Daniel Defoe Biography
Daniel Defoe Biography
Daniel Defoe (c. 1659–1731) was an English author and political pamphleteer born in the parish of St Giles, Cripplegate, London, in the latter part of 1659 or early in 1660, of a nonconformist family. Other spellings of his name include D. Foe, de Foe, or DeFoe.
Defoe’s grandfather, Daniel Foe, lived at Etton, Northamptonshire, apparently in comfortable circumstances, for he is said to have kept a pack of hounds. As to the variation of name, Defoe or Foe, its owner signed either indifferently till late in life, and where his initials occur they are sometimes D. F. and sometimes D. D. F. Three autograph letters of his are extant, all addressed in 1705 to the same person, and signed respectively D. Foe, de Foe and Daniel Defoe. His father, James Foe, was a butcher and a citizen of London.
Education and attempt at business
Daniel was well educated at a famous dissenting academy, Mr. Charles Morton’s of Stoke Newington, where many of the best-known nonconformists of the time were his schoolfellows. With few exceptions all the known events of Defoe’s life are connected with authorship. In the older catalogues of his works two pamphlets, Speculum Crapegownorum, a satire on the clergy, and A Treatise against the Turks, are attributed to him before the accession of James II, but there seems to be no publication of his which is certainly genuine before The Character of Dr Annesley (1697). He had, however, before this, taken up arms in Monmouth’s expedition, and is supposed to have owed his lucky escape from the clutches of the king’s troops and the law, to his being a Londoner, and therefore a stranger in the west country.
On the 26th of January 1688 he was admitted a liveryman of the city of London, having claimed his freedom by birth. Before his western escapade he had taken up the business of hosiery factor. At the entry of William and Mary into London he is said to have served as a volunteer trooper “gallantly mounted and richly accoutred.” In these days he lived at Tooting, and was instrumental in forming a dissenting congregation there. His business operations at this period appear to have been extensive and various. He seems to have been a sort of commission merchant, especially in Spanish and Portuguese goods, and at some time to have visited Spain on business. In 1692 he failed for £17,000. His misfortunes made him write both feelingly and forcibly on the bankruptcy laws; and although his creditors accepted a composition, he afterwards honourably paid them in full, a fact attested by independent and not very friendly witnesses. Subsequently, he undertook first the secretaryship and then the management and chief ownership of some tile-works at Tilbury, but here also he was unfortunate, and his imprisonment in 1703 brought the works to a standstill, and he lost £3000. From this time forward we hear of no settled business in which he engaged.
Early political writing
The course of Defoe’s life was determined about the middle of the reign of William III by his introduction to that monarch and other influential persons. He frequently boasts of his personal intimacy with the “glorious and immortal” king, and in 1695 he was appointed accountant to the commissioners of the glass duty, an office which he held for four years. During this time he produced his Essay on Projects (1698), containing suggestions on banks, road-management, friendly and insurance societies of various kinds, idiot asylums, bankruptcy, academies, military colleges, high schools for women, etc. It displays Defoe’s lively and lucid style in full vigour, and abounds with ingenious thoughts and apt illustrations, though it illustrates also the unsystematic character of his mind.
In the same year Defoe wrote the first of a long series of pamphlets on the then burning question of occasional conformity. In this, for the first time, he showed the unlucky independence which, in so many other instances, united all parties against him. While he pointed out to the dissenters the scandalous inconsistency of their playing fast and loose with sacred things, yet he denounced the impropriety of requiring tests at all. In support of the government he published, in 1698, An Argument for a Standing Army, followed in 1700 by a defence of William’s war policy called The Two Great Questions considered, and a set of pamphlets on the Partition Treaty. Thus in political matters he had the same fate as in ecclesiastical; for the Whigs were no more prepared than the Tories to support William through thick and thin. He also dealt with the questions of stock-jobbing and of electioneering corruption.
But his most remarkable publication at this time was The True-Born Englishman (1701), a satire in rough but extremely vigorous verse on the national objection to William as a foreigner, and on the claim of purity of blood for a nation which Defoe chooses to represent as crossed and dashed with all the strains and races in Europe. He also took a prominent part in the proceedings which followed the Kentish petition, and was the author, some say the presenter, of the Legion Memorial, which asserted in the strongest terms the supremacy of the electors over the elected, and of which even an irate House of Commons did not dare to take much notice. The theory of the indefeasible supremacy of the freeholders of England, whose delegates merely, according to this theory, the Commons were, was one of Defoe’s favourite political tenets, and he returned to it in a powerfully written tract entitled The Original Power of the Collective Body of the People of England examined and asserted (1701).
At the same time he was occupied in a controversy on the conformity question with John How (or Howe) on the practice of “occasional conformity.” Defoe maintained that the dissenters who attended the services of the English Church on particular occasions to qualify themselves for office were guilty of inconsistency. At the same time he did not argue for the complete abolition of the tests, but desired that they should be so framed as to make it possible for most Protestants conscientiously to subscribe to them. Here again his moderation pleased neither party.
The death of William was a great misfortune to Defoe, and he soon felt the power of his adversaries. After publishing The Mock Mourners, intended to satirize and rebuke the outbreak of Jacobite joy at the king’s death, he turned his attention once more to ecclesiastical subjects, and, in an evil hour for himself, wrote the anonymous Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), a statement in the most forcible terms of the extreme “high-flying” position, which some high churchmen were unwary enough to endorse, without any suspicion of the writer’s ironical intention. The author was soon discovered; and, as he absconded, an advertisement was issued offering a reward for his apprehension, and giving the only personal description we possess of him, as “a middle-sized spare man about forty years-old, of a brown complexion and dark brown-coloured hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole near his mouth.” In this conjuncture Defoe had really no friends, for the dissenters were as much alarmed at his book as the high-flyers were irritated. He surrendered, and his defence appears to have been injudiciously conducted; at any rate he was fined 200 marks, and condemned to be pilloried three times, to be imprisoned indefinitely, and to find sureties for his good behaviour during seven years. It was in reference to this incident that Pope, whose Catholic rearing made him detest the abettor of the Revolution and the champion of William of Orange, wrote in the Dunciad — “Earless on high stands unabash’d Defoe” — though he knew that the sentence to the pillory had long ceased to entail the loss of ears. Defoe’s exposure in the pillory (July 29, 30, 31) was, however, rather a triumph than a punishment, for the populace took his side; and his Hymn to the Pillory, which he soon after published, is one of the best of his poetical works. Unluckily for him his condemnation had the indirect effect of destroying his business at Tilbury.
He remained in prison until August 1704, and then owed his release to the intercession of Robert Harley, who represented his case to the queen, and obtained for him not only liberty but pecuniary relief and employment, which, of one kind or another, lasted until the termination of Anne’s reign. Defoe was uniformly grateful to the minister, and his language respecting him is in curious variance with that generally used. There is no doubt that Harley, who understood the influence wielded by Defoe, made some conditions. Defoe says he received no pension, but his subsequent fidelity was at all events indirectly rewarded; moreover, Harley’s moderation in a time of the extremest party-insanity was no little recommendation to Defoe.
A prolific writer
During his imprisonment he was by no means idle. A spurious edition of his works having been issued, he himself produced a collection of twenty-two treatises, to which some time afterwards he added a second group of eighteen more. He also wrote in prison many short pamphlets, chiefly controversial, published a curious work on the famous storm of the 26th of November 1703, and started in February 1704 perhaps the most remarkable of all his projects, The Review. This was a paper which was issued during the greater part of its life three times a week. It was entirely written by Defoe, and extends to eight complete volumes and some few score numbers of a second issue. He did not confine himself to news, but wrote something very like finished essays on questions of policy, trade and domestic concerns; he also introduced a “Scandal Club,” in which minor questions of manners and morals were treated in a way which undoubtedly suggested the Tatlers and Spectators which followed. Only one complete copy of the work is known to exist, and that is in the British Museum. It is probable that if bulk, rapidity of production, variety of matter, originality of design, and excellence of style be taken together, hardly any author can show a work of equal magnitude. After his release Defoe went to Bury St Edmunds, though he did not interrupt either his Review or his occasional pamphlets. One of these, Giving Alms no Charity, and Employing the Poor a Grievance to the Nation (1704), is extraordinarily far-sighted. It denounces both indiscriminate alms-giving and the national work-shops proposed by Sir Humphrey Mackworth.
In 1705 appeared The Consolidator, or Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon, a political satire which is supposed to have given some hints for Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels; and at the end of the year Defoe performed a secret mission, the first of several of the kind, for Harley. In 1706 appeared the True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, long supposed to have been written for a bookseller to help off an unsaleable translation of Drelincourt, On Death, but considerable doubt has been cast upon this by William Lee. Defoe’s next work was Jure divino, a long poetical argument in (bad) verse; and soon afterwards (1706) he began to be much employed in promoting the union with Scotland. Not only did he write pamphlets as usual on the project, and vigorously recommend it in The Review, but in October 1706 he was sent on a political mission to Scotland by Sidney Godolphin, to whom Harley had recommended him. He resided in Edinburgh for nearly sixteen months, and his services to the government were repaid by a regular salary. He seems to have devoted himself to commercial and literary as well as to political matters, and prepared at this time his elaborate History of the Union, which appeared in 1709. In this year Henry Sacheverell delivered his famous sermons, and Defoe wrote several tracts about them and attacked the preacher in his Review.
In 1710 Harley returned to power, and Defoe was placed in a somewhat awkward position. To Harley himself he was bound by gratitude and by a substantial agreement in principle, but with the rest of the Tory ministry he had no sympathy. He seems, in fact, to have agreed with the foreign policy of the Tories and with the home policy of the Whigs, and naturally incurred the reproach of time-serving and the hearty abuse of both parties. At the end of 1710 he again visited Scotland. In the negotiations concerning the Peace of Utrecht, Defoe strongly supported the ministerial side, to the intense wrath of the Whigs, displayed in an attempted prosecution against some pamphlets of his on the all-important question of the succession. Again the influence of Harley saved him. He continued, however, to take the side of the dissenters in the questions affecting religious liberty, which played such a prominent part towards the close of Anne’s reign. He naturally shared Harley’s downfall; and, though the loss of his salary might seem a poor reward for his constant support of the Hanoverian claim, it was little more than his ambiguous, not to say trimming, position must have led him to expect.
Defoe declared that Lord Annesley was preparing the army in Ireland to join a Jacobite rebellion, and was indicted for libel; and prior to his trial (1715) he published an apologia entitled An Appeal to Honour and Justice, in which he defended his political conduct. Having been convicted of the libel he was liberated later in the year under circumstances that only became clear in 1864, when six letters were discovered in the Record Office from Defoe to a Government official, Charles Delafaye, which, according to William Lee, established the fact that in 1718 at least Defoe was doing not only political work, but that it was of a somewhat equivocal kind—that he was, in fact, sub-editing the Jacobite Mist’s Journal, under a secret agreement with the government that he should tone down the sentiments and omit objectionable items. He had, in fact, been released on condition of becoming a government agent. He seems to have performed the same not very honourable office in the case of two other journals—Dormer’s Letter and the Mercurius Politicus; and to have written in these and other papers until nearly the end of his life. Before these letters were discovered it was supposed that Defoe’s political work had ended in 1715.
Up to that time Defoe had written nothing but occasional literature, and, except the History of the Union and Jure Divino, nothing of any great length. In 1715 appeared the first volume of The Family Instructor, which was very popular during the 18th century. The first volume of his most famous work, the immortal story — partly adventure, partly moralizing — of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, was published on the 25th of April 1719. It ran through four editions in as many months, and then in August appeared the second volume. Twelve months afterwards the sequel Serious Reflections, now hardly ever reprinted, appeared. Its connexion with the two former parts is little more than nominal, Crusoe being simply made the mouth-piece of Defoe’s sentiments on various points of morals and religion.
Meanwhile the first two parts were reprinted as a feuilleton in Heathcote’s Intelligencer, perhaps the earliest instance of the appearance of such a work in such a form. The story was founded on Dampier’s Voyage round the World (1697), and still more on Alexander Selkirk’s adventures, as communicated by Selkirk himself at a meeting with Defoe at the house of Mrs. Damaris Daniel at Bristol. Selkirk afterwards told Mrs. Daniel that he had handed over his papers to Defoe. Robinson Crusoe was immediately popular, and a wild story was set afloat of its having been written by Lord Oxford in the Tower. A curious idea, at one time revived by Henry Kingsley, is that the adventures of Robinson are allegorical and relate to Defoe’s own life. This idea was certainly entertained to some extent at the time, and derives some colour of justification from words of Defoe’s, but there seems to be no serious foundation for it. Robinson Crusoe (especially the story part, with the philosophical and religious moralizings largely cut out) is one of the world’s classics in fiction. Crusoe’s shipwreck and adventures, his finding the footprint in the sand, his man “Friday,” — the whole atmosphere of romance which surrounds the position of the civilized man fending for himself on a desert island — these have made Defoe’s great work an imperishable part of English literature. Contemporaneously appeared The Dumb Philosopher, or Dickory Cronke, who gains the power of speech at the end of his life and uses it to predict the course of European affairs.
Other non-fiction works
In 1720 came The Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell. This was not entirely a work of imagination, its hero, the fortune-teller, being a real person. There are amusing passages in the story, but it is too desultory to rank with Defoe’s best. In the same year appeared two wholly or partially fictitious histories, each of which might have made a reputation for any man. The first was the Memoirs of a Cavalier, which Lord Chatham believed to be true history, and which William Lee considers the embodiment at least of authentic private memoirs. The Cavalier was declared at the time to be Andrew Newport, made Lord Newport in 1642. His elder brother was born in 1620 and the Cavalier gives 1608 as the date of his birth, so that the facts do not fit the dates. It is probable that Defoe, with his extensive acquaintance with English history, and his astonishing power of working up details, was fully equal to the task of inventing it. As a model of historical work of a certain kind it is hardly surpassable, and many separate passages — accounts of battles and skirmishes — have never been equalled except by Carlyle. Captain Singleton, the last work of the year, has been unjustly depreciated by most of the commentators. The record of the journey across Africa, with its surprising anticipations of subsequent discoveries, yields in interest to no work of the kind known to us; and the semi-piratical Quaker who accompanies Singleton in his buccaneering expeditions is a most life-like character. There is also a Quaker who plays a very creditable part in Roxana (1724), and Defoe seems to have been well affected to the Friends. In estimating this wonderful productiveness on the part of a man sixty years-old, it should be remembered that it was a habit of Defoe’s to keep his work in manuscript sometimes for long periods.
In 1721 nothing of importance was produced, but in the next twelvemonth three capital works appeared. These were The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders, The Journal of the Plague Year, and The History of Colonel Jack. Moll Flanders and The Fortunate Mistress (Roxana), which followed in 1724, have subjects of a rather more than questionable character, but both display the remarkable art with which Defoe handles such subjects. It is not true, as is sometimes said, that the difference between the two is that between gross and polished vice. The real difference is much more one of morals than of manners. Moll is by no means of the lowest class. Notwithstanding the greater degradation into which she falls, and her originally dependent position, she has been well educated, and has consorted with persons of gentle birth. She displays throughout much greater real refinement of feeling than the more high-flying Roxana, and is at any rate flesh and blood, if the flesh be somewhat frail and the blood somewhat hot. Neither of the heroines has any but the rudiments of a moral sense; but Roxana, both in her original transgression and in her subsequent conduct, is actuated merely by avarice and selfishness—vices which are peculiarly offensive in connexion with her other failing, and which make her thoroughly repulsive. The art of both stories is great, and that of the episode of the daughter Susannah in Roxana is consummate; but the transitions of the later plot are less natural than those in Moll Flanders. It is only fair to notice that while the latter, according to Defoe’s more usual practice, is allowed to repent and end happily, Roxana is brought to complete misery; Defoe’s morality, therefore, required more repulsiveness in one case than in the other.
In the Journal of the Plague Year, more usually called, from the title of the second edition, A History of the Plague, the accuracy and apparent veracity of the details is so great that many persons have taken it for an authentic record, while others have contended for the existence of such a record as its basis. But here, too, the genius of Mrs. Veal’s creator must, in the absence of all evidence to the contrary, be allowed sufficient for the task. The History of Colonel Jack is an unequal book. There is hardly in Robinson Crusoe a scene equal, and there is consequently not in English literature a scene superior, to that where the youthful pickpocket first exercises his trade, and then for a time loses his ill-gotten gains. But a great part of the book, especially the latter portion, is dull; and in fact it may be generally remarked of Defoe that the conclusions of his tales are not equal to the beginning, perhaps from the restless indefatigability with which he undertook one work almost before finishing another.
To this period belong his stories of famous criminals, of Jack Sheppard (1724), of Jonathan Wild (1725), of the Highland Rogue i.e. Rob Roy (1723). The pamphlet on the first of these Defoe maintained to be a transcript of a paper which he persuaded Sheppard to give to a friend at his execution.
In 1724 appeared also the first volume of A Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain, which was completed in the two following years. Much of the information in this was derived from personal experience, for Defoe claims to have made many more tours and visits about England than those of which we have record; but the major part must necessarily have been dexterous compilation. In 1725 appeared A New Voyage Round the World, apparently entirely due to the author’s own fertile imagination and extensive reading. It is full of his peculiar verisimilitude and has all the interest of Anson’s or Dampier’s voyages, with a charm of style superior even to that of the latter.
More political commentary
In 1726 Defoe published a curious and amusing little pamphlet entitled Everybody’s Business is Nobody’s Business, or Private Abuses Public Grievances, exemplified in the Pride, Insolence, and Exorbitant Wages of our Women-Servants, Footmen, etc. This subject was a favourite one with him, and in the pamphlet he showed the immaturity of his political views by advocating legislative interference in these matters. Towards the end of this same year The Complete English Tradesman, which may be supposed to sum up the experience of his business life, appeared, and its second volume followed two years afterwards. This book has been variously judged. It is generally and traditionally praised, but those who have read it will be more disposed to agree with Charles Lamb, who considers it “of a vile and debasing tendency,” and thinks it “almost impossible to suppose the author in earnest.” The intolerable meanness advocated for the sake of the paltriest gains, the entire ignoring of any pursuit in life except money-getting, and the representation of the whole duty of man as consisting first in the attainment of a competent fortune, and next, when that fortune has been attained, in spending not more than half of it, are certainly repulsive enough. But there are no reasons for thinking the performance ironical or insincere, and it cannot be doubted that Defoe would have been honestly unable even to understand Lamb’s indignation.
To 1726 also belongs The Political History of the Devil. This is a curious book, partly explanatory of Defoe’s ideas on morality, and partly belonging to a series of demonological works which he wrote, and of which the chief others are A System of Magic (1726), and An Essay on the History of Apparitions (1728), issued the year before under another title. In all these works his treatment is on the whole rational and sensible; but in The History of the Devil he is somewhat hampered by an insufficiently worked-out theory as to the nature and personal existence of his hero, and the manner in which he handles the subject is an odd and not altogether satisfactory mixture of irony and earnestness. A Plan of English Commerce, containing very enlightened views on export trade, appeared in 1728.
During the years from 1715 to 1728 Defoe had issued pamphlets and minor works too numerous to mention. The only one of them perhaps which requires notice is Religious Courtship (1722), a curious series of dialogues displaying Defoe’s unaffected religiosity, and at the same time the rather meddling intrusiveness with which he applied his religious notions. This was more flagrantly illustrated in one of his latest works, The Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed (1727), which was originally issued with a much more offensive name, and has been called “an excellent book with an improper title.” The Memoirs of Captain Carleton (1728) were long attributed to Defoe, but the internal evidence is strongly against his authorship. They have been also attributed to Swift, with greater probability as far as style is concerned. The Life of Mother Ross, reprinted in Bohn’s edition, has no claim whatever to be considered Defoe’s.
Private life and legacy
There is little to be said of Defoe’s private life during this period. He must in some way or other have obtained a considerable income. In 1724 he had built himself a large house at Stoke Newington, which had stables and grounds of considerable size. From the negotiations for the marriage of his daughter Sophia it appears that he had landed property in more than one place, and he had obtained on lease in 1722 a considerable estate from the corporation of Colchester, which was settled on his unmarried daughter at his death. Other property was similarly allotted to his widow and remaining children, though some difficulty seems to have arisen from the misconduct of his son, to whom, for some purpose, the property was assigned during his father’s lifetime, and who refused to pay what was due.
There is a good deal of mystery about the end of Defoe’s life; it used to be said that he died insolvent, and that he had been in jail shortly before his death. As a matter of fact, after great suffering from gout and stone, he died in Ropemaker’s Alley, Moorfields, on Monday the 26th of April 1731, and was buried in Bunhill Fields. He left no will, all his property having been previously assigned, and letters of administration were taken out by a creditor.
How his affairs fell into this condition, why he did not die in his own house, and why in the previous summer he had been in hiding, as we know he was from a letter still extant, are points not clearly explained. He was, however, attacked by Mist, whom he wounded, in prison in 1724. It is most likely that Mist had found out that Defoe was a government agent and quite probable that he communicated his knowledge to other editors, for Defoe’s journalistic employment almost ceased about this time, and he began to write anonymously, or as “Andrew Moreton.” It is possible that he had to go into hiding to avoid the danger of being accused as a real Jacobite, when those with whom he had contracted to assume the character were dead and could no longer justify his attitude.
Defoe married, on New Year’s Day, 1684, Mary Tuffley, who survived until December 1732. They had seven children. His second son, Bernard or Benjamin Norton, has, like his father, a scandalous niche in the Dunciad. In April 1877 public attention was called to the distress of three maiden ladies, directly descended from Defoe, and bearing his name; and a crown pension of £75 a year was bestowed on each of them. His youngest daughter, Sophia, who married Henry Baker, left a considerable correspondence, now in the hands of her descendants. There are several portraits of Defoe, the principal one being engraved by Vandergucht.
In his lifetime, Defoe, as not belonging to either of the great parties at a time of the bitterest party strife, was subjected to obloquy on both sides. The great Whig writers leave him unnoticed. Swift and Gay speak slightingly of him, — the former, it is true, at a time when he was only known as a party pamphleteer. Pope, with less excuse, put him in the Dunciad towards the end of his life, but he confessed to Spence in private that Defoe had written many things and none bad. At a later period he was unjustly described as “a scurrilous party writer,” which he certainly was not; but, on the other hand, Johnson spoke of his writing “so variously and so well,” and put Robinson Crusoe among the only three books that readers wish longer. From Sir Walter Scott downwards the tendency to judge literary work on its own merits to a great extent restored Defoe to his proper place, or, to speak more correctly, set him there for the first time. Lord Macaulay’s description of Roxana, Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack as “utterly nauseous and wretched” must be set aside as a freak of criticism.
Scott justly observed that Defoe’s style “is the last which should be attempted by a writer of inferior genius; for though it be possible to disguise mediocrity by fine writing, it appears in all its naked inanity when it assumes the garb of simplicity.” The methods by which Defoe attains his result are not difficult to disengage. They are the presentment of all his ideas and scenes in the plainest and most direct language, the frequent employment of colloquial forms of speech, the constant insertion of little material details and illustrations, often of a more or less digressive form, and, in his historico-fictitious works, as well as in his novels, the most rigid attention to vivacity and consistency of character. Plot he disregards, and he is fond of throwing his dialogues into regular dramatic form, with by-play prescribed and stage directions interspersed. A particular trick of his is also to divide his arguments after the manner of the preachers of his day into heads and subheads, with actual numerical signs affixed to them. These mannerisms undoubtedly help and emphasize the extraordinary faithfulness to nature of his fictions, but it would be a great mistake to suppose that they fully explain their charm. Defoe possessed genius, and his secret is at the last as impalpable as the secret of genius always is.
The character of Defoe, both mental and moral, is very clearly indicated in his works. He, the satirist of the true-born Englishman, was himself a model, with some notable variations and improvements, of the Englishman of his period. He saw a great many things, and what he did see he saw clearly. But there were also a great many things which he did not see, and there was often no logical connexion whatever between his vision and his blindness. The most curious example of this inconsistency, or rather of this indifference to general principle, occurs in his Essay on Projects. He there speaks very briefly and slightingly of life insurance, probably because it was then regarded as impious by religionists of his complexion.
But on either side of this refusal are to be found elaborate projects of friendly societies and widows’ funds, which practically cover, in a clumsy and roundabout manner, the whole ground of life insurance. In morals it is evident that he was, according to his lights, a strictly honest and honourable man. But sentiment of any “high-flying” description — to use the cant word of his time — was quite incomprehensible to him, or rather never presented itself as a thing to be comprehended. He tells us with honest and simple pride that when his patron Harley fell out, and Godolphin came in, he for three years held no communication with the former, and seems quite incapable of comprehending the delicacy which would have obliged him to follow Harley’s fallen fortunes. His very anomalous position in regard to Mist is also indicative of a rather blunt moral perception. One of the most affecting things in his novels is the heroic constancy and fidelity of the maid Amy to her exemplary mistress Roxana. But Amy, scarcely by her own fault, is drawn into certain breaches of definite moral laws which Defoe did understand, and she is therefore condemned, with hardly a word of pity, to a miserable end. Nothing heroic or romantic was within Defoe’s view; he could not understand passionate love, ideal loyalty, aesthetic admiration or anything of the kind; and it is probable that many of the little sordid touches which delight us by their apparent satire were, as designed, not satire at all, but merely a faithful representation of the feelings and ideas of the classes of which he himself was a unit.
His political and economical pamphlets are almost unmatched as clear presentations of the views of their writer. For driving the nail home no one but Swift excels him, and Swift perhaps only in The Drapier’s Letters. There is often a great deal to be said against the view presented in those pamphlets, but Defoe sees nothing of it. He was perfectly fair but perfectly one-sided, being generally happily ignorant of everything which told against his own view.
The same characteristics are curiously illustrated in his moral works. The morality of these is almost amusing in its downright positive character. With all the Puritan eagerness to push a clear, uncompromising, Scripture-based distinction of right and wrong into the affairs of every-day life, he has a thoroughly English horror of casuistry, and his clumsy canons consequently make wild work with the infinite intricacies of human nature. He is, in fact, an instance of the tendency, which has so often been remarked by other nations in the English, to drag in moral distinctions at every turn, and to confound everything which is novel to the experience, unpleasant to the taste, and incomprehensible to the understanding, under the general epithets of wrong, wicked and shocking. His works of this class therefore are now the least valuable, though not the least curious, of his books.
Writings about Defoe
The earliest regular life and estimate of Defoe is that of Dr. Towers in the Biographia Britannica. George Chalmers’s Life, however (1786), added very considerable information. In 1830 Walter Wilson wrote the standard Life (3 vols.); it is coloured by political prejudice, but is a model of painstaking care, and by its abundant citations from works both of Defoe and of others, which are practically inaccessible to the general reader, is invaluable.
In 1859 appeared a life of Defoe by William Chadwick, an extraordinary rhapsody in a style which is half Cobbett and half Carlyle, but amusing, and by no means devoid of acuteness. In 1864 the discovery of the six letters stirred up William Lee to a new investigation, and the results of this were published (London, 1869) in three large volumes. The first of these (well illustrated) contains a new life and particulars of the author’s discoveries. The second and third contain fugitive writings assigned by Lee to Defoe for the first time. For most of these, however, we have no authority but Lee’s own impressions of style, etc.; and consequently, though the best qualified judges will in most cases agree that Defoe may very likely have written them, it cannot positively be stated that he did.
There is also a Life by Thomas Wright (1894). The Earlier Life and Chief Earlier Works of Defoe (1890) was included by Henry Morley in the “Carisbrooke Library.” Charles Lamb’s criticisms were made in three short pieces, two of which were written for Wilson’s book, and the third for The Reflector. The volume on Defoe (1879) in the “English Men of Letters” series is by W. Minto.
There is considerable uncertainty about many of Defoe’s writings; and even if all contested works be excluded, the number is still enormous. Besides the list in Bohn’s Lowndes, which is somewhat of an omnium gatherum, three lists drawn with more or less care were compiled in the 19th century. Wilson’s contains 210 distinct works, three or four only of which are marked as doubtful; Hazlitt’s enumerates 183 “genuine” and 52 “attributed” pieces, with notes on most of them; Lee’s extends to 254, of which 64 claim to be new additions. The reprint (3 vols.) edited for the “Pulteney Library” by Hazlitt in 1840–1843 contains a good and full life mainly derived from Wilson, the whole of the novels (including the Serious Reflections now hardly ever published with Robinson Crusoe), Jure Divino, The Use and Abuse of Marriage, and many of the more important tracts and smaller works. There is also an edition, often called Scott’s, but really edited by Sir G. C. Lewis, in twenty volumes (London, 1840–1841). This contains the Complete Tradesman, Religious Courtship, The Consolidator and other works not comprised in Hazlitt’s. Scott had previously in 1809 edited for Ballantyne some of the novels, in twelve volumes.
Bohn’s “British Classics” includes the novels (except the third part of Robinson Crusoe), The History of the Devil, The Storm, and a few political pamphlets, also the undoubtedly spurious Mother Ross. In 1870 Nimmo of Edinburgh published in one volume an admirable selection from Defoe. It contains Chalmers’s Life, annotated and completed from Wilson and Lee, Robinson Crusoe, pts. i. and ii., Colonel Jack, The Cavalier, Duncan Campbell, The Plague, Everybody’s Business, Mrs. Veal, The Shortest Way with Dissenters, Giving Alms no Charity, The True-Born Englishman, Hymn to the Pillory, and very copious extracts from The Complete English Tradesman. An edition of Defoe’s Romances and Narratives in sixteen volumes by G. A. Aitken came out in 1895.
If we turn to separate works, the bibliography of Defoe is practically confined (except as far as original editions are concerned) to Robinson Crusoe. Mrs. Veal has been to some extent popularized by the work which it helped to sell; Religious Courtship and The Family Instructor had a vogue among the middle class until well into the 19th century, and The History of the Union was republished in 1786. But the reprints and editions of Crusoe have been innumerable; it has been often translated; and the eulogy pronounced on it by Rousseau gave it special currency in France, where imitations (or rather adaptations) have also been common.
In addition to the principal authorities already mentioned see John Forster, Historical and Biographical Essays (1858); G. Saintsbury, “Introduction” to Defoe’s Minor Novels; and valuable notes by G. A. Aitken in The Contemporary Review (February 1890), and The Athenaeum (April 30, 1889; August 31, 1890). A facsimile reprint (1883) of Robinson Crusoe has an introduction by Mr. Austin Dobson. Dr. Karl T. Bülbring edited two unpublished works of Defoe, The Compleat English Gentleman (London, 1890) and Of Royall Educacion (London, 1905), from British Museum Add. MS. 32,555. Further light was thrown on Defoe’s work as a political agent by the discovery (1906) of an unpublished paper of his in the British Museum by G. F. Warner. This was printed in the English Historical Review, and afterwards separately.
EIL is happy to offer a variety of resources to learn more about Defoe’s most renowned work, Robinson Crusoe, and the various mediums it has been presented in:
When will you read Daniel Defoe’s writing in Excellence in Literature?