothing to our understanding of Defoe and only a prosaic interpretation of Robinson Crusoe. Frank could have made a more impressive contribution if she had restricted her account to Knox and been more searching in her research.
Frank does demonstrate that Defoe drew upon material from Knox’s work in Robinson Crusoe and Captain Singleton. She is right about her examples. However, all creative writers are great thieves and Defoe is not an exception. He made extensive use of other writers and manuscripts without acknowledgement.
Defoe had the advantage of writing forty years after Knox when the public appetite for exotic travel stories was at a peak. But what really distinguishes these authors and their tales are the personality and skill of the writers. Knox has interesting material but adds little to it. Defoe’s account is the work of a literary genius and lives on in the memory.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Frank set out to prove that Robert Knox was the principal influence on Defoe in writing Robinson Crusoe. I have published a proof that Defoe bought Selkirk’s writings from him in 1712 and stated writing Robinson Crusoe in Halifax from that date. In reality Defoe was a voracious reader and devoured most of the travel literature of his time.
All biography is a work of the imagination. On this occasion Frank has been timid and thus unable to rise to the challenge Defoe presents to any writer seeking the truth of his remarkable life.