10 year-old Hal didn’t fall asleep easily – that is until his mother discovered the soporific effect of the 18th-century language in Robinson Crusoe. Hal’s father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
I imagine that anyone who has had the experience of being a parent will be aware of the way in which you slip into habits with your children. Often you barely notice the habit is forming, and then if you try to undo it later it has become part of routine and difficult to abandon as a consequence.
One of our, baddish, habits is that we have got into a pattern of sitting with Hal while he falls asleep. He claims he gets frightened if he’s on his own, and though there’s a strong element of putting it on, what is true is that if we leave him to it, 15 minutes later a small head is peering round the kitchen door and Hal is wondering if he can come and sit with us rather than be all alone upstairs.
But how to get him to drop off quickly? This had been a difficult one until, a few months ago, Jo discovered the anaesthetic properties of parts of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Here’s a passage in which Crusoe, finding that barley has grown from some husks he emptied out of a bag, begins to feel God is on his side:
‘But after I saw barley grow there, in a climate which I know was not proper for corn, and especially that I knew not how it came there, it startled me strangely, and I began to suggest that God had miraculously caused this grain to grow without any help or seed sown, and that is was so directed purely for my sustenance on that wild miserable place.’
Jo tells me that it takes two to three pages of this kind of writing to produce a sleeping boy and it isn’t hard to see why. Partly it is Defoe’s early 18th century use of language – phrases like ‘it startled me strangely’. What’s described is another important factor. Though there are shipwrecks and cannibals (these bits tend to produce a livelier listener in Hal) there’s also a lot about God and lengthy descriptions of boats and nautical matters which bore him and make him sleepy.
But what saps Hal’s wakefulness more than anything is, I think, the syntax. Defoe’s writing was deeply influenced by his classical education and by the language and style of the King James Bible, itself heavily influenced by Latin forms. According to Microsoft wordcount the passage I quoted, which is just one sentence, is 67 words long. Compare that to the average ‘Horrid Henry’ sentence. 18th century language, packed with subordinate clauses, is very, very unfamiliar to modern ears and so wears them down rather easily. If Hal’s education involved reading a lot of Latin and a lot of the King James Bible I expect his attention span for Defoe would be a bit longer. And it’s interesting to think about what more complex syntax does for your thinking abilities too. But saturated as Hal is in the idioms of today, Defoe is always going to be soporific for the average 10 year-old-boy. Sad, but at least it gets him to sleep.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, is available in Penguin Classics as well as in other editions.