1902 Encyclopedia > Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe
English novelist, journalist, and pamphleteer

DANIEL DEFOE (1661-1731), was born in London in the year 1661, in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate. Neither the exact date nor place of his birth is known, nor is his baptism recorded, probably because he was of a non-conformist family. Hardly anything is known of his ancestors; his grandfather, Daniel Foe, is said to have been a square or wealthy yeoman at Elton, in Huntingdonshire (not Northamptonshire, as more generally stated), and to have kept a pack of hounds; but the authority for the former statement seems to be mainly traditional, and for the latter we have merely an anecdote in one of Defoe’s newspaper articles, which is at least as likely to have been fiction as fact. Attempts have been made, but merely fancifully, to trace the name to vaux, Fawkes, or even Devereux, As to the variation Defoe or Foe it is to be noticed that its owner signed either indifferently till a late period of his life, and that his initials where they occur are sometimes D.F. and sometimes D.D.F, Mr. Lee’s conjecture, that the later form originated in his being called Mr. D. Foe to distinguish him form his father, seems not unlikely. It may be added that 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.

Daniel Defoe picture

Daniel Defoe

James Foe, the father of the author of Robinson Crusoe, was a butcher and a citizen of London. Of his mother nothing is known. Daniel was chiefly educated at a famous dissenting academy, Mr. Morton’s of Stoke Newington, where many of the celebrated nonconformists of the time were brought up. It is noteworthy that one of his schoolfellows suggested the unusual name of Crusoe. In after life Defoe frequently asserted the sufficiency of his education and the excellence of the methods observed by his teacher. Judging from his writings his stock of general information must have been far larger than that of most regularly educated men of his day; but it is probable that his attainments were in no particular line very exquisite or profound. With every few exceptions all the known events of Defoe’s life are connected with authorship. In the older catalogues of his works two pamphlets, Speculum Crapegounorum (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, the family minister, published in 1697. He had, however, before this (if we may trust tradition) played an active part in public affairs. He had 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, into which not a few of his school-fellows fell, to the fact of his being a Londoner, and therefore a stranger in the west-country. On January 26, 1688, he was admitted a liverymen of the city of London, having claimed his freedom by birth., Since his western escapade he had taken to the business of wholesale hosiery. 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 at that place. His business operations at this period appear to have been extensive and various. He would seen both now and later to have been a sort of commission merchant, especially in Spanish and Portuguese goods, and at some time or other he visited Spain on business. Later we hear him spoken of as "a civet-cat merchant," but as he can hardly have kept a menagerie of these animals it is odd that no one has supposed that the civet-cat was the sign of his place of business (it was a very usual one) rather than the staple of his trade. In 1692 his mercantile operations came to a disastrous close, and he failed for £17,000. But his own account the disaster would seem to have arisen from relying too much on credit. 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 managership and chief ownership of some tile-works at Tilbury but here also he was unfortunate, and his imprisonment (of which more hereafter) in 1703 brought the works to a stand-still, and thereby lost him £3000. From this time forward we hear of no settled business in which he engaged. He evidently, however, continued to undertake commissions, and made his political visits to Scotland an occasion for opening connections of this kind with that country. In the last thirty years of his life business played more profit from it than from his earlier ventures. It was probably at then time of his troubles in 1692 that he had occasion to visit Bristol, where – according to a local traditional – he lay perdu for fear of bailiffs all the week, but emerged in gorgeous raiment on Sunday, whence he was known by the nickname of "the Sunday gentleman."

It was not as a business man that Defoe was to make his mark, though his business experiences coloured to some extent the literary productions to which he owes his fame. The course of his life was determined about the middle of the reign of William III. by his introduction (we know not how) to William, himself and to other influential persons. He frequently boasts of his personal intimacy with the "glorious and immortal" king (epithets, by the way to the invention of which he has considerable claim), and in 1695 he was appointed accountant to the commissioners of the glass duty, which office he held for four years. During this time he produced (January 1698) his Essay on Projects, one of the first and not the least noteworthy of his works. This essay contains suggestions on banks, road-management, friendly and insurance societies of various kinds, idiot asylums, bankruptcy, academies (in the French sense), military colleges, high schools for women &c. It displays Defoe’s lively and lucid style in full vigour, and abounds with inhenious thoughts and apt illustrations, though it illustrates also the unsystematic character of his mind. In the same year Defoe wrote the first of an long series of pamphlets on the then burning question of occasional conformity. In this, for the first time, he showed the unlucky independence which, is no many other instances, united all parties against hi,. On the one hand he pointed out to the dissenters the scandalous inconsistency of their playing fast and loose with sacred things, and on the other he denounced the impropriety of requiring tests at all. In direct support of the Government he published, towards the close of the reign, a Defense of Standing Armies, against Trenchard, 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 – the publication, indeed, as the author of which he became famous – was The True Born Englishman, 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 famous Kentish petition, and was the author, and some say the presenter, of the equally famous 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 any great notice. The theory of the indefeasible supremacy of the freeholders of England, whose delegates merely (accordingly to this theory) the Commons were was one of Defoe’s favourite political tenets, and he returned to it in a most powerfully written tract entitled The Original Power of the Collective Body of the People of England examined and asserted. At the same time he was occupied in a controversy on the conformity question with the well-known John How (usually spelt Howe at present), and wrote several minor political tracts.

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 and the king’s dealt, he turned his attention once more to ecclesiastical subjects, and, in an evil hour for himself, wrote the famous Shortest Way with the Dissenters. The traditional criticism of this remarkable pamphlet in a most curious example of the way in which thoroughly inappropriate descriptions of books pass from mouth to mouth. Every commentator (with the single exception of Mr. Chadwick) has dilated upon its "exquisite irony." Now, the fact of the matter is, that Defoe’s adversaries acutely remarked, irony would never have been pleaded had not the author got into trouble, when of course it suited him faire fleche de tout bois. The pamphlet is simply an exposition in the plainest and most forcible terms of the extreme "high-flying" position, and every line of it might have been endorsed, and was endorsed, by consistent high-churchmen. The author’s object clearly was by this naked presentation to awaken the dissenters to a sense of their danger, and to startle moderate churchmen by showing them to what end their favourite doctrines necessarily, and irony, we repeat, there is none. If any lingering doubt form the consensus of authority on the other side remain, let the student read The Shortest Way and then turn to Swift’s Modest Proposal or his Reasons against Abolishing the Church of England. He will soon see the difference. Ironical or not, however, it was unlikely that the high-churchmen and their leader Notthingham (the Don Dismal of Swift) would let such a performance pass unnoticed. The author was soon discovered; and, as he absconded, an advertisement was issued offering a reward for his apprehension, and giving us the only personal description we posses 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 hen was fined 2000 marks, and condemned to be pilloried three times, to be imprisoned indefinitely, and to find sureties for his good behaviour during seven years. His sojourn in the pillory, however, was 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. He remained in prison until August 1704, and then owed his release to the intercession of 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 anther, lasted until the termination of Anne’s reign. Defoe as uniformly grateful to the minister, and his language respecting him is in curious variance with that generally used. There can be little doubt that, independently of gratitude, Harley’s moderation in a time of the extremest party-insanity was no little recommendation to Defoe. During his imprisonment the latter 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 November 26, 1703 and started 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 time 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 threw his writing into the form of something very like finished essays on questions of policy, trade, and domestic concerns; while he also introduced a so-called "Scandal Club," in which minor questions of manners and morals were treated in a way which undoubtedly suggested the Tatlers and Spectators which followed. It is probable that if the five points of bulk, rapidity of production, variety of matter, originality of design, and excellence of style are taken together, hardly any author can show a work of equal magnitude. It is unlucky that only one complete copy of the work is known to exist, and that is in a private library. After his release he went to Bury St. Edmunds for change of air, though he did not interrupt either his Review or his occasional pamphlets. One of these, Gibing Alms no Charity, and employing the Poor a Grievance to the Nation, is for the time an extraordinarily far-sighted performance. It denounces on the one hand indiscriminate alms-giving, and on the other the folly of national work-shops, the institution of which on a parochial system had been proposed by Sir Humphrey Mackworth.

In 1705 appeared The Consolidator, or Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the Worls in the Moon, a political satire which is supposed to have given some hints for Guilliver; and at the end of the year Defoe performed a secret mission (the first of several of the kind) for Harley. While on one of these in the west of England he was molested, though with no serious result, by the zealous country justices. In 1705 also appeared the famous Mrs. Veal. As is well known, this admirable fiction is said ton have been composed for a bookseller, to help off an unsaleable translation of Drelincourt on Death. Mr. Lee, however, has thrown some doubts on this story. Defoe’s next considerable work was Jure Divino, a poetical argument in some 10,000 terribly bad verses; and soon afterwards (1706) he began to be largely employed in promoting the union with Scotland. Not only did he write pamphlets as usual on the project, and vigorously recommend it is The Review, but in October 1706 he was sent on a political mission to Scotland by Godolphin, to whom Harley had recommended him. He resided in Edinburgh for nearly sixteen months, and his services to the Government were rewarded 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 latter year occurred the famous Sacheverel sermon, and Defoe wrote several tracts on the occasion. 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, and this wrath was displayed in an attempted prosecution against some pamphlets of his on the all-important question of the succession, but 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. He was violently attacked on all sides, and at last published in 1715 an apologia entitled An Appeal to Honour and Justice, in which he defends his political conduct, and which furnished us with the main authority for the details of his life. With this publication his political work was formerly supposed to have ended; but in 1864 six letters were discovered in the Record Office from Defoe to a Government official, Mr. Delafaye, which established the fact that in 1718 at least Defoe was doing not only political work, but political work 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 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, if we may trust Mr. Lee, he wrote in these and other papers till nearly the end of his life.

However this may be, the interest of Defoe’s life from this time forward is very far from political. He was now a man of fifty-five of age; he had, up to this period, written nothing but what may be called 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 subsequently continued, and which was very popular during the last century. Three years afterwards came forth the first volume of Robinson Crusoe. The first edition of this was published on the 25th of April 1719. It ran through four editions in as many months, and then in August appeared the second part. Twelve afterwards the third part, or Serious Reflections, appeared. This last part is now hardly ever reprinted. Its connection, indeed, with the two former 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. Crusoe was immediately popular, and various wild stories were set afloat of its having been written by Lord Oxford in the Tower and of its being simply a piratical utilization of Alexander Selkirk’s papers. It is sufficient to say that all such stories are not only intrinsically of the wildest improbability, but also possess not a title of evidence in their favour. A curious idea, recently revived by the late Mr. H. 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. The book was almost immediately imitated; of such imitations Philip Quarll is the only one now know ever by name. Contemporaneously with the later parts opf Crusoe appeared The Dumb Philosopher, or Dickory Cronke. It is a short and rather dull book, of something the same type as the Serious Reflections.

In 1720 came forth The Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell. This, unlike the two former, was not entirely a work of imagination, in as mush as its hero, the fortune-teller, was a real person. There are amusing passages in the story, but it is too desultory to rank with Defoe’s best. In the same prolific year appeared two wholly or partially fictitious histories, each of which might have made a reputation for any man. The first was the famous Memoirs of a Cavalier, which, as has been often repeated, Lord Chatham believed to be true history, and which Mr. Lee believes to be the embodiment at least of authentic private memoirs. It is more probable, however, that Defoe, with his extensive acquaintance with recent English history, and his astonishing power of working up derails, was fully equal to the task of its unassisted composition. As a model of historical work of a certain kind it is hardly surpassable, and many separate passages – accounts of battles and skirmished – have never been equaled except by Mr. Carlyle. Captain Singleton, the last work of the year, has been justly depreciated by most of the commentators. The recod of the journey across Africa, with its surprising anticipations of recent discoveries (anticipations which were commented on by Dr. Birdwood in a paper read before the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1863, and which are probably due to Defoe’s intercourse with Portugal) yields in interest to no work of the kind known to us; and the semi-piratical Quaker who accompanied Singleton in his buccaneering expeditions is a character thoroughly deserving of life. It may be mentioned that here is also a Quaker who plays a very creditable part in Roxana, and that 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 works in manuscript sometimes for long periods.

In 1721 nothing of importance was produced, but in the next twelve month 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 (as a whole) may be placed next to Robinson Crusoe in order of merit, or bracketed for that position with the somewhat similar Roxana. Both are triumphs of novel-writing. Both 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 of the two difference 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 two heroines has any but the rudiments of a moral sense; but Roxana, both is her original transgression and in her subsequent conduct, is actuated merely by avarice and selfishness – vices which are peculiarly offensive in connection with her other failing, and which make her thoroughly repulsive. The art of both stories is great, and as regards the episode in Roxana of the daughter Susannah is consummate; but in 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. The Journal of the Plague Year, more usually called, from the title of the second edition, A History of the Plague, has perhaps lacked less of its due meed of admiration than any of its author’s minor works. Here also the accuracy and apparent veracity of the details is so great that many persons have taken it for authentic record, while others have contended for the existence of such a record as its basis. But it appears that 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 praised by lamb, and extracted in Knight’s Half Hours with the Best Authors, -- the scene where the youthful pick-pocket first exercises his trade, and then for a time loses his ill-gotten (though for his part he knows not the meaning of the word ill-gotten) gains. But great part of the book, and especially the latter portion, is dull; and in fact it may be generally remarked of Defoe that the conclusion of his tales are not equal to the beginning, perhaps from the restless indefatigability with which he undertook one work almost before finishing another. Roxana, or the Fortunate Mistress, already commented on, appeared in 1724; and in the same year came forth the first volume of A Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain, which was completed in then two following years. Much of the information in this was derived form 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, together with a charm of style superior even to that of the latter, and far beyond anything which the soi-disant chaplain of the "Centurion" could attain to. The journey by land across South America is of especial interest, and forms an admirable pendant to the African travels in Singleton. In the same year Defoe wrote a curious little pamphlet entitles 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, &c. This subject was a very favorite one with Defoe, and in the pamphlet he showed the immaturity of his political views by advocating legislative interference in these matters. Like all his work of this sort, however, it is extremely amusing reading. Towards the end of this same year The Complete English Trademan, 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 gave read it will be more disposed to agree with Charles Lamb, who considered it "of a vile and debasing tendency," and thinks it "almost impossible to suppose the author in earnest." It is certainly clear to those who know it what our foreign critics mean by the reproach of "shop-keeping;" and 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. In 1706 came forth 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, and An Essay on the History of Apparitions. 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. There are many very amusing things in the book, but to speak of its "extraordinary brilliancy and wit" (as Mr. H. Kingsley has done) is certainly inappropriate. The works which have just been mentioned, together with A Plan of English Commerce, containing very enlightened views on export trade, appeared in 1727-8. During the whole of the years form 1715 to 1728, Defoe had issued pamphlets and minor works far too numerous to mention. The only one of them perhaps which requires special 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 latter point was more flagrantly illustrated in one of his latest works, The Treatise concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed (1727). This, which was originally issued with a much more offensive name, has been called "an excellent book with an improper title." It might more properly be called an ill-judged work, with a title which gives fair warning of its contents. The Memoirs of captain Carleton (1728) have been long attributed to Defoe. There is, however, a well-known anecdote of Johnson which makes this extremely unlikely; it is now known that an actual officer of the name did exist and serve; and the internal evidence is, we think strongly against Defoe’s authorship. These Memoirs 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 of Defoe, has no claim whatever to be considered his.

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 Stroke Newington (only pulled down about ten years ago), 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 landed property in more than one place, and he had obtained on lease in 1722 a considerable estate from the corporation of Colchester. It was formerly thought that he soon got rid of this lease, but from documents in Mr. Lee’s possession it seems that he only effected a mortgage upon it (afterwards paid off), and that it 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 of a lethargy in Ropemaker’s Alley, Moorfields, on Monday the 6th of April 1731, and was buried in the well-known ground of Bunhill Fields. He left no will, all his property having been previously assigned, and letter of administration were taken out by a creditor. How his affairs fell into this condition, why he did not die in his own house, as we know he was from a letter still extant, are points apparently not to be cleared up.

Defoe was twice married, and his second wife Susannah outlived him a few months, he had seven children, one of whom, Martha, died in 1707—the others survived him. The eldest, Daniel, emigrated to Carolina. The second, Bernard or Benjamin Norton, has, like his father, a scandalous niche in the Dunciad. Three of the daughters, Maria, Henrietta, and Sophia, married well – the husband of the last-named being a Mr. Henry Baker, of some repute in natural science. In April 1877 public attention was called to the existence, in come 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. There are several portraits of Defoe, the principal one being engraved by Vandergucht.

We have said that in his life-time Defoe, as not belonging to either of the great parties at the 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 know as a party pamphleteer. Pope, with less excuse, put him in the Duncid 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 unjustify 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 Scott downwards the tendency to judge literary work on its own merits has to a great extent restored Defoe to his proper place, or, to speak more correctly, ahs 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.

The grounds upon which the last-mentioned writer bases his depreciation of others of Defoe’s minor works are curious. "He has undoubtedly a knack of making fiction look like truth, but is such a knack much to be desired? Is it not of the same sort as the knack of a painter who takes in the birds with his fruit? And De Quincey regards the literary skill of writers of this class as comparatively inferior because of the close resemblance of their writings to the current speech and manner of their day. But nothing is really a greater triumph of art than this similarity, and Macaulay has certainly made a mistake in confounding the requirements of painting and of writing. 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 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 bye-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. We, 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 connection whatever between his vision and his blindness. The most curious example of his 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 positioning 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 certain 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. We have noticed Charles lamb’s difficulty as to The Complete Tradesman, and we think that the explanation we have preferred will extend to a great deal more of his work. Some peculiarities of that work follow as a natural corollary from those considerations. 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. We have noticed, in remarking on The Use and Abuse, the worst instance of this blundering morality. Another, though very different instance, is his amusingly feminine indignation at the increased wages and embellished dress of servants. He is, nm fact, an incarnate 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. His periodical publications necessarily fall to some extent under the two foregoing heads, and only deserve separate notice because of the novelty and importance of their conception. His poetry, as poetry, is altogether beneath criticism. It is sometimes vigorous, but its vigour is merely that of prose. Of his novels we have already spoken in detail, excepting, as universally known, R-binson Crusoe.

The earliest regular life and estimate of Defoe is that of Dr. Towers in the Biographia Britannica. Chalmer’s Life, however (1786), added very considerable information. In 1838 Mr. Walter Wilson wrote the book which is the standard in the subject. It is coloured by political prejudice; it does not display any critical power of a high order; and it is in many parts rather a history of England with some relation to Defoe than a life of the latter; but it is a model of painstaking care, and by its abundant citations from works bith of Defoe and others, which are practically inaccessible to the general reader, is invaluable. In 1859 appeared a life of Defoe by Mr. William Chadwick, an extraordinary rhapsody in a style which is half Cobbett and half Carlyle, but amusing, and no means devoid of acuteness. In 1864 the discovery of the six letters stirred up Mr. 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 then author’s discoveries. The second and third contain fugitive writings assigned by Mr. Lee to Defoe for the first time. For most of these, however, we have no authority but Lee’s own impressions of style, &c.; and consequently, though qualified judges will in most cases agree that Defoe may have written them, it cannot positively he stated that he did. Mr. Lee is equally chary of his reasons for attributing and denying many larger works to his author. His work, though full of research and in many ways useful in correcting and enlarging previous accounts of Defoe, has therefore to be used with some caution. Besides there publications devoted exclusively to Defoe, there are others of the essay kind which may be consulted respecting him. Such articles have been written by Scott, Hazlitt, Forster, a writer in The Retrospective Review, Mr. Leslie Stephen, and others. No criticisms can, however, compare with three short pieces by Charles Lamb, two of which were written for Wilson’s book, and the third for The Reflector.

It has been a frequent and well-grounded complaint that no complete edition of Defoe’s works has ever been published. There is, as may be gathered from what has already been said, considerable 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 have been compiled in the last half-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" price, with notes on most of them; Mr. Lee’s extends to 254, of which 64 claims to be new additions. Of these large numbers many are in the original editions, extremely scarce, if not unique. Only one perfect copy of the Review is known to exist, and this, as well as the partially printed but never published Complete Gentleman, is in the hands of Mr. James Crossley of Manchester, whose Defoe collection is nearest to completeness. If reprints only one has ever aspired to be exhaustive. This was edited for the "Pulteney Library" by Hazlitt in 1840-43. It 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. The introductions are not written on a very uniform principle, but it is otherwise an excellent edition, and had it been continued (it stopped abruptly after the third volume had been completed and a few parts of a fourth issued) would have been satisfactory enough. It is still far the best, but is unfortunately scarce and expensive. There is also an edition, often called Scott’s, but really edited by Sir G.C. Lewis, in twenty volumes (London, 1841). This contains the Complete Tradesman, Religions Courtship, The Consolidator, and other works nor comprised in Hazlitt’s, but is correspondingly deficient. It also is somewhat expensive in a complete state, and the editions chosen for reprinting are not always the best. Scott had previously in 1809 edited for Ballantyne some of the novels, in 12 vols. Bohn’s libraries contain an edition which through want of support was stopped at the seventh volume. It 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 Mr. Nimmo of Edinburgh published in one volume an admirable selection from Defoe. It contains Charlmer’s Life, annotated and completed form Wilson and Lee, Robinson Crusoe, pts. i. and ii., Colonel Jack, The Covalier, Duncan Camphell, 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 Had the space occupied by Robinson Crusoe, which in one form or another every one possesses, been devoted to a further selection from the minor works, this book would have gone far to supply a very fair idea of Defoe to all but professed students of literature. If we turn to separate works, the bibliography of Defoe is practically confined (except as far as original editions are considered) 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 this 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. (G. SA.)

The above article was written by George Edward Bateman Saintsbury, M.A.; Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature, Edinburgh University, from 1895; author of A Short History of French Literature, The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory, A Short History of English Literature, etc.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-16 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries