Daniel Defoe (13 September 1660 – 24 April 1731) was an English businessman, author, journalist and pamphleteer, made famous by his novel Robinson Crusoe. He was one of the founders of the English novel. He was a prolific and versatile writer, having written more than 500 books, pamphlets and articles on various subjects (politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology, etc.). He was also a pioneer of financial journalism.
Daniel Foe, as his real name was, was born in London. He later added the “De” (De) to his surname and claimed to be a descendant of the De Beau Faux family. The exact place and date of his birth is unknown, with most sources placing his birth year between 1659 and 1661. In the early years of his life, Faux experienced some of the most extraordinary events in English history: in 1665, 100,000 people died from the Great Plague of London and in 1666 the Great Fire struck the neighbourhood of De Faux, leaving only three houses standing, one of which was his own. In 1667, when Foe was about seven years old, a Dutch fleet crossed the River Thames and attacked Chatham. Finally, when Foe was about ten years old, his mother died.
His parents were Presbyterian schismatics, so Foe was educated in a schismatic academy. During that time, England was not tolerant of religion. Religious conflict was a political issue. Roman Catholics were feared and hated. Dissenters refused to conform to the services of the Church of England and were despised and oppressed.
Daniel”s father, James Foe, destined his son for the priesthood. However, despite the fact that Daniel Foe was a Christian, he felt little inclination to become a clergyman and preferred to indulge in commerce. He entered the world of business as a general merchant, selling at different times socks, woolen goods and wine. Although his ambitions were great and he bought a country estate and a ship, he was rarely out of debt. In 1684 Foe married Mary Taffley, daughter of a London merchant, and received a dowry of £3,700. Because of his debts and political problems, his marriage was probably very difficult. However, it lasted 50 years and together they had eight children, six of whom survived.
In 1685 he joined the Monmouth Rebellion but was pardoned. In 1689 William III was crowned King of England and Foe immediately became one of his close allies and secret agent. Some of the new king”s policies led to a conflict with France, which damaged the prosperous commercial activities of Foe, who had established himself as a merchant. In 1692, Foe was arrested for a debt of £700, although his total debts probably amounted to £17,000. His distress was great for this and he always defended unfortunate debtors. However, there is evidence that his financial dealings were not always honest.
After he was released, he probably travelled to Europe and Scotland and it must have been at this time that he was trading wine in Cadiz, Porto and Lisbon. In 1695 he returned to England using the name ”Defoe” and serving as a collector of taxes on bottles, and in 1696 he operated a tile and brick factory.
Pamphlet writing and prison
In 1697 Defoe”s first notable publication was published, the Essay on Design, a series of proposals for social and economic improvement. From 1697 to 1698 he defended the right of King William III of England to raise a standing army during the disarmament following the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) that ended the Nine Years” War (1688-1697). His most successful poem, The Genuine Englishman (1901), defended King William against his enemies” perception of xenophobia, satirizing the English claim to racial purity. With this satirical poem, Daniel Defoe”s literary merit was recognized for the first time.
The death of William III in 1702 once again created political turmoil as the king was replaced by Queen Anne, who immediately launched an attack on those who disagreed with the Church of England. Defoe”s writings and political activities resulted in his arrest and placement in the cysts on 31 July 1703, largely due to a pamphlet entitled The Shorter Way with Dissenters or Proposals for the Establishment of the Church. In it Defoe mercilessly satirised both Conservatives and dissenters who hypocritically practised so-called ”casual conformity”, such as his Stoke Newington neighbour Sir Thomas Abney. Although published anonymously, the true authorship of the text was quickly discovered and Defoe was arrested. According to legend, the publication of his poem, Hymn to the Cypher, caused the audience during the Cypher ceremony to throw flowers at him instead of the usual harmful objects, and to drink to his health. The historicity of the event is disputed by most scholars, although John Robert Moore later said that “There was no man in England, except Defoe, who went into cymbals and later stood out among his fellows.” However, there is the case of Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundoland and a renowned Royal Navy officer, who was sentenced to the cyphon but was pardoned for fear that his popularity would cause a riot.
After three days in the crypt, Defoe was sent to Newgate Prison. Minister Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl of Mortimer, brokered his release on condition that Defoe cooperated as an undercover agent for the Tories. In return for this cooperation, Harley paid off some of Defoe”s outstanding debts, greatly improving his financial situation. Within a week of his release from prison, Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703 which caused great damage to London and Bristol, uprooting millions of trees and killing over 8,000 people, mostly at sea. This event was the subject of The Storm (Storm, 1704), a collection of eyewitness accounts. Many consider this work by Defoe to be one of the first examples of modern journalism. In the same year he created his periodical Review of the Affairs of France, with the support of Minister Robert Harley, recording the events of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The Review was published three times a week without interruption until 1713. Defoe was struck by the fact that a man as charismatic as Robert Harley was leaving vital documents open and warned him that he was almost provoking an unscrupulous clerk to commit treason, which is what eventually happened in the case of William Gregg. When the Conservatives fell from power with the death of Queen Anne, Defoe continued to provide secret services to the government and to publish pamphlets.
Not all of Defoe”s pamphlets were political. One pamphlet (actually published anonymously), entitled A Real Relationship of Mrs. Veal”s Appearance on the Day After Her Death to that of Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury on September 8, 1705, is on the subject of the interplay between the spiritual and physical worlds. It was probably written to support Charles Drelencourt”s Consolations de l”âme fidèle contre les frayeurs de la mort (1651). It describes a meeting between Mrs. Bargrave and her old friend, Mrs. Ville, after her death. It is clear from this text and many others that while the political aspect of Defoe”s life was dominant, it was by no means the only one.
Latest writings and novels
The extent and evidence of Defoe”s writing in the period after the fall of the Conservatives in 1714 until the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 is widely disputed. Defoe comments on the tendency to attribute pamphlets of unknown authorship to him in his apologetic work Appeal to Honour and Justice (1715), where he defends his attitude during Harley”s time as minister. Other works considered to be precursors to his fictional career are: The Family Instructor (1715), a highly successful manual on the exercise of religious duty; Minutes of the Negotiations of Monsr. Mesnager, 1717), in which he plays Nicolas Menager, the French plenipotentiary who negotiated the Treaty of Utrecht (1713); and A Continuation of the Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy (1718), a satire on European politics and religion, supposedly written by a Muslim in Paris.
From 1719 to 1724, Defoe wrote the novels for which he became famous (see below). In the last decade of his life, he also wrote manuals of conduct, including Religious Courtship (1722), The Complete English Tradesman (1726), and The New Family Instructor (1727). He also published a series of books on the collapse of the social order, including The Great Law of Subordination Considered (1724) and Everybody”s Business is Nobody”s Business, 1725) and works on supernatural themes such as The Political History of the Devil (1726), A System of Magick (1726) and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). His works on foreign travel and commerce include A General History of Discoveries and Improvements (1727) and Atlas Maritimus and Commercialis (1728). One of his most important works is A tour thro” the whole island of Great Britain (1724-1727), which provided a panoramic survey of British trade on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
Defoe also wrote his third travel book, A Tour Throughout the Island of Great Britain (1724-1727), a vivid first-hand view of the state of the country. Other non-fiction books include The Complete English Tradesman (1726) and London, the Most Flourishing City in the Universe (1728). Defoe published over 560 books and pamphlets and is considered the founder of British journalism.
But Defoe”s greatest fame came not from his political articles, but from the true stories he wrote in a literary style. Each one of them tells of a true incident. But Defoe, with his rich imagination and eloquent style, embellished them with episodes and adventures that thrilled the reader. The best known of his works, the one that made his name immortal, is Robinson Crusoe (1719), which is still considered one of the leading adventure works in world literature. The novel is about the adventures of a man shipwrecked on a desert island. The author based his story in part on the story of the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years stranded on an island in the Juan Fernández archipelago. From the sailor”s narrative, Defoe”s creative imagination crafted the entire adventurous and action-packed story of his hero. However, Tim Severin”s Seeking Robinson Crusoe (2002) unravels a much wider range of possible sources of inspiration. Severin concludes by stating that the real Robinson Crusoe was Henry Pitman, a castaway who was an employee of the Duke of Monmouth. Pitman wrote a short book about his desperate escape from a Caribbean penal colony, where he was sent for his participation in the Monmouth Rebellion, and his subsequent shipwreck and subsequent adventures on the desert island. The book was published by John Taylor, whose son, William Taylor, later published DeFoe”s novel. Severin argues that since Pitman appears to have lived in lodgings above John Taylor”s publishing house and Defoe was working in the same area at the time, Defoe may have known him personally and learned of his experiences firsthand. He also points out that even if Defoe had not met Pitman, when he would have submitted a draft of a novel about a castaway to his publisher no doubt his editor would have informed him of the Pitman book his father had published. Severin also mentions another published case of an abandoned man, named simply Will, of the Miskito tribe of Central America, who may have led to the depiction of Friday.
Robinson Crusoe has repeatedly been seen as an allegory for the development of civilization, a manifesto for economic individualism and an expression of European colonialism, but it also shows the importance of repentance and illustrates the power of Defoe”s religious beliefs. Robinson”s stability, patience, ingenuity, and the way in which he faces all difficulties, these are the key elements of the play and these are what give it its greatest value. It is also considered by many to be the first novel written in the English language. Robert Louis Stevenson admired it, saying that the footprint scene was one of the four most important in English literature and the most memorable, while Dr. Wesley Vernon saw in this scene the origin of forensic podiatry. This novel inspired a new genre, the Robinsoniad, as works such as Johann Wyss”s The Swiss Robinson Family (1812) adapt the novel”s premise and evoke contemporary post-colonial responses, with works such as John Maxwell Cucci”s A Woman on Robinson Island (Foe, 1986) and Michel Tournier”s Friday or in the Monasteries of the Pacific (Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique, 1967). Defoe wrote two sequels: The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Serious reflections during the life and surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the angelic world (1720). Jonathan Swift”s Gulliver”s Travels (1726) partly parodies Defoe”s novel.
Defoe”s next novel was Captain Singleton (1720), a two-part adventure story, the first half of which covers a crossing of Africa and the second half deals with piracy. The play has been praised for its sensitive portrayal of the close relationship between the eponymous hero and his religious mentor, Quaker William Walters.
Colonel Jack (1722) follows an orphaned boy from a life of poverty and crime to colonial prosperity, military and family turmoil, and religious conversion, driven by a troubled idea of becoming a “gentleman.”
Also in 1722, Defoe wrote Moll Flanders, another first-person picaresque telling of the fall and eventual restoration of a lonely woman in 17th-century England. The eponymous heroine appears as a prostitute, a bigamist and a thief, living in the Mead, committing adultery and incest, but manages to retain the reader”s sympathy.
Moll Flanders and Defoe”s last novel Roxanne (1724) are examples of the remarkable way in which Defoe makes his fictional characters, who are women, familiar. In his last play he recounts the moral and spiritual decline of a high society courtesan.
One work that is often perceived as non-fiction is the Diary of the Year of the Plague, a complex historical novel published in 1722 about the Great Plague of London in 1665. In November 1703, a hurricane-like storm hit London, known today as the Great Storm (it remains one of the biggest storms in British history). Thus another of the notable events in Defoe”s life, the storm was the subject of one of his books (The Storm), where the author describes the consequences of the event: ”The streets were covered with so many tiles and slates from the roofs of houses that all the tiles within a radius of 50 miles could only repair a small part.” Defoe also wrote Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720), set during the Thirty Years” War and the English Civil War.
The Union of England and Scotland in 1707
At least 545 titles, ranging from satirical poems to political and religious pamphlets, have been attributed to Defoe. However, Fairbank and Owens in their Critical Bibliography (1998) claim a much smaller number (276 titles). Defoe”s ambitious business plans led to his bankruptcy in 1692, with a wife and seven children to support. In 1703 he published a satirical pamphlet against the Conservatives and in favour of religious toleration entitled The Shorter Way with Dissenters or Proposals for the Establishment of the Church. As has happened with other ironic texts before and since, this pamphlet was widely misunderstood and criminal proceedings were brought against the author for libel. He was sentenced to censure, a fine of 200 marks and detention.
In desperation, Defoe wrote to William Patterson, founder of the Bank of England, who was a man in the confidence of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl of Mortimer, a leading minister in the English government. Harley accepted Defoe”s services and released him in 1703. He immediately published the Review, which was first published every week and then three times a week, and in which he wrote mostly himself. This was the central mouthpiece of the English government that wanted to push through the Union Bill of 1707.
Defoe launched his campaign in the Review and other pamphlets aimed at English opinion, arguing that unification would end the threat from the North and bring an “inexhaustible treasury of men” and a valuable new market that would increase England”s power. In September 1706 Harley sent Defoe as a secret agent to Edinburgh in September 1706 to do everything possible to help secure consensus on the Treaty of Union. Defoe was fully aware of the danger he was running. Thanks to books such as The Letters of Daniel Defoe (edited by G. H. Healey, Oxford, 1955) much more of his activities became known than is usual with such agents.
His early reports included vivid descriptions of the violent anti-Union demonstrations. “A mob of Scots is the worst of the worst,” he said. Years later, John Clerk of Penwick, a leading Unionist, wrote in his memoirs that “he was a spy among us, but he was not known as such, or the Edinburgh mob would have torn him to pieces.”
As a Presbyterian who had suffered in England for his beliefs, Defoe was accepted as a councillor in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and on committees of the Scottish Parliament. To Harley he reported the recklessness of the Scots, saying that he raised no suspicion whatsoever that he was corresponding with anyone in England and that he was in a position to influence the motions put before the Parliament.
For Scotland he used various arguments, even the opposite of those he used in England, for example, usually ignoring the English doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament by telling the Scots that they could have absolute confidence in the guarantees of the Treaty. Some of his pamphlets were ostensibly written by Scots, misleading even credible historians who relied on them as evidence of Scottish public opinion at the time.
The same is true of Defoe”s History of the Union of Great Britain, printed in Edinburgh in 1709, which some historians still regard as a valuable source of information for their own works. The book was not anonymous but twice mentioned the name of Defoe, who collected royalties as the author of the book. In it, Defoe attempts to explain the events leading up to the Union Bill of 1707, beginning on 6 December 1604 when a proposed plan for unification was presented to King James I of England. Defoe was careful to give his story an air of objectivity, providing space for arguments against the Union, but always having the last word himself.
It ignored the main opponent of the Union, Andrew Fletcher, and did not describe the diversion of the Duke of Hamilton, the official leader of the various factions opposed to the Union, who seemingly betrayed his former comrades when he switched to the Unionist-Government side in the decisive final stages of the debate. He also made no attempt to explain why the Scottish Parliament, which had been so impetuous for independence from 1703 to 1705, changed its stance in 1706.
Defoe received very little reward from his donors and of course no recognition for his services from the government. He made use of his experience of Scotland in his Tour of the whole island of Great Britain, where he admitted that he was wrong in his prediction that after the Union Scotland”s population and trade would increase.
Daniel Defoe died on 24 April 1731 and was buried in Banhill Fields, London, where his grave can be visited.
Defoe left behind an important literary oeuvre. During his lifetime he signed his texts using at least 198 names. His ability to bring any adventure to life in a thrilling way ranks him among the most important writers of all time.