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The Life of Daniel Defoe

by Clark Russell

Daniel Defoe, whose "Robinson Crusoe" remains, at the end of two centuries, the most popular work of fiction in a literature abounding in imaginative works of superlative excellence, was born in London in 1661. His father was plain Mr. Foe, a butcher, of St. Giles, Cripplegate. Though Defoe speaks gratefully and respectfully of his father, he implies here and there in his writings a pride of birth which probably did not induce him to talk freely of the parental calling. He must needs be of Norman extraction, and go back with the best of those whose family claims he sneers at; and that posterity might be in no doubt of the antiquity of his descent, he, at the age of about forty, changed the plain sturdy name of Foe into De Foe; but the accepted name is as it is spelt in this contribution.

His father wished to make a Dissenting teacher of him, and sent him to Morton's Academy, in Newington Green. Morton thoroughly grounded him in knowledge of a practical and useful sort; and Defoe claimed for his preceptor's system of education that the pupils became masters of the English tongue. But language is a genius. No teacher could make a writer of a boy who was without the talent of words. In after years Defoe appears to have picked up several tongues, as may be judged by his challenge to John Tutchin, to translate with him any Latin, French, or Italian author for twenty pounds each book; one sees his proficiency also in the character he gives of himself in a paper in Applebee's Journal. But at the very heart of the genius of Defoe lay the spirit of the tradesman. It burns like a farthing rushlight in the midst of a richly furnished room. Whoever wants to understand Defoe must study his mind by this light. He declined to fill a pulpit because, in the language of the shop, "it did not pay." Already, that is when he was about two-and-twenty years old, he was writing pamphlets on Protestantism, on Popular Liberties, and the like, and he also appears to have taken part in the Duke of Monmouth's rising.

In 1685 he opened a shop as a hosier in Freeman's Court, Cornhill. There is nothing memorable to record of him while he was in this line of trade, saving that in 1688, at the Revolution, he made haste to accentuate his adhesion to William III. by joining a company of volunteer horse, a royal regiment made up of the principal citizens of London: these men, gallantly mounted and richly accoutred, with Defoe in their midst and the Earl of Monmouth at their head, guarded the king and queen to a banquet at Whitehall. His prosperity as a hosier ended in 1692, in which year he fled to Bristol, a bankrupt, with debts, according to his own showing, amounting to seventeen thousand pounds. He did not, however, long lie in hiding. In recognition of his services as a pamphleteer, the post of accountant to the Commissioners of the Glass Duty was given to him. We then find him prospering again. He started a brick-making manufactory at Tilbury, and set up a coach and a pleasure-boat. His pen, moreover, was ceaselessly employed; the titles of the productions of a single month would more than fill the slender space allotted me. He fought for Non-conformity till 1698, then broke with the Dissenters because of their practice of occasional conformity, which, he pretends, disgusted him. His argument was, let a man be wholly a Dissenter, or wholly a Churchman. But don't let him go to chapel one Sunday and church the next. He can never be taken seriously, however, in these short flights any more than in his long novels. There is no consistency in his writings, because there is no conscience in his opinions. In his "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters," he faces about, and the man who was at war with Howe, the most eloquent of Non-conformist divines, second only to Jeremy Taylor in richness of thought and splendor of diction, is, on the merits of that piece of irony, accepted by posterity as the foremost champion of Dissent.

Defoe's loyalty to King William, however, must pass unquestioned. "The True Born Englishman" procured him the notice of the king, whose confidence he claims to have been honored with. His real character as a journalist and publicist grows quickly visible after the death of William III. His genius as a "trimmer" makes sheer irony of his most appealing and eloquent pieces. Swift says of himself that he wrote that reputation might stand him in the room of a title and coach and six; Defoe flourished his pen as a tradesman, for money. Swift claims to have been the greatest master of irony of his day, nay, to have invented that form of writing. But Defoe surely is his equal, and in "The Shortest Way" out and away his superior. The writer's gravity completely deceived the world. When it was known who was the author, the Dissenters were hardly less indignant than the High Churchmen. The satiric recommendations were indeed in the highest degree alarming. The Tory party had approved with complacency while they thought the piece a serious proposal. When they found out Defoe wrote it, they hunted him down and forced him to surrender himself. A hue-and-cry advertisement in the papers while he was a fugitive, survives as one of the best pen-and-ink sketches in the language: "He is a middle-aged, 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, gray eyes, and a large mole near his mouth." "The Shortest Way" was ordered to be burnt, and Defoe sentenced to pay a fine of 200 marks to Queen Anne, to stand three times in the pillory, to be imprisoned during the queen's pleasure, and to find sureties for his good behavior for seven years.

The genius of Eyre Crowe has given a wonderful life and color to this memorable incident. This dead thing seems charged with a very passion of vitality in the charming illustration that accompanies this sketch. It is impossible to recur to the degradation of one of Great Britain's finest geniuses, at the instance of men of no more importance to posterity than the worms which have eaten them up, without wrath and disgust. But he was popular, and the crowd used him handsomely. They pelted him with flowers and drank his health. Pope, in a famous line, speaks of the London Monument that, like a tall bully, lifts its head and lies, because of the inscription upon it that charged the Papists with causing the great fire. The malignant little hunchback, as malevolent as an ape for all his genius, could tell lies as great as any the chisel could grave, and unfortunately, infinitely more lasting. When he wrote: "Earless on high stands unabash'd Defoe," he knew he lied. Defoe did not lose his ears. He was pilloried simply, and for three days successively, stood in Cornhill, in Cheapside, and at Temple Bar, where our illustration exhibits him. He went to Newgate; the government dared not hinder him from writing, and it was while a prisoner that he heroically started "The Review," at first a weekly, and afterward a bi-weekly, issue. It was also in Newgate that he learnt much of those secrets of the prison-house which, translated into "Moll Flanders" and "Colonel Jack," are transcripts so exquisitely faithful that one knows not how to parallel them in art save by the paintings of Hogarth. He had a wife and six children at this time, and it is difficult to guess how he provided for them. His works at Tilbury were a failure: it may be supposed that his pen was his sole resource.

Defoe in the Pillory.

The Earl of Nottingham resigned office in 1704, and was succeeded by Robert Harley, afterward Earl of Oxford. Harley, who had a high sense of Defoe's genius, sent a messenger to the author lying in jail to inquire what he could do for him. This was in May, yet it does not seem that he was released until August. The government forthwith employed him. His career from this period, whether as a journalist, or whether as a government hireling employed on secret services, is, to say the least, dishonest. In short he was a needy man, willing to write for anybody and say anything for money. In 1706 he was sent as a spy to Scotland. Nothing was then talked about but the union of the two kingdoms; on both sides of the Tweed the masses of the people were crazy with the excitement of the subject. Of what value Defoe's services were, it is hard now to imagine. Professor Minto supposes that his business "was to ascertain and report the opinions of influential persons, and keep the government informed as far as he could of the general state of feeling." When Harley fell, Godolphin continued to employ Defoe as a government secret emissary and writer. He was again sent to Scotland in 1708, in relation to the suspected invasion of that country by the French; but he found time to keep his "Review" going. We see him "trimming" afresh, with masterly disregard to every appeal save that of his purse, when Godolphin surrendered the treasurer's staff, and Harley once more became prime minister. "My duty," says he, with that wonderful countenance of gravity, and that fine air of outraged honor, which express him in his political writings certainly, as the very prince of humbugs, "was to go along with every ministry, so far as they did not break in upon the constitution and the laws and liberty of my country." At what price did he value the constitution? And how much, leaning across the counter of his literary calling would he ask for the laws and liberties of his country? Both Godolphin and Harley, no doubt, exactly knew.

But enough in this brief sketch has been said of him as politician, journalist, controversialist, spy. He heaped pamphlet upon pamphlet, volume upon volume, and in July, 1715, was found guilty of what was called a scandalous libel against Lord Anglesea. Sentence was deferred, but he was never brought up for judgment. His representations of ardent devotion to the Whig interest seem to have procured his absolution. Be this as it may, it is extraordinary to reflect that he should live to be fifty-eight years of age before he could find it in him to produce that masterpiece of romance, "Robinson Crusoe," the delight, I may truly call it, of all reading nations. The fiction is based upon the experiences of Alexander Selkirk. He had read Steele's story of that man lonely in the South Sea island, and Woodes Roger's account of the discovery of him. Sir Walter Scott has pointed out that Defoe was known to the great circumnavigator Dampier, and he assumes with good reason that he drew many hints from the conversation and recollections of that fine seaman. He was a prosperous man when he wrote "Robinson Crusoe," had built a house at Stoke Newington, and drove in his own coach. This had come about through his successful connection with certain journals; he was also rapidly producing, and nearly all that he wrote sold handsomely. Almost as many fine things have been said about "Robinson Crusoe" as about Niagara Falls, or sunrise and sunset. The world has decided to consider it Defoe's masterpiece, and to neglect all else that he wrote for it. Nor can the world be blamed. The deliberate and dangerous lewdness of Defoe is one of the most deplorable things in letters. We shelve much of Smollett, much of Fielding, without great regret, but it is lamentable that works of powers and perceptions so supreme as "Moll Flanders" and "Colonel Jack" should be found unfit and unreadable, infinitely more perilous to the young than the coarser, but honester, freedoms of Smollett and Fielding, because of Defoe's base tradesman-like trick of representing in colors as tempting as possible the sins which with formal, pulpitic, hypocritical gravity he entreats you to avoid. "Robinson Crusoe" is wholesome: one can see one's daughter with that book in her hand and feel easy. Yet it has not the strength nor the art of "Roxana," "Colonel Jack," and "Moll Flanders." In fact, it may be said that when Defoe set about to write this book he had no thoughts whatever of art in his head. He was to relate what happened to a castaway, and the skill shown is that of a sailor who writes up his log-book. No one could have been more astonished by the success of the book than Defoe himself. He afterward went to work to communicate a needless significance to the narrative, whose charm is its eternal grace of freshness and simplicity, by writing the "Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe," in which he would have us believe that Crusoe's story is an allegory based on Defoe's own life. This is accepted by some even in our own time. It is easy to understand that Defoe should lose no opportunity to recommend his works by every species of advertisement; no man could lie in a literary sense with more self-complacency, and a clearer conception of the business value of the falsehood; but it is wonderful to find people choosing to travesty the palpably obvious, sooner than accept the plain truth as it lies naked on the face of the printed page.

But if Defoe had never written a line of "Robinson Crusoe," we should know him to be a great genius and a fine artist by the opening pages of "Colonel Jack." All about the lives of the three boys, their sleeping in glass houses, their picking of pockets, the loss of the money in the hollow tree, and then the recovery of it, is in its kind matchless in fiction. Wonderfully fine too are many of the touches in "Moll Flanders": the whole story of her descent from the honesty of a simple serving-maid to the horrors of Newgate and transportation, is so masterful, the art is so consummate, the impersonation by Defoe of the character of a subtle trollop full of roguish moralizings and thin sentimentalities, is so extraordinary, that one can never cease to deplore that, not the subject of the book, but Defoe's indecent handling of it, should compel the world virtually to taboo it. "Roxana" is also on the condemned list for the same reason. But literature could sooner spare this book than the other two. It was completed by another hand, and Defoe's own share might have very well been the work of the person who wrote the sequel.

Another masterpiece is his "History of the Plague." This shows his imagination at its highest, and it is not impossible but that its composition may have cost him more trouble than "Robinson Crusoe" itself. There is no space left to deal with his other works. Reference can only be made to "Captain Singleton," "A System of Magic," "A History of the Devil," "The Family Instructor," "The Plan of English Commerce," "A New Voyage Round the World," etc. In naming these I abbreviate the titles. Most of Defoe's title-pages epitomize his works, and merely as a list would fill a stout volume.

It has been suggested that Defoe in his old age became insane, and hid himself from his family for no discoverable reasons. It is certain that in September, 1729, he mysteriously removed from his house, and went into hiding in the neighborhood of Greenwich. From his secret retreat he addressed letters to his son-in-law Baker, complaining of his having been inhumanly ill-used by someone whom Mr. Lee, one of his biographers, conjectures was Mist, the proprietor of Mist's Journal, with whom Defoe had been associated in business. Other biographers seem to think that Defoe was merely hiding from the pursuit of his creditors, and dodging in his old dexterous manner the obligation of making over property to his daughter Hannah, who was married to Baker. For two years he was homeless and fugitive; it is not asserted, however, that he was in actual distress at the time of his death. He died in a lodging in a then respectable neighborhood called Ropemaker's Alley, Moor Fields, April 26, 1731, in his seventieth year.

Book: Shattered Sighs