Daniel Defoe – novelist, wheeler dealer, spy, political agitator, journalist, jailbird and occasional tax collector. The man was a chameleon. Even his name is something of a pose. He was born Daniel Foe, son of James Foe a candle maker, sometime in 1660 in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate. In later years, Daniel claimed to be descended from the noble family of De Beaux Faux, and added the ‘De’ to give an aristocratic ring to his name, becoming ‘de Foe’ and finally Defoe. (Living as I do in Defoe House, I must put in my twopenn’th for the correct pronunciation. It is De-FOE House not DEE-foe House.)
Daniel Defoe is known today as the writer of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. In fact, he churned out over 500 books and pamphlets on just about every subject of interest to 18th-century England, but he was nearly 60 before he even turned his hand to novel writing and all his famous works were crammed into the last 10 years of his life. Before that he had a whole series of colourful, but mainly failed, careers.
Defoe’s family were ‘Dissenters’ or ‘Nonconformists’. Nonconformists believed that the Church of England had not gone far enough in rejecting the Church of Rome and that it was necessary to reject all forms of ritual and hierarchy, including the institution of bishops. Being a dissenter was not illegal, but it put you outside mainstream English life. The family did not worship at St Giles Church, but at a chapel in Bishopsgate Street run by a preacher expelled from the Church of England. Defoe went to school at an Academy in Stoke Newington run for dissenters by a Charles Morton, who later became vice president of Harvard University in the United States. Defoe must have received a good education; when in later life Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s Travels fame) insultingly referred to Defoe as a stupid illiterate, Defoe responded that he spoke French Spanish and Italian, and could read Latin and Greek. Defoe’s earliest ambition was to become a minister in the nonconformist church himself, but he gave up the idea and went into business. He became a wheeler dealer in all kinds of products; he traded in wine, hosiery and woollen goods. Sometimes he made a lot of money; at one point he bought a country estate, and started breeding civet cats for perfume. But he was constantly veering between success and bankruptcy, taking risks in the hope of making huge profits which usually failed to materialize. In 1684 Defoe married Mary Tuffley, and they had two sons and five daughters together. A year after their marriage, Defoe joined the wrong side in the Monmouth Rebellion, and narrowly escaped capture and death after the disastrous Battle of Sedgemoor. The rebellion was an attempt to put the Duke of Monmouth, the bastard but protestant son of Charles II, on the throne in place of James II, who was well known to be a closet Roman Catholic. Monmouth was executed and any supporters who were caught were either executed or sent to Australia by the infamous Judge Jeffreys. Defoe and his wife had to flee abroad. The story goes that he noticed the name ‘Robinson Crusoe’ carved on a stone in a churchyard where he was hiding while making his escape and later gave it to his famous hero.
In 1689 the Establishment got rid of James II themselves, but this time it was called ‘the Glorious Revolution’ – history being written by the victors. Defoe rushed back to claim a place on the winning side – he even got himself a horse and linked up with the horse regiment escorting the new king, William of Orange, to London – and looked all set for another shot at financial success. But by 1692 Defoe’s schemes had all gone wrong again and he was arrested for debt and thrown into debtors’ prison. Even his perfumed cats were seized. He was imprisoned in Fleet Gaol, one of the foulest prisons in London. The experience put him off the risks of trading in Britain for a while, and when he was released he went straight back abroad, and among other ventures he became a wine trader in Portugal.
By 1695 he returned to England again but this time with something of a personal makeover. He was now ‘Defoe’ and, despite being a recent bankrupt, he got himself appointed as a tax collector – a ‘commissioner of the glass duty’ – responsible for collecting taxes on bottles. That didn’t last long and the next year he set up business manufacturing tiles and bricks for the building industry. But none of his ventures were successful. He was imprisoned again in Fleet jail in 1702. In all, he was imprisoned seven times in various debtors prisons, including Newgate prison.
However, the new political climate gave him an opportunity to pursue a new career, this time as a political agitator and pamphleteer. People wrote and distributed pamphlets in support of particular political aims, or to attack their political enemies. If he was alive today, Defoe would probably be operating a weblog. His main targets were ‘High Church’ Tories, the members of the establishment furthest removed from Defoe’s dissenting roots. He didn’t write a pamphlet attacking them directly; instead, he satirised the Tories’ position by writing a pamphlet putting forward an appallingly extreme version of their views, including advocating the extermination of dissenters, and pretending the writer was himself a High Church Tory. The pamphlet was called ‘The Shortest Way with Dissenters’. Even this might have been forgiven except that a number of the Tories approved of it, not realising it was a spoof. Criticising Tories was one thing, making fools of them quite another.
Defoe was prosecuted for seditious libel. A reward poster was put up for his capture, describing him as “a middle-size spare man, about 40 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”. Defoe was arrested and sentenced to be put in the pillory on the 31st of July 1703. The pillory was made of hinged boards with holes for the head and limbs to be clamped in place. Once the victim was fixed in place, the crowd was encouraged to throw anything from vegetables to rocks at him. Since his hands would be trapped, and he couldn’t move his head, a victim could be blinded or permanently maimed. The result often depended on the sympathy of the crowd. Defoe published a poem called “Hymn to the Pillory” which apparently caused the crowd to throw flowers instead of stones. He was left in the pillory at Charing Cross for three days and then taken to Newgate prison. Being left to languish in prison was not much better, and if Defoe had come up with a novel solution to the pillory problem, he came up with an equally novel way of getting out of prison. He offered his services as a spy to the government (effectively, the very people he had been attacking). A deal was struck with Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons, who was effectively running the Tory government.
The political issue of the time was Scotland. Scotland was still a separate country with its own parliament. The English government wanted to effect a union between the two countries, and the Scots establishment was violently opposed to the idea. The prevailing political and religious opinion in Scotland was very close to Defoe’s dissenting views. His anti-Tory pamphlets, and the fact that he had been imprisoned for his views in England, made it easy for him to get close to the main players in Scotland, spy on them, and report back to Harley in London. He was also put to work, very effectively, as a propagandist. In England he began writing ‘The Review’, a journal which put forward the English government’s arguments in favour of the proposed Act of Union, using pen names to conceal his involvement. In Scotland, he wrote pamphlets containing articles which he pretended were written by genuine Scotsmen, also arguing in favour of the Union, but using different arguments designed to appeal to the Scots. Whether his activities had any effect or not, the Act of Union was passed in 1707 and the Scottish Parliament was disbanded. Defoe continued working for Harley till he lost power in 1708. His services were then passed on to the next government, and Defoe continued doing intelligence work first for the Tories and then for the Whigs.
Defoe’s first full-scale book ‘The Storm’ was written in 1704. This was a description of the only hurricane known to have hit the British Isles, which happened shortly after Defoe was released from prison in 2003. Nearly 10,000 people were killed, and millions of trees destroyed. The storm of 1987 which rearranged the Barbican gardens was mild in comparison. It was another 15 years before he published ‘Robinson Crusoe’, the book for which he is principally remembered. This was his first novel. It has a claim to be the first English novel. The famous passage is: “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.” This is the footprint of one of a band of cannibals. He rescues their intended meal, Man Friday, who becomes his servant. Either the book came entirely from his imagination or it was inspired by the story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway. The book was an overnight success. Defoe followed it with two sequels in the best Hollywood tradition: ‘The Farther Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe’ in 1719, in which Crusoe returns to the island and loses Friday in an attack by savages, and ‘The Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe’ some years later in 1729. But the sequels were nowhere near as successful. Defoe produced another novel called ‘Captain Singleton’, about a pirate who has many adventures before retiring to England. In 1722 Defoe wrote ‘Moll Flanders’, the other novel for which he is best known, all about an engaging prostitute who makes her way through life lovers and husbands. An episode in Moll Flanders is set in Aldersgate Street with the heroine considering murdering a child for a necklace. Another book also published in 1722 – a novel, but written as if non-fiction – is ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ about life in London in 1665. This was followed by ‘Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress’ in 1724.
Defoe also produced several historical works, and a travel guide in three volumes: ‘A Tour Through The Whole Island Of Great Britain’ published between 1724 and 1727. Defoe dabbled in many subjects. He was particularly interested in the supernatural and towards the end of his life wrote ‘An Essay On The History And Reality Of Apparitions’ and ‘The Political History Of The Devil’. One of his most memorable comments was on the subject of the Devil, written in 1701:
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.
Many of his books were successes. And yet when Defoe finally died in April 1731 he was living in Ropemaker Alley, near Moorfields, hiding from creditors. He was buried in Bunhill Fields cemetery.