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Daniel Defoe Biography And Visits

St Giles, London as it looks today

Daniel Defoe was elevated to literary greatness in the 1790s. This was a time when to qualify for such a position a writer's life had to be saintly, setting an example to impressionable readers. A saintly life for Daniel Defoe was duly supplied by biographer George Chambers. There were two problems with this. Firstly Defoe was not a saint. Secondly, Defoe's main claim to greatness was that he took an established tradition of religious morality tale and turned it into a much more complex proposition now known as the novel. Defoe's stories are not straight forward morality tales, and neither was his life. It wasn't until 1879 that biographer William Minto dismissed the idealised picture of Defoe. Since then opinions have been satisfyingly divided. He has been seen as a crusader for freedom of expression, and has also been accused of "resembling the worse propagandists of Nazi Germany" (see Introduction to Daniel Defoe, Master of Fiction by Maximillian Novak).

Defoe was probably born in 1659 - the exact date is uncertain - in St Giles, Cripplegate. His father John Foe, was a merchant dealing in tallow, an animal fat used to make candles. The Defoe family were Presbyterians, a particularly strict form of Protestantism. Daily life was centred around Bible reading and church going. This rigid family religion was to shape young Daniel profoundly. So central was religion to the Defoe family that their great hope for Daniel was that he would become a Presbyterian minister. Official disapproval of Presbyterianism meant that a normal school and university education was closed to young Daniel. So he was sent to an academy in Newington which prepared boys for careers in business and the Presbyterian ministry. Ironically the Newington school introduced Defoe to a wider view of the world than was usual for his time. In contrast to a normal educational career there were also opportunities to study European languages, and practical subjects such as mathematics and navigation. Study of English writings was also encouraged, long before "English Literature" was accepted as a subject. So Daniel Defoe grew up with a rigid, black and white view of the world meeting an unusually wide ranging education.


Exeter Guildhall where many men involved in the Monmouth rebellion met with ruthless justice at the hands of Judge Jefferies

When Daniel left Newington Academy, he gave up on his father's treasured ambitions for him, choosing for reasons unclear not to become a Presbyterian minister. In January 1684 he married Mary Tuffley, and prepared for her a series of stories called Historical Collections. Unusually Defoe left out the moralising that was such a standard feature of writing at that time. Sometimes in his collection he took the stories of others, and reworked them without a moralising element. This was a strong signpost for the future. Following his marriage Defoe moved into his own residence in Freeman's Yard, on the north side of Cornhill, close to the Royal Exchange in London. Defoe's early career was interrupted by his decision to serve in the rebel army of the Duke of Monmouth which in 1685 tried unsuccessfully to overthrow England's Catholic monarch James II. Defoe was fortunate to survive the collapse of this rebellion, and the ruthless retribution which followed. After a period in hiding, and the probable purchase of a pardon, he set himself up as a merchant involving himself in a number of ventures. Then in November 1688 Defoe's life changed for the better when a group of MPs, outraged at James II's open support for Catholicism, invited the Dutch Protestant monarch William of Orange to land in Britain and challenge James. On 23rd December James II finally fled into exile, and William and his wife Mary - a daughter of James II - took over as joint monarchs. This ushered in a new age when the monarch was obliged to work under closer supervision by Parliament. This was also an age of capitalist expansion, with a new acceptance of banking and borrowing. Defoe was to be an enthusiastic proponent of this new world, running his own businesses, and often acting as a propagandist for his hero, the new king, William III. Now the black and white outlook of Defoe's religion collided with the world of commerce and business. Defoe's religion had always preached the value of self denial, simple tastes, and the avoidance of greed. As a businessman, it soon became clear that, to paraphrase Gordon Gecko, greed was good. Trade depended on a sense of luxury and indulgence, and stimulating these desires was helpful to business. Defoe's businesses tended to be at the luxury end of the market - he tried to develop a perfume business for example. Defoe's very survival as a merchant depended on the "greed" of his customers, and the urgency of feeding that greed was very real. Defoe was to face bankruptcy in 1692 and 1703, which in those days was seen as a serious crime.


Old Bailey on the site of the former Newgate Prison

Alongside his business ventures, Defoe started writing articles on politics and society. Somehow the young author came to the notice of King William. Defoe claimed royal attention was gained through his essay True Born Englishmen - an attack on narrow minded English xenophobia, published in January 1701. But it is likely that Defoe was working for William before this. Possibly Defoe's interests in the building trade brought him into contact with the government, and he was asked to report on public opinion, or on individuals the government was interested in - acting in effect as a spy. Defoe's way with words might also have resulted in royal employment as a speech writer. There was also work writing government propaganda, selling William as a monarch appointed by Parliament to people used to monarchs apparently appointed by God. Even though all of this work required Defoe to operate in a world of murky morals, an idealism remained - seen for example in articles attacking the way many laws against immorality and drunkenness were applied only to the poor. King William had a soft spot for his propagandist and would always protect him from any fall out from his more controversial articles. Things changed, however, with King William's death in 1702. William's successor Queen Anne was much less keen on the unpredictable Defoe. She immediately took exception to a piece called The Shortest Way With The Dissenters - a satire on discrimination against religious groups outside the approved Church of England. Anne was furious, and after a period in hiding Defoe was captured and sentenced to stand in the pillory. Helpless in the pillory many prisoners were killed by angry mobs. Defoe, however, was surrounded by loyal friends who not only protected him, but who took the opportunity to sell his books. Seeing this annoying but potentially useful influence Defoe had over people, Maximillian Novak thinks the government now went all out to crush any tendency to rebelliousness left in their propagandist. Queen's Anne's senior minister Robert Harley kept Defoe in Newgate Prison for three months, a place with a terrifying reputation. It would be wrong to see Newgate as completely breaking Defoe, but it was another step down the road leading from the moral certainties of his religious upbringing to an acceptance of life's sometimes brutal realities. Emerging from Newgate, Defoe wrote loyally for the government thereafter. He still wrote occasional articles attacking the treatment of religious dissenters, but in return for Harley turning a blind eye, Defoe was obliged to obediently write whatever the government wanted whenever they wanted it. His skills were particularly valuable during the period of negotiation before the union of England and Scotland in 1707. Pretending to be a businessman, Defoe sent many reports on public opinion in Scotland back to London, and wrote The History of the Union to support government policy.

In this way Defoe worked his way through the reign of Queen Anne. But by 1713 Anne's health was failing. Just as the end of William III's reign had brought danger so did the death of Queen Anne in 1714. Defoe's government handler Harley was now falling out of favour. He had been a tough politician and had made many enemies. Anyone associated with Harley was in as much danger as Harley himself. So Defoe worked desperately, contributing articles to papers under assumed names, sowing confusion about what had actually happened during the preceding years. His aim was to show that there were many ways of seeing the government's actions, and that truth was never simple. Once again Defoe managed to survive a time of danger, and settled into the new reign of George I. He was now 54, working with undiminished energy as a professional journalist in the most hardened sense of the word. Under assumed names he would write on both sides of an issue to stir up profitable controversy. Articles would also be written for different newspapers with different political affiliations. Defoe, once again using assumed names, or anonymity, would write from whatever angle a publication required. You could see this as the ultimate in cynicism. On the other hand Defoe was now a man who was used to seeing things from many angles. There was little room for dogma in his hard-earned world view. In 1715 he published the first of a three volume work called The Family Instructor in which typical family situations would be dramatised with the aim of giving moral guidance. This of course was writing in a very recognisable tradition. The difference with Defoe was the way a certain ambivalence crept in along with the religious advice. Wayward family members were portrayed with such realism and spirit, that inspite of clear authorly judgment being given against them, it was difficult to feel simple condemnation of one family member over another. Then came the big breakthrough when the implied lack of simple moral judgment in The Family Instructor became much more overt. In 1719, at the age of 60, all of Defoe's life long interests in religion, business and economics, came together in a novel called Robinson Crusoe. This book was written in the tradition of religious Puritan self confession narratives. But in the general opinion of English Literature commentators, Robinson Crusoe represents the crucial step between moral tract and a more complex form we now know as the novel (see The Oxford Short History of English Literature by Andrew Sanders for example).

So Robinson Crusoe was the first novel. This is quite a milestone, and there are many themes in Defoe's novel which could be studied to show the new complexity of this literary form. Perhaps it is in religion that we see this most clearly. In Robinson Crusoe there is a strong sense of religion, and much discussion of religious subjects, but crucially the discussion is characteristically open and questioning rather than prescriptive. As the book begins, God seems to be carefully keeping an eye on everything, viewing with disapproval the plans of young Robinson Crusoe who wants to go to sea in defiance of his father's wishes - echoes here of Defoe's own defiance of his father's plans for him. A storm sinks Crusoe's first ship, and then on his next voyage he is captured by a Turkish pirate and enslaved. Crusoe eventually escapes the pirate by stealing a boat, and is then picked up by a helpful Portuguese captain, who takes Crusoe to Brazil, where he settles down and establishes a successful plantation. But still he cannot accept a quiet life, and goes to sea once again, on an illegal voyage hoping to make a fortune from a cargo of slaves. Instead God seems to intervene again to wreck Crusoe on a desert island off the coast of Venezuela. Here Crusoe is forced to survive alone for many years. Until this point God's authority seems to be complete over Crusoe's life, but as the story develops on the island this picture becomes more complicated. There's the episode where Crusoe finds green shoots of English barley growing on the island. Initially he thinks this is a miracle, a sign that God is helping him out. But then he remembers that he shook a bag of chicken feed out on the spot where the barley was growing, and the seed must have been in the bag: "... my religious thankfulness to God's providence began to abate too, upon the discovery that all this was nothing but what was common" (P95). Things get even more complicated when Crusoe comes into contact with the strange cultures of local islanders. Evidence of a visit by cannibals to the island leaves Crusoe frightened and appalled, considering such men to be beyond the reach of his God. Crusoe resolves to kill any cannibals coming to his island. But as time passes his feelings change:

"... my opinion of the action itself began to alter, and I began with cooler and calmer thoughts to consider what it was I was going to engage in: what authority or call I had, to pretend to be judge and executioner upon these men as criminals, whom Heaven had thought fit for so many ages to suffer unpunished... They do not know it be an offence, and then commit it in defiance of divine justice, as we do in almost all the sins that we commit. They think it no more a crime to kill a captive taken in war, than we do to kill an ox; nor to eat human flesh, than we do to eat mutton" (P177).

This is not the writing of a moral tract, designed to reaffirm well known religious truths. In fact this story is actually challenging comfortable and long accepted viewpoints. And no definite direction is imposed. Instead there is a sense that values are relative to the culture you find yourself living in.

Robinson Crusoe was the highlight of Daniel Defoe's career. Published on 25th April 1719 it immediately sold well. Defoe continued in this new vein with two sequels to Robinson Crusoe, and a number of other novels, the most highly regarded of which are Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxanna (1724). Both continued to present complexity instead of simple moral guidance. Sadly Defoe decided to abandon novel writing after Roxanna and turned to a series of books and pamphlets on social problems in England. Defoe continued writing until almost the end of his life, his old age blighted by a row over his daughter's dowry, and a case brought against him for possible non payment of an old debt. Defoe died on 24th April 1731, and was buried at Bunhill Fields, not far from the graves of William Blake and John Bunyan.