Picture of Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe

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Preface to First Volume

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IF this work is not both pleasant and profitable to the reader, the author most freely and openly declares the fault must be in his performance, and it cannot be any deficiency in the subject.

As the work it self is a description of the most flourishing and opulent country in the world, so there is a flowing variety of materials; all the particulars are fruitful of instructing and diverting objects.

If novelty pleases, here is the present state of the country describ'd, the improvement, as well in culture, as in commerce, the encrease of people, and employment for them: Also here you have an account of the encrease of buildings, as well in great cities and towns, as in the new seats and dwellings of the nobility and gentry; also the encrease of wealth, in many eminent particulars.

If antiquity takes with you, tho' the looking back into remote things is studiously avoided, yet it is not wholly omitted, nor any useful observations neglected; the learned writers on the subject of antiquity in Great Britain have so well discharg'd themselves, that we can never over-value their labours, yet there are daily farther discoveries made, which give future ages, room, perhaps not to mend, yet at least to add to what has been already done.

In travelling thro' England, a luxuriance of objects presents it self to our view: Where-ever we come, and which way soever we look, we see something new, something significant, something well worth the travellers stay, and the writer's care; nor is any check to our design, or obstruction to its acceptance in the world, to say the like has been done already, or to panegyrick upon the labours and value of those authors who have gone before, in this work: A compleat account of Great Britain will be the work of many years, I might say ages, and may employ many hands: Whoever has travell'd Great Britain before us, and whatever they have written, tho' they may have had a harvest, yet they have always, either by necessity, ignorance or negligence pass'd over so much, that others may come and glean after them by large handfuls.

Nor cou'd it be otherwise, had the diligence and capacities of all who have gone before been greater than they are; for the face of things so often alters, and the situation of affairs in this great British Empire gives such new turns, even to nature it self, that there is matter of new observation every day presented to the traveller's eye.

The fate of things gives a new face to things, produces changes in low life, and innumerable incidents; plants and supplants families, raises and sinks towns, removes manufactures, and trades; great towns decay, and small towns rise; new towns, new palaces, new seats are built every day; great rivers and good harbours dry up, and grow useless; again, new ports are open'd, brooks are made rivers, small rivers navigable, ports and harbours are made where none were before, and the like.

Several towns, which antiquity speaks of as considerable, are now lost and swallow'd up by the sea, as Dunwich in Suffolk for one; and others, which antiquity knew nothing of, are now grown considerable: In a word, new matter offers to new observation, and they who write next, may perhaps find as much room for enlarging upon us, as we do upon those that have gone before.

The author says, that indeed he might have given his pen a loose here, to have complain'd how much the conduct of the people diminishes the reputation of the island, on many modern occasions, and so we could have made his historical account a satyr upon the country, as well as upon the people; but they are ill friends to England, who strive to write a history of her nudities, and expose, much less recommend her wicked part to posterity; he has rather endeavour'd to do her justice in those things which recommend her, and humbly to move a reformation of those, which he thinks do not; In this he thinks he shall best pay the debt of a just and native writer, who, in regard to the reader, should conceal nothing which ought to be known, and in regard to his country, expose nothing which ought to be conceal'd.

A description of the country is the business here, not discanting upon the errors of the people; and yet, without boasting, we may venture to say, we are at least upon a level with the best of our neighbours, perhaps above them in morals, whatever we are in their pride; but let that stand as it does, till times mend; 'tis not, I say, the present business.

The observations here made, as they principally regard the present state of things, so, as near as can be, they are adapted to the present taste of the times: The situation of things is given not as they have been, but as they are; the improvements in the soil, the product of the earth, the labour of the poor, the improvement in manufactures, in merchandizes, in navigation, all respects the present time, not the time past.

In every county something of the people is said, as well as of the place, of their customs, speech, employments, the product of their labour, and the manner of their living, the circumstances as well as situation of the towns, their trade and government; of the rarities of art, or nature; the rivers, of the inland, and river navigation; also of the lakes and medicinal springs, not forgetting the general dependance of the whole country upon the city of London, as well for the consumption of its produce, as the circulation of its trade.

The preparations for this work have been suitable to the author's earnest concern for its usefulness; seventeen very large circuits, or journeys have been taken thro' divers parts separately, and three general tours over almost the whole English part of the island; in all which the author has not been wanting to treasure up just remarks upon particular places and things, so that he is very little in debt to other mens labours, and gives but very few accounts of things, but what he has been an eye-witness of himself.

Besides these several journeys in England, he has also lived some time in Scotland, and has travell'd critically over great part of it; he has viewed the north part of England, and the south part of Scotland five several times over; all which is hinted here, to let the readers know what reason they will have to be satisfy'd with the authority of the relation, and that the accounts here given are not the produce of a cursory view, or rais'd upon the borrow'd lights of other observers.

It must be acknowledged, that some foreigners, who have pretended to travel into England, and to give account of things when they come home, have treated us after a very indifferent manner: As they viewed us with envy, so they have made their account rather equal to what they wish'd we should be, than to what we are; and wrote as if they were afraid the country they wrote to should be in love with us, and come away to live among us: In short, speaking of England, they have, like the Israelitish spies, carried abroad a very ill report of the land: Seignior Gratiano a Spaniard, is one of those; he has given such a scandalous account of England in Spanish, as made a wiser man than himself, say, That if the history of England written by Augustin Gratiano had been written in the days of Philip II. and he had believ'd it to be true, he would never have thought it worth his while to fit out such an Armada for the conquest of it; but that it appear'd by King Philip's making that unfortunate attempt, that he was certainly better acquainted with it, than Gratiano.

It is worth no man's while to examine and confute foreign authors, whose errors are their ignorance. Our business is to give just ideas of our country to our readers, by which foreigners may be rightly inform'd, if they please to judge impartially; if any man will not be inform'd, we must write on that blindness, let him be ignorant.

But after all that has been said by others, or can be said here, no description of Great Britain can be, what we call a finished account, as no cloaths can be made to fit a growing child; no picture carry the likeness of a living face; the size of one, and the countenance of the other always altering with time: so no account of a kingdom thus daily altering its countenance, can be perfect.

Even while the sheets are in the press, new beauties appear in several places, and almost to every part we are oblig'd to add appendixes, and supplemental accounts of fine houses, new undertakings, buildings, &. and thus posterity will be continually adding; every age will find an encrease of glory. And may it do so, till Great Britain as much exceeds the finest country in Europe, as that country now fancies they exceed her.

Daniel Defoe, A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies (London: JM Dent and Co, 1927)

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