Do pop stars make for good novelists? Select examples from the 1960s to the present are a mixed bag of masterpieces and duds. Let us consider the case of Charles Dibden (1745-1814), dubbed in this recent article ‘the first ever pop star’. The article lauds the ‘trail of innovation’ which he blazed, but his attempts at novel-writing are not mentioned, including his authorship of what might be considered at best a Cruso-so novel.
First, who was Charles Dibden? As a boy and teenager, he sang in the Winchester Cathedral choir and worked in a music shop, tuning harpsichords and selling sheet-music for ballads. This inspired him to compose songs and operas. While a young man, his musical talents were recognised and exploited by the famous English actor David Garrick. Dibden was successful in composing memorable songs, especially about seafaring, such as ‘Tom Bowling’–capturing the public taste for sea-songs during this period of dominant British sea-power–as well as enormously popular one-man shows known as ‘Table Entertainments’: Dibden would act out multiple parts in song and dialogue. He also cleverly sold his own sheet music at performances, thereby controlling the distribution of his own music and garnering such fans as Jane Austen. His genius for self-marketing, a key to the success of modern pop stars as well, certainly paid Dibdens as well as dividends.
It is not just that Dibden is largely forgotten today, but he arguably overstretched himself. Dibden composed several novels. His last was the 1796 3-volume work Hannah Hewit: Or the Female Crusoe. The sprawling narrative was inspired by a historical event, the shipwreck of the East Indiaman Grosvenor in 1782 (depicted above). This trading vessel foundered off the coast of South Africa. While the 140 or so passengers and crew (including many women and children) were largely rescued and taken to shore, they landed in the wild Pondoland region of the Eastern Cape. Only 14 survived the ensuing trek through the wilderness. The incident was a key turning-point in the story of Hannah Hewit, though as Carl Thompson has argued, the novel itself was, like the fate of the Grosvenor itself, a wreck.
The rambling narrative describes how the working-class heroine prospers through her talents at mechanical invention, as well as poetry, painting, and fashion design. She and her rather useless husband suffer financial mishaps, they separate, she searches for him in India but does not find him, and then she sails on the Grosvenor. Various rumours that female survivors of the shipwreck were still living in South Africa inspired Dibden’s account of Hannah ending up alone on one of the Comorra Islands in the Indian Ocean. Employing her technical ingenuity, she devises complex tools and creates a roomy, comfortable home which includes ‘a vestibule, a saloon, a storehouse, a kitchen, a chapel, and a dormitory’. She diverts herself by writing, painting, and playing musical instruments salvaged by the ship, and even invents an automaton which utters sentences including ‘O ow I luv u Anna’. She fights off hostile baboons with weapons and the help of a domesticated lion. Her husband and brother find her after three years on the desert island, but the reunited couple decide to stay on her island. As with Daniel Defoe’s famous character, Hannah grows Cruso-very comfortable on her England away from England.
Some might read the novel as a satire on the campaign for female equality as espoused by Dibden’s contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft. Dibden’s tone, though, appears to criticise the vices of London society more than it does Hannah, who is intentionally named after the contemporary activist, poet, and playwright Hannah More. The confusion of readers then and now over how to interpret this work may be due to the author’s failure to infuse successfully the ‘warrior woman’ trope into a sentimental and romantic novel which hearkens back to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Unlike the enormous success of Dibden’s songs and performances in Georgian England, this novel was poorly received by the public and reviewers alike. A stage version in 1798 was performed only once and met with similar failure. Dibden’s reach clearly exceeded his grasp when it came to novel-writing, such that mediocrity was Defoe to his literary success. The tree of Dibden’s novelistic ambition was Hewit down by both critics and general readers.
Till next time,
Early Modern Crusoporific Studies Program