Robinson Crusoe in popular culture

“I am not superstitious; I have read a heap of books in my time; I am a scholar in my own way. You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years—generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco—and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad—Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice—Robinson Crusoe. In past times when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too much—Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.”

This week I posted on the JM Coetzee book Foe, his unusual and magnificent take on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Intrinsic in JMC’s choice of this book to mess about with is the fact that Crusoe has a remarkable place in popular culture, and the idea of the castaway has never lost its appeal. The passage above is from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868): this is one of the many narrators, Betteredge. He is obsessed with the book, and he consults it in moments of need, rather as others find guidance by picking a random passage in Virgil or the Bible. He makes a valuable point: which is that we can’t remember when we first came across Crusoe – other books and childhood characters we can remember when we first read them, what the book looked like and where we were. But RC is different – he was just always there, more like a nursery rhyme or myth perhaps.

The colour picture above is from a 1916 book called The Real Mother Goose, via Internet Archive Book Images, and proves the point – someone invented a nursery rhyme about Crusoe. The pages surrounding it feature Tommy Tittlemouse, Pussycat Pussycat and If Wishes Were Horses. Nobody is inventing nursery rhymes about other 18th century novels, such as Clarissa and Tristram Shandy

After reading Foe, I looked up to see if Robinson Crusoe had been mentioned on the blog, and the results completely proved my point about its random and bedrock place in popular culture - I can’t imagine better examples.

- In a post on Ian Fleming’s James Bond book Dr No, I linked to a picture of a female Robinson Crusoe in a panto in Worthing, because she looks as I imagine Honeychile Ryder did.

- In Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, set among the decaying Irish aristocracy in the early 20th century, there is a story that is sad, absurd and only too believable about ‘a boy who is discovered alone in the boys’ tree house… with what could only be a book – a book, and at 3 o’clock on a perfect afternoon’. As if that is not enough, he lies and says it is Robinson Crusoe, when actually it is poetry. There are endless cascading consequences to this event, and the subsequent sacking of the governess.

Here are just a few more references to it in popular culture.

-Jane Gardam wrote a book called Crusoe’s Daughter in 1985 – about a young woman who is ‘emotionally shipwrecked’. As an epigraph Gardam quotes Virginia Woolf: ‘the pressure of life when one is fending for oneself alone on a desert island is really no laughing matter. It is no crying one either.’

- George Orwell (well ahead of the modern listicle culture) says no-one can resist a list of artefacts with which a character is shipwrecked, and he’s right isn’t he? (I tried to look up the exact Orwell quote, but was confounded by the number of Google entries where people pick Orwell for a desert island book…)

-The Coral Island by RM Ballantyne is one of the most iconic of the later desert island novels, and that in its turn inspired William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – Golding was allegedly dismissive of the good behaviour of the boys on Ballantyne’s island..

-Some years ago I read and loved Michel Tournier’s Friday, or the Other Island, first published in French in 1967: it is funny and thought-provoking (and sits on my bookshelf between Tolstoy and Adrian Mole, talking of iconic works of literature).

-Then there were those Girl Friday job in the 1960s and 1970s: ‘a female assistant, especially a junior office worker’. I bet blogfriend @Lucy Fisher has some comments on those days. (Though Cary Grant and Jane  Rosalind Russell - see comment from Jessica below - in the film His Girl Friday, 1940, subvert any sexist stereotypes. It is the film that made me want to be a journalist, because I fancied perching on the corner of a desk talking very fast and wittily while wearing a suit and a cocktail hat. Was that what journalism was actually like? Ah well.)

There’s more.

In the past, Robinson Crusoe was one of the traditional British pantomime stories. Such an unlikely starting point, as the story contains so few characters - who is ON that island? Luckily there is a marvellous website called (of course) It’s Behind You, ‘dedicated to those who strive to keep alive The Magic of Pantomime’, which has a whole page on Robinson Crusoe and explains:
Later authors added new characters to fit in with the genre. Mrs Crusoe, Polly Perkins, Will Atkins were added to the tale, as were pirates and even Davy Jones. Some versions have a love affair between Crusoe and a native Princess, and royalty in the form of King Neptune, Pirate Kings and Cannibal Kings and Queens have abounded in the tales transformation into pantomime. Animals have often featured too, with parrots, goats, apes and dogs making appearances over the years!

When I was young, one of the first pantomimes I ever saw, at the Liverpool Empire, was Robinson Crusoe. Norman Wisdom was the star.

And now – this is pushing it a bit, but I CANNOT miss this story out – it turns out that the great writer Primo Levi (author of If This is a Man and The Periodic Table) visited Liverpool on a business trip in 1971, and his biographer Ian Thomson says this:
Levi was astonished to see the homeless sleeping rough on the Cathedral steps and to find parts of Liverpool still damaged from wartime bombs, ‘neither demolished nor rebuilt’…. Merseysiders were queueing up to see Norman Wisdom in Robinson Crusoe, and Levi visited the Cavern where the Beatles had first played… He watched the city’s last transatlantic liner, The Empress of Canada, leave on her valedictory voyage… boats hooted mournfully on the Mersey as the scrapyard beckoned.
Goodness. Robinson Crusoe, Norman Wisdom, Primo Levi, Liverpool, The Beatles,  and pantomime in the same sentence.

I suppose if you didn’t know you might not realize RC in that passage was a pantomime, you might think it was a Beckettian one-man show, a meditation on the nature of loneliness, and the manner in which we ALL in some sense live on a desert island, within ourselves. Glad to be here to help. (And speaking of which, there are some blogposts which explain British panto for the benefit particularly of my American readers.)

*** If you look in the comments below, you will see a very sensible question from Jonathan Blake asking who exactly Norman Wisdom played. I consulted the members of my family who have very good memories, and they also did some research. And so:

Marion Grimaldi played Robinson Crusoe, and Norman Wisdom played Norman Crusoe, probably his brother. Apparently in Robinson Crusoe pantos there was usually a brother called Billy, which is presumably the part Norman was playing, renamed for obvious reasons.

And here's a picture - Norman Crusoe on the left Marion Grimaldi on the right.

With thanks to the Chief Guest Blogger, who unlike Primo Levi DID attend that panto, for the reference, and to another member of the family for the further research, and to all relatives of Clothes in Books for their memories.

Norman Wisdom does also feature in a whole hilarious section of Matthew Sweet's seminal book, Shepperton Babylon, on the blog here

Robinson Crusoe in the traditional conical hat from a 19th century edition of the book via the British Library.

Theatre poster from the National Library of Ireland.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins 1868
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe 1719
Foe by JM Coetzee 1986


  1. I never really thought of how much of an impact Robinson Crusoe (both the story and the character) have had on our culture, Moira. Your post shows it clearly, though, and now I consider it a bit more, there are a lot of examples out there, both in books and in films/TV. The whole notion of the castaway has a certain exotic appeal, perhaps, that invites us to wonder what it would be like. This is really fascinating!

    1. Thanks Margot - I really enjoyed thinking about this, and finding all the different ways Robinson Crusoe has appeared...

  2. George Orwell didn't have a high opinion of Robinson Crusoe. In his essay on Charles Reade he says "Even a dismal book like Robinson Crusoe, so unreadable as a whole that few people even know that the second part exists, becomes interesting when it describes Crusoe's efforts to make a table, glaze earthenware and grow a patch of wheat." before praising Reade as "an expert on desert islands, or at any rate he was very well up in the geography textbooks of the time".
    It's a book that is much improved by our ignorance of it. Crusoe himself was a slave-trader, remember: the fact that he'd been a slave himself didn't affect his attitude: “I look’d upon these savages as slaves, and people who, had we any work for them to do, we would ha’ used as such, or would ha’ been glad to have transported them to any other part of the world; for our business was to get rid of them, and we would all have been satisfy’d, if they had been sent to any country, so that they had never seen their own.” As Orwell said, we forgot the bits that don't interest us and stick to Crusoe's good Protestant self-help on his island.

    1. Yes indeed, I was just saying to someone that it's a bit of a shocker if you read the book as an adult. After I put the post up I thought I didn't make enough of that angle, I should have put more in the post about it. I was too light-hearted!

  3. I saved the pantomime poster from Dublin in 1916 and enlarged it a bit, and discovered that as with other pantomimes, the lead male character is played by a girl; or a woman, or whatever; called Mabel anyway. Was Norman Wisdom in drag at the Empire?

    1. That's an excellent question, and I am going to consult my family members who have much better memories than I have!

    2. I have got the answer to your question! Look at the amended post above, and thanks so much for teasing out another interesting fact about it all...

  4. I never would have imagined Robinson Crusoe being so prevalent. Surprising and interesting.

    1. Once you start looking, and thinking about it, he is all over the place!

  5. Just thought you'd like to know that the actress in His Girl Friday was Rosalind Russell, not Jane Russell.

    1. Tchah! Thanks so much, I can't believe that I made that mistake. Will correct now.

  6. I think the highlight of the post is Norman Wisdom and I can't ever see a mention of Molly Keane without invoking memoreies of my dad.

    1. Norman Wisdom is a name to conjure with, and I am proud to have seen him live!

      And the Irish do nostalgia and memories better than anyone else. Cheers to your Dad.


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