True Fictions

This is a true fiction about how the venerable genre of true fiction gave rise to the novel in England in the 17th century. Their antecedents probably explain why the best novels remain truthful while at their most fictional.

1. MunchausenBaron Munchausen goes into battle

In the fifth century BC the Greek historian Herodotus travelled his world diligently collecting information for what would be the first history book. He was known thereafter as both “Father of History” and “Father of Lies”.

In that improbable true fiction the Roman Empire, unity bought ease of travel to and from all the countries around the Mediterranean, and beyond. And travellers found there was an audience for their travellers’ tales, even an income from their telling. Satirists were not slow to parody the credulity of listeners and the exaggerations of the story tellers alike. The playwright Plautus had a great success about 200 BC with his story of a bombastic soldier. The play was called Miles Gloriosus, and was based on a Greek play called the Boaster. The type later became a staple in European fiction. Around about 180 AD the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata had an account of his travels, including a trip to the moon, called, naturally, the True Story.

Lucian had a great influence on later European literature. About 1657 Cyrano de Bergerac (himself the victim of a true fiction by Edmond Rostand in 1897 about duels and big noses) also wrote about his journey to the moon, by then a popular tourist destination. As did Daniel Defoe in the Consolidator of 1705. And a wit called Raspe wrote a famous book of travellers’ tales allegedly by Baron Munchausen in 1785. The Baron was known for his tall stories, like riding into battle on a canon ball, and Raspe’s book took matters even further.

2 Cyrano de BergeracCyrano de Bergerac, lunar traveller and duellist


The place is London, England, and the period is the century 1631 to 1731, from the birth of the poet John Dryden to the death of the romancer Daniel Defoe. Some of their contemporaries were Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Charles II (1630-85), James II (1633-1701), William III (1650-1702), Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Queen Anne (1665-1714), George I (1660-1727) and Aphra Behn (1640-1689). These people lived in what the Chinese historians referred to as “interesting times”.

The succession to the British crown was hotly debated, and one’s religious beliefs a matter of potential treason. Charles I lost his head in 1649; Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of a Republic 1653-58; Charles II succeeded to the throne in 1660, James II reigned 1685-88 but was unpopular because a Catholic; he was succeeded by William III 1688-1702, a Dutchman but a Protestant; Anne reigned 1702-14 but persecuted Dissenters to the Church of England rites, and things finally settled down for George I, who reigned 1714-1727. For much of the period there was civil war and rebellion, and most people took sides for and against the house of Stuart, for and against religious toleration. Debate on these matters was often violent and sometimes dangerous.

Overseas, competition with fellow Protestant power Holland led to war 1652-54, and again 1665-67 and 1772-74. Holland had eclipsed both Portugal and England as the world’s greatest naval power, and England was not happy about it. Matters got humiliatingly worse when a Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames in 1667, burnt the fleet and towed away the flagship. Matters were not really resolved by the accession of Dutch William III in 1688, and it wasn’t till the following century that Holland’s power began to flag. In the meantime the British secret service was very interested in what the Dutch were up to, and put many spies in place to collect information about armaments and the activities of the Dutch fleet.

3 Jonathan SwiftJonathan Swift aka Lemuel Gulliver

If all this wasn’t enough, natural disasters, or Acts of God, caused desolation, damage and death to many English people at that time. Preceded by the sign of a comet, the Great Plague struck London in 1664 and raged for two years, killing over 100,000 people, about a quarter of the population. It is thought the infected fleas had come from the Netherlands. Plague had affected England for centuries, mainly in crowded London, but this was the largest number of casualties recorded. Plague raged throughout the second Dutch War, and was considered a punishment from God which had to be accepted. In 1666 came the Great Fire, which destroyed the old city of London completely, razing to the ground a dilapidated section of the inner city where dry wooden structures leant drunkenly on one another. It destroyed also all the business premises clustered in the centre of the town, and bankrupted many businessmen. One final Act of God occurred to beleaguered Englishmen in 1703, when a cyclone called the Great Storm killed 15,000 people, thousands of livestock, and wrecked hundreds of ships and buildings.

There was obviously much to be reported on. The first English language newspaper was published in Holland from 1620, and the first daily was published in England 1702 to 1735. Daniel Defoe designed, wrote, edited and published the Review 1704-13, one of the world’s first newspapers as we know them today (and also the forerunner of the Spectator and the Tattler).


Defoe was an astute businessman who could recognise an opportunity. But he never became a press baron. An entrepreneur, spy, agitator and journalist, he became instead one of the world’s first novelists. All his life he was curiously pre-empted, and by a woman.

cropped to image, recto, unframed

Aphra Behn

On 14 December 1640 Aphra Behn was baptised near Canterbury, daughter of Bartholomew Johnson and Elizabeth Denham, Whatever her family’s opinions on the royal succession or the true faith, Aphra (variants are Ophrah or Ofra: a name from the Book of Micah) was early to become a committed royalist and a Catholic. Sometime in 1660, in Cripplegate London, Daniel, son of a prosperous merchant called James Foe, was born, and destined from an early age for the Presbyterian ministry. Both Aphra and Daniel had to tread carefully all their lives over religious matters. They were both suspect, Dissenters.

In 1663 Aphra’s father Bartholomew was commissioned as Lieutenant General governor of Surinam (Guyana, between Orinoco and Amazon rivers, near Brazil). This was an area in dispute between the Dutch and the English, and was conquered by the Dutch in 1667. Her father died on the voyage out but mother and children spent some months there. Some believe this is just a story, for Aphra found it expedient to wear many masks. In 1664 she returned to England, and married Johan Behn, a Dutch merchant, but soon separated from him. War with Holland broke out the next year.

By 1683 Daniel Defoe was active as a hosiery merchant in London.  The following year he married Mary Tuffley, and his wife brought him a large dowry of £3,700. The couple were to have eight children, with six surviving. Using his newly acquired capital Defoe extended his trading activities to include tobacco, wine, and other commodities, travelling extensively through Europe. In 1688 Defoe joined the monarchist forces on the Protestant side in the Monmouth Rebellion, and was pardoned by the other Protestant contender, William III. There was severe business pressure on Defoe by more orthodox traders, and in 1692 Defoe was declared bankrupt. He paid his debts and started another business, as a brick and tile manufacturer, a commodity hitherto imported from Holland. In 1703 Defoe was forced into a second bankruptcy, probably incurring suspicion because he had written a pamphlet in defence of Dissenters. He was made to stand in the pillory, a public humiliation, but turned it into a means of good publicity, and published a popular poem on the experience. Defoe wrote under hundreds of pseudonyms, and tracing his work is difficult.

5 Daniel DefoeDaniel Defoe

In 1666, while the Plague and Great Fire raged in London, Aphra was in Antwerp, working as a spy for Charles II and his secret service, just as Christopher Marlowe had earlier done for Queen Elizabeth. But Charles II rarely paid anyone, and in 1668 and 1669 Aphra was arrested for debt and spent time in debtors’ prison. During the reign of Queen Anne Defoe led a double life as a spy and informer, and as a ‘puffer’ or propagandist of government views in the newspapers. Earlier he had performed a similar role for William III. In 1714 he was arrested for debt and spent some time in prison as a debtor, Anne being as poor a payer as Charles II.

In the period 1670-87 Aphra turned to the London stage and wrote 18 plays. She used her friendship with John Dryden to get her plays staged, and they were very successful. One was dedicated to Nell Gwyn. Aphra is usually considered the first professional female writer we know about. The plays are the usual Restoration fare, comedies of marriage and infidelity, and superbly constructed. In Aphra’s last year, 1688, she turned to the writing of novels and stories, her most well known work being Oroonoko, a pseudo autobiographical romance about a noble savage. Aphra died 16 April 1689 aged 49.

Always on the lookout for income to keep himself solvent, Defoe was inspired by popular accounts of shipwrecks, pirates and criminals to write pseudo autobiographical romances, which cover the ground between journalism and the novel. He began in 1719 with Robinson Crusoe, about a resourceful castaway, and wrote another six to 1724. Defoe died April 24 1731 in London, in Moorfields. He is buried at Bunhill.

6 Surinam 1700Harvesting the sugar cane in Surinam c. 1700


Both these authors were dramatists. This is true of Aphra, who had a career as one and who carried dramatic techniques into her fiction. But it is equally true of Defoe, whose novels are intensely imagined self portraits of imaginary characters that incorporate much factual material. Nothing either writer wrote was autobiographical, but they frequently appeared to be. Just as Shakespeare can get inside a character like Hamlet, or Viola, and tell you all about himself without revealing a thing, so Defoe and Aphra can reveal themselves only by being someone else.

So Oroonoko begins (like Robinson Crusoe) with an account of the author’s early life. This may be based on Aphra’s own life, but we have no way of telling. However, the account is not autobiographical. It does though contain authentic detail about life in Surinam experienced by someone very like Aphra. It is a traveller’s tale, and may contain exaggerations to entertain the reader. As it turns out, it also contains a political message. It was written in 1688, the year of the deposition of Catholic King James. Aphra was a royalist and a Catholic, and would have supported the Catholic succession of James and the Old and the Young Pretender of the house of Stuart passionately.  Her story is of the unjust murder of a noble and defeated king and a lament for the wrong that was done him. Oroonoko, the man from the mighty river Orinoko, is a prince from Ghana who falls in love with Imoinda and marries her. The king takes Imoinda into his harem, then sells her into slavery. Oroonoko is later captured and sold into slavery also, and they both end up in Surinam. They petition for their freedom, are denied, and Oroonoko organises a revolt. He realises he has little chance, and that they both will likely die, so he kills Imoinda. He is caught, and tortured to death.

7 Slaves in SurinamSlaves in Surinam

Both Oroonoko and Imoinda are described as handsome, beautiful people full of grace and nobility. Oroonoko has been civilised by contact with Europeans, some of whose languages he speaks. They are both noble European protagonists whose skin happens to be black. Just as King James and the Stuart Pretenders were noble, admirable people who just happened to be Catholic. Much has been made of Oroonoko’s colour, and the novel seen as a protest against slavery, but really he is more essentially a wronged king. Just as Othello is much more a jealous man than a Moor. Perhaps Aphra turned from drama to prose narrative to write Oroonoko because she wanted to emphasise that this tragedy was real, that it had actually happened. She had many true fictions she could have known, and used to guide her.

As did Daniel Defoe. His book was published in 1719, and called The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Strange and surprising it was the same river Orinoco that Aphra had described 30 years earlier. Like her Onoonoko it begins with factual details about the author, and a sketch of his early career. But Robinson Crusoe is not about shipwreck, just as Oroonoko is not about slavery. The heart of the book is the building of a commonwealth. It echoes Defoe’s first publication of 1698, An Essay on Projects, in this respect. This was a subject of overriding importance to Defoe, who had suffered a lot of hardship from people who ran things less efficiently than he did. It was a book written by a resilient entrepreneur who fought back from three bankruptcies and was proud he paid his debts in full. Robinson Crusoe loses everything, as Defoe had, and looks around for that with which he can start again. And finds it. His method is to sum up his resources, give thanks for the good which has befallen him, and prioritise his tasks. Slowly he builds a kingdom from a desert island, gets a subject, and his resourcefulness brings him good fortune. It is a message readers have loved ever since the book first appeared.

8 Robinson Crusoe-Man FridayCrusoe’s kingdom


There were many other true fictions, before and after Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages of 1598, with the fictional content varying in extent, that could have inspired Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe, and scholars have assiduously sought them out, Tim Severin’s 2002 book being the latest. These investigations though give the impression that authors simply copy what has been written before. I think that, like most authors, Aphra and Defoe wrote what they needed to write. Their preoccupations can be gathered from what we know of their life stories, without their books being in any sense autobiographical. The surmises made by John Martin in his recent biography of Defoe, for instance, are all based on statements he holds to be factual and autobiographical in a wide number of Defoe’s publications. Defoe wore too many masks for that to work.

True fiction had been written since ancient times, and was well loved. What Aphra and Daniel Defoe did was to take the travellers’ tale, with its mix of truth and romance, a step further. They both of them mixed reportage, drama and romance, and the adventure tale that resulted inspired a multitude of other authors. That in turn gave us the adventures written by Fielding (1742), Smollett (1748), and Sterne (1759). Then along came Jane Austen (1811), and presto, we have the novel as we know it.

Oroonoko and Robinson Crusoe are true fictions, and the truth is often there in strange surprising ways.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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