Reading with Rose: Defoe’s Crusoe

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The Wonderful Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

We have a special treat to explore in this month’s Reading with Rose: Robinson Crusoe. Considered by some to be the first modern novel [1], Daniel Defoe’s isolation epic is a touchstone of childhood reading the world over. That was certainly the case in New England in 1809, as evidenced by this month’s special book from Rose’s library. This object is special not only for its physicality, but perhaps even more so for its home: the Nichols House Museum’s archives. This book, part of Rose’s collection left to the museum at our matriarch’s behest, is so precious that it must be housed in our archives in order to ensure its preservation.

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Interior of Robinson Crusoe.
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Child’s primer, 1806.

This edition of Robinson Crusoe looks very similar to children’s primary schoolbooks of the early nineteenth-century. We can compare this edition of Crusoe to one of those schoolbooks–called primers–thanks to their shared ownership. Both of these books belonged to Charles Nichols.

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Charles Nichols’ signature inside of his schoolbook.
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Charles Nichols’ signature inside of his edition of Robinson Crusoe.

Charles Nichols (1808-1885) was Rose’s great-uncle; Arthur Howard Nichols’ uncle. Both of these books are dated within the first few years of Charles’ life, lending to the probability that they were used to teach him literacy. Coincidentally, Robinson Crusoe could have done more than merely teach Charles to read.

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Charles Nichols, n.d.

After working as a painter and furniture maker, and in daguerreotype galleries, Charles gave up his work and devoted his life to the study of religion and became a missionary. While Robinson Crusoe is today remembered as an adventure story, Daniel Defoe imbued his classic with his own fervent religious sentiments–a fact which can be said about most of his works.

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Daniel Defoe, from a 1900 edition of Robinson Crusoe.

Daniel Defoe (1660?-1731) was not merely an expert at writing fictional adventures–he lived them, too. When Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719, Defoe was fifty-nine. In the years between Defoe’s birth and the birth of his legendary literary figure, the author had been involved in numerous altercations with the law. Defoe was a known dissenter, which would have earned him a reputation even without his writing religious pamphlets arguing for religious freedom. He knew the dangers of writing such works, which were confirmed when the anonymous author of the pamphlets was caught. Defoe was arrested for seditious libel, put in the pillory and subsequently imprisoned for his writings. Upon his release, he was endlessly threatened with arrests, and eventually became a “master spy” for the government. Continuing his writing career, Defoe authored novels, conduct books, and geographical books; he also raised corn and bred cattle. Defoe’s final years were full of debts and debt-collectors. He died in 1731. [2]

While Charles Nichols did not spend decades marooned on an island, he did write down his inner most thoughts. Nichols kept a diary from 1861-1878; he wrote about his thoughts on the Civil War, his religious sentiments, and his daily activities. Today, this diary lives next to his schoolbook edition of Robinson Crusoe–which may have inspired many of his own adventures.

Notes

[1] Allen, Walter Ernest. Six Great Novelists. H. Hamilton, 1955.

[2] Paula R. Backscheider, ‘Defoe, Daniel (1660?–1731)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Jan. 2008.

 

By Victoria Johnson

Visitor Services and Research Associate

 

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Author: Nichols House Museum

The Nichols House Museum's mission is: To preserve and interpret the 1804 townhouse that was from 1885 until 1960 the home of Rose Standish Nichols, landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist. The house was built by Jonathan Mason and is attributed to Charles Bulfinch. The museum educates visitors by providing a unique glimpse into the domestic life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on Boston's historic Beacon Hill.

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