Daniel Defoe (1659/1660 [?] – April 24 [?], 1731) was an English writer, journalist and spy, who gained enduring fame for his novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe is notable for being one of the earliest practitioners of the novel and helped popularize the genre in Britain. In some texts he is even referred to as one of the founders, if not the founder, of the English novel. A prolific and versatile writer, he wrote over five hundred books, pamphlets, and journals on various topics (including politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology and the supernatural). He is also a pioneer of economic journalism.
He was born Daniel Foe, probably in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate, London. Both the date and the place of his birth are uncertain with sources often giving dates of 1659 or 1661. His father, James Foe, though a member of the Butchers' Company, was a tallow chandler. Daniel later added the aristocratic sounding "De" to his name and on occasion claimed descent from the family of De Beau Faux. His parents were Presbyterian dissenters, and he was educated in a Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington run by Charles Morton (later vice-president of Harvard University).
After leaving school and deciding not to become a dissenting minister, Defoe entered the world of business as a general merchant, dealing at different times in hosiery, general woolen goods, and wine. Though his ambitions were great and he bought both a country estate and a ship (as well as civet cats to make perfume), he was rarely free from debt. In 1684 Defoe married a woman by the name of Mary Tuffley. Their marriage was most likely a rough one with his recurring debts. They had eight children, six of whom survived. In 1685, he joined the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion, after which he was forced to spend three years in exile. In 1692, Defoe was arrested for payments of £700 (and his cats were seized), though his total debts may have amounted to £17,000. His laments were loud, and he always defended unfortunate debtors, but there is evidence that his financial dealings were not always honest.
Following his release, he probably traveled in Europe and Scotland, and it may have been at this time that he traded in wine to Cadiz, Porto, and Lisbon. By 1695 he was back in England, using the name "Defoe", and serving as a "commissioner of the glass duty", responsible for collecting the tax on bottles. In 1696, he was operating a tile and brick factory in Tilbury, Essex and thought to be living in nearby Chadwell-St-Mary.
Defoe's pamphleteering and political activities resulted in his arrest and placement in a pillory on July 31, 1703, principally on account of a pamphlet entitled "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters", in which he ruthlessly satirised the High church Tories, purporting to argue for the extermination of dissenters. The publication of his poem Hymn to the Pillory, however, caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects, and to drink to his health.
After his three days in the pillory, Defoe went into Newgate Prison. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, brokered his release in exchange for Defoe's co-operation as an intelligence agent. Within a week of his release from prison, Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703, which raged from 26-27 November, the only true hurricane ever to have made it over the Atlantic Ocean to the British Isles at full strength. It caused severe damage to London and Bristol, uprooted millions of trees, and over 8,000 people lost their lives, mostly at sea. The event became the subject of Defoe's first book, The Storm (1704). In the same year he set up his periodical A Review of the Affairs of France, which supported the Harley ministry. The Review ran without interruption until 1713. When Harley lost power in 1708 Defoe continued writing it to support Godolphin, then again to support Harley and the Tories in the Tory ministry of 1710 to 1714. After the Tories fell from power with the death of Queen Anne, Defoe continued doing intelligence work for the Whig government.
Daniel Defoe died on April 24 or 25, 1731 and was interred in Bunhill Fields, London.
Gideon Defoe, widely believed to be a direct descendant of Daniel Defoe , has recently become a published author in his own right, issuing two novels, with a third scheduled for release in September 2006. Whether or not in fact Daniel Defoe is a direct forebear of Gideon Defoe, it is worth noting that the latter's work explores similar themes of adventure, seafaring, piracy, and circumstances exotic to most ordinary Englishmen.
Novels and other works
Defoe's famous novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), tells of a man's shipwreck on a desert island and his subsequent adventures. The author may have based his narrative on the true story of the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk.
In 1703 Defoe wrote The True-born Englishman, which supported the king and chastised the people against the discrimination of foreigners.
Defoe's next novel was Captain Singleton (1720), a portrayal of the redemptive power of one man's love for another. Hans Turley has recently shown how Quaker William's love turns Captain Singleton away from the murderous life of a pirate, and the two make a solemn vow to live as a male couple happily ever after in London, disguised as Greeks and never speaking English in public, with Singleton married to William's sister as a ruse.
He also wrote Moll Flanders (1722), a picaresque first-person narration of the fall and eventual redemption of a lone woman in 17th century England. She appears as a whore, bigamist and thief, lives in The Mint, commits adultery and incest, yet manages to keep the reader's sympathy. Both this work and Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724) are examples of the remarkable way in which Defoe seems to inhabit his fictional (yet "drawn from life") characters, not least in that they are women.
A later work that is often read as if it were non-fiction is his account of the Great Plague of London in 1665: A Journal of the Plague Year, a complex historical novel published in 1722.
A tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain is another work that has kept its value. Produced between 1724 and 1727, it is a detailed account of his visits to various cities and small towns and is an excellent account of Britain before the Industrial Revolution.
The Political History of the Devil (1726) sounds like a joke or satire. But the general scholarly opinion is that Defoe really did think of the Devil as a participant in world history. His view is 18th century Presbyterian - he blames the Devil for the Crusades and sees him as close to Europe's Catholic powers.
Defoe and the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707
No fewer than 545 titles, ranging from satirical poems, political and religious pamphlets and volumes have been ascribed to Defoe (Note: in their Critical Bibliography (1998), Furbank and Owens argue for the much smaller number of 276 published items). His ambitious business ventures saw him bankrupt by 1692, with a wife and seven children to support. In 1703 he published an ironic attack on the High Tories, and was prosecuted for seditious libel, sentenced to be pilloried, fined 200 marks, and be detained at the Queen's pleasure. In despair he wrote to William Paterson, the London Scot, and founder of the Bank of England and part instigator of the Darién scheme, who was in the confidence of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, leading Minister and spymaster in the English Government. Harley accepted Defoe's services and released him in 1703. He immediately published The Review, which appeared weekly, then three times a week, written mostly by himself. This was the main mouthpiece of the English Government promoting the Act of Union 1707.
Defoe began his campaign in The Review and other pamphlets aimed at English opinion, claiming that it would end the threat from the north, gaining for the Treasury an "inexhaustible treasury of men", a valuable new market increasing the power of England. By September 1706 Harley ordered Defoe to Edinburgh as a secret agent, to do everything possible to help secure acquiescence of the Treaty. He was very conscious of the risk to himself. Thanks to books such The Letters of Daniel Defoe, (edited by GH Healey, Oxford 1955) which are readily available far more is known about his activities than is usual with such agents.
His first reports were of vivid descriptions of violent demonstrations against the Union. "A Scots rabble is the worst of its kind," he reported. Years later John Clerk of Penicuik, a leading Unionist, wrote in his memoirs that,
- "He was a spy among us, but not known as such, otherwise the Mob of Edinburgh would pull him to pieces".
Defoe being a Presbyterian, who suffered in England for his convictions, was accepted as an adviser to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and committees of the Parliament of Scotland. He told Harley that he was "privy to all their folly", but "Perfectly unsuspected as with corresponding with anybody in England". He was then able to influence the proposals that were put to Parliament and reported back:
- "Having had the honour to be always sent for the committee to whom these amendments were referrèd, I have had the good fortune to break their measures in two particulars via the bounty on Corn and proportion of the Excise".
For Scotland he used different arguments, even the opposite of those he used in England, for example, usually ignoring the English doctrine of the Sovereignty of Parliament, telling the Scots that they could have complete confidence in the guarantees in the Treaty. Some of his pamphlets were purported to be written by Scots, misleading even reputable historians into quoting them as evidence of Scottish opinion of the time. The same is true of a massive history of the Union which Defoe published in 1709 and which some historians still treat as a valuable contemporary source for their own works. Defoe took pains to give his history an air of objectivity by giving some space to arguments against the Union, but always having the last word for himself.
He disposed of the main Union opponent, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, by just ignoring him. Nor does he account for the deviousness of the Duke of Hamilton, the official leader of the Squadrone Volante against the Union, who finally acted against his comrades in the decisive stages of the debate.
Defoe made no attempt to explain why the same Parliament of Scotland which was so vehement for its independence from 1703 to 1705 became so supine in 1706. He received very little reward from his paymasters and, of course, no recognition for his services by the government. He made use of his Scottish experience to write his Tour thro' the whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1726, where he actually admitted that the increase of trade and population in Scotland, which he had predicted as a consequence of the Union, was "not the case, but rather the contrary".
Defoe's description of Glasgow (Glaschu) as a "Dear Green Place" has often been misquoted as a Gaelic translation for the town. The Gaelic Glas could mean grey or green, chu means dog or hollow. Glaschu probably actually means 'Green Hollow'. The "Dear Green Place", like much of Scotland, was a hotbed of unrest against the Union. The local Tron minister urged his congregation "to up and anent for the City of God". The 'Dear Green Place' and "City of God" required government troops to put down the rioters tearing up copies of the Treaty, as at almost every mercat cross in Scotland.
When Defoe revisited in the mid 1720s he claimed that the hostility towards his party was, "because they were English and because of the Union, which they were almost universally exclaimed against".
- One day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand. (Robinson Crusoe)
- Wherever God erects a house of prayer the Devil always builds a chapel there; And 'twill be found, upon examination, the latter has the largest congregation. (The True-Born Englishman, 1701)
- Christian anarchism
- English Dissenters
- ^ According to Paul Duguid in "Limits of self organization", First Monday (September 11, 2006): "Most reliable sources hold that the date Defoe’s his birth was uncertain and may have fallen in 1659 or 1661. The day of his death is also uncertain."
- Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates ISBN 0-486-40488-9 (Dover Publications, 1999) (on Libertatia, a pirate utopia)
- Daniel Defoe, The Storm ISBN 0-14-143992-0 Penguin Classics, 2005
- A tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, 1724-27
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