“In the school of affliction I have learned more philosophy than at the academy, and more divinity than from the pulpit” – Daniel Defoe.
Daniel Defoe was born in London on September 13, 1660 the son of Alice and James Foe. Daniel later changed his last name to Defoe, thinking it more gentlemanly. His father was a London butcher and a staunch and stubborn puritan, who despised the established Church of England. In 1670 Defoe’s mother died and he was sent to boarding school. He attended Charles Morton’s academy at Newington Green, where he received an excellent education and developed a taste for political radicalism. James Foe wished his son to enter the ministry, but the boy’s tastes lay in other directions. Defoe finished his studies at Morton in 1679 and entered the hosiery business. In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley, a wealthy young woman. He prospered in business and became a member of the Butcher’s Company—one of several companies that controlled business in London. He also gained several influential friends in the government. Unfortunately, Defoe overextended his investments—at one point he owed seventeen thousand pounds—and was sued eight times between 1688 and 1694, ending up in debtor’s prison in 1692.
Having always been interested in politics, Defoe published his first literary piece, a political pamphlet, in 1683. He continued to write political works while working as a journalist, until the early 1700s. Many of Defoe’s works during this period targeted support for King William III, also known as “William of Orange.” Some of his most popular works include The True-Born Englishman, which shed light on racial prejudice in England following attacks on William for being a foreigner; and the Review, a periodical that was published from 1704 to 1713, during the reign of Queen Anne, William III’s daughter and successor. Political opponents repeatedly had Defoe imprisoned for his writing in 1713.
Defoe took a new literary path in 1719, around the age of 59, when he published Robinson Crusoe, a story that promises to delight the world so long as the spirit of adventure and the love of the marvellous survive in the heart. It may seem strange to us that such a man should be able to turn aside at sixty from the turmoils of political disputes, and, by sheer force of imagination, to put himself in the place of a poor sailor, cast away on a solitary island in the Caribbean Sea; but, in reality, some of Defoe’s past work had been a preparation for this great task. Even in his Shortest Way with Dissenters, he had shown his ability to assume, for a time, another man’s point of view; and in his work as a purveyor of news he had cultivated that power which he naturally possessed in so large a measure,—the power of making fiction look like truth. He had the instinct of the journalist rather than the spirit of the old-time scholar; the quick perception of what was likely to interest and amuse his readers, and an adroitness which enabled him to turn any passing sensation to good account. He was an expert in making a “good story,” as a modern newspaper reporter would call it, out of an especially destructive storm, an earthquake, or the dying confession of a famous criminal; and in these stories truth and invention were sometimes so cunningly mingled that they became inseparable.
Robinson Crusoe remains one of the marvels of literature. Out of the fret and partisanship of an artificial time, when Pope and the rest are treating of the fashions and follies of the town, there comes suddenly the story of a far-away world; the story of a man in an almost primitive relation to nature, shut away from kings, or party squabbles, or political institutions, and set face to face with the first vital problem of the race, the problem of wresting food and clothing and shelter from the earth and the sea by the ingenuity of his mind and the labour of his hands. The success of Robinson Crusoe diverted Defoe’s energies into a new channel, and he wrote a number of other stories which make his later years the most brilliant literary period of his life. Among these “secondary novels,” The Memories of a Cavalier, The Life of Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders and The History of Colonel Jack, are perhaps the best known. As a whole, none of these stories is equal to their great forerunner; yet they are full of marvellous bits of descriptive writing, and contain single scenes of great dramatic and narrative power. With Robinson Crusoe, these stories laid the foundations of English realistic fiction.
Among these works of Defoe’s last years, The Journal of the Plague Year (1722) holds a place by itself. It is probably the most wonderful example of Defoe’s power of mingling fact and invention, and of imparting to the whole the appearance of simple truth. It is a minute, and apparently exact and careful account of the Great Plague which desolated London in 1665; and it professes to be the Journal of an eye-witness, a saddler, who remained in the city during the pestilence. It is not a story as we commonly understand the word, for it can hardly be said to have a plot; it is, to all appearance, but the simple, ghastly record of death, and terror, and sorrow, set down by an ordinary citizen who has lived through the experiences he describes. There is no display of emotion; nothing but hard, awful fact. We do not think of it as a work of art; it is nature, our daily commonplace life in its hours of tragic crisis, in those unexpected dramatic situations which seem beyond the fancies of the romancer. We hardly realise at first that Defoe’s imagination has created this, and that to produce such a perfect illusion remains the finest and most finished art.
Defoe lacked many qualities which other great masters of fiction possessed; but, when he is within his own province, as in this Journal of the Plague, he has been seldom approached and perhaps never surpassed. When he published Robinson Crusoe, Defoe was in easy circumstances; but towards the close of his life he became again involved in difficulties, and even his strong and brave spirit was at last shaken by repeated misfortunes. Beset by poverty and troubles, he writes the year before his death: “I am so near my journey’s end, and am hastening to the place where the weary are at rest.” His magnificent vitality which had brought him through so much now at last broke, and he “died of a lethargy” in a London lodging-house on April 24, 1731. He was buried in a famous Non-conformist cemetery in Bunhill Fields, London where John Bunyan and Isaac Watts also lie. His grave is now marked by a monument erected to the author of Robinson Crusoe by the children of many lands.