William Minto.

Daniel Defoe online

. (page 1 of 13)
Online LibraryWilliam MintoDaniel Defoe → online text (page 1 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Graeme Mackreth and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team.









JOHNSON Leslie Stephen.
GIBBON J.C. Morison.
SCOTT R.H. Hutton.
SHELLEY J.A. Symonds.
HUME T.H. Huxley.
GOLDSMITH William Black
DEFOE William Minto.
BURNS J.C. Shairp.
SPENSER R.W. Church.
THACKERAY Anthony Trollope.
BURKE John Morley.
MILTON Mark Pattison.
HAWTHORNE Henry James, Jr.
SOUTHEY E. Dowden.
BUNYAN J.A. Froude.
COWPER Goldwin Smith.
POPE Leslie Stephen.
BYRON John Nichol.
LOCKE Thomas Fowler.
DRYDEN G. Saintsbury.
LANDOR Sidney Colvin.
DE QUINCEY David Masson.
LAMB Alfred Ainger.
GRAY E.W. Gosse.
SWIFT Leslie Stephen.
STERNE H.D. Traill.
MACAULAY J. Cotter Morison.
FIELDING Austin Dobson.
SHERIDAN Mrs. Oliphant.
ADDISON W.J. Courthope.
BACON R.W. Church.



There are three considerable biographies of Defoe - the first, by George
Chalmers, published in 1786; the second by Walter Wilson, published in
1830; the third, by William Lee, published in 1869. All three are
thorough and painstaking works, justified by independent research and
discovery. The labour of research in the case of an author supposed to
have written some two hundred and fifty separate books and pamphlets,
very few of them under his own name, is naturally enormous; and when it
is done, the results are open to endless dispute. Probably two men could
not be found who would read through the vast mass of contemporary
anonymous and pseudonymous print, and agree upon a complete list of
Defoe's writings. Fortunately, however, for those who wish to get a
clear idea of his life and character, the identification is not pure
guess-work on internal evidence. He put his own name or initials to some
of his productions, and treated the authorship of others as open
secrets. Enough is ascertained as his to provide us with the means for a
complete understanding of his opinions and his conduct. It is Defoe's
misfortune that his biographers on the large scale have occupied
themselves too much with subordinate details, and have been misled from
a true appreciation of his main lines of thought and action by
religious, political, and hero-worshipping bias. For the following
sketch, taking Mr. Lee's elaborate work as my chronological guide, I
have read such of Defoe's undoubted writings as are accessible in the
Library of the British Museum - there is no complete collection, I
believe, in existence - and endeavoured to connect them and him with the
history of the time.















The life of a man of letters is not as a rule eventful. It may be rich
in spiritual experiences, but it seldom is rich in active adventure. We
ask his biographer to tell us what were his habits of composition, how
he talked, how he bore himself in the discharge of his duties to his
family, his neighbors, and himself; what were his beliefs on the great
questions that concern humanity. We desire to know what he said and
wrote, not what he did beyond the study and the domestic or the social
circle. The chief external facts in his career are the dates of the
publication of his successive books.

Daniel Defoe is an exception to this rule. He was a man of action as
well as a man of letters. The writing of the books which have given him
immortality was little more than an accident in his career, a
comparatively trifling and casual item in the total expenditure of his
many-sided energy. He was nearly sixty when he wrote _Robinson Crusoe_.
Before that event he had been a rebel, a merchant, a manufacturer, a
writer of popular satires in verse, a bankrupt; had acted as secretary
to a public commission, been employed in secret services by five
successive Administrations, written innumerable pamphlets, and edited
more than one newspaper. He had led, in fact, as adventurous a life as
any of his own heroes, and had met quickly succeeding difficulties with
equally ready and fertile ingenuity.

For many of the incidents in Defoe's life we are indebted to himself. He
had all the vaingloriousness of exuberant vitality, and was animated in
the recital of his own adventures. Scattered throughout his various
works are the materials for a tolerably complete autobiography. This is
in one respect an advantage for any one who attempts to give an account
of his life. But it has a counterbalancing disadvantage in the
circumstance that there is grave reason to doubt his veracity, Defoe was
a great story-teller in more senses than one. We can hardly believe a
word that he says about himself without independent confirmation.

Defoe was born in London, in 1661. It is a characteristic circumstance
that his name is not his own, except in the sense that it was assumed by
himself. The name of his father, who was a butcher in the parish of St.
Giles, Cripplegate, was Foe. His grandfather was a Northamptonshire
yeoman. In his _True Born Englishman_, Defoe spoke very contemptuously
of families that professed to have come over with "the Norman bastard,"
defying them to prove whether their ancestors were drummers or colonels;
but apparently he was not above the vanity of making the world believe
that he himself was of Norman-French origin. Yet such was the restless
energy of the man that he could not leave even his adopted name alone;
he seems to have been about forty when he first changed his signature
"D. Foe" into the surname of "Defoe;" but his patient biographer, Mr.
Lee, has found several later instances of his subscribing himself "D.
Foe," "D.F.," and "De Foe" in alternation with the "Daniel De Foe," or
"Daniel Defoe," which has become his accepted name in literature.

In middle age, when Defoe was taunted with his want of learning, he
retorted that if he was a blockhead it was not the fault of his father,
who had "spared nothing in his education that might qualify him to match
the accurate Dr. Browne, or the learned Observator." His father was a
Nonconformist, a member of the congregation of Dr. Annesley, and the son
was originally intended for the Dissenting ministry. "It was his
disaster," he said afterwards, "first to be set apart for, and then to
be set apart from, that sacred employ." He was placed at an academy for
the training of ministers at the age, it is supposed, of about fourteen,
and probably remained there for the full course of five years. He has
himself explained why, when his training was completed, he did not
proceed to the office of the pulpit, but changed his views and resolved
to engage in business as a hose-merchant. The sum of the explanation is
that the ministry seemed to him at that time to be neither honourable,
agreeable, nor profitable. It was degraded, he thought, by the entrance
of men who had neither physical nor intellectual qualification for it,
who had received out of a denominational fund only such an education as
made them pedants rather than Christian gentlemen of high learning, and
who had consequently to submit to shameful and degrading practices in
their efforts to obtain congregations and subsistence. Besides, the
behaviour of congregations to their ministers, who were dependent, was
often objectionable and un-Christian. And finally, far-flown birds
having fine feathers, the prizes of the ministry in London were
generally given to strangers, "eminent ministers _called_ from all parts
of England," some even from Scotland, finding acceptance in the
metropolis before having received any formal ordination.

Though the education of his "fund-bred" companions, as he calls them, at
Mr. Morton's Academy in Newington Green, was such as to excite Defoe's
contempt, he bears testimony to Mr. Morton's excellence as a teacher,
and instances the names of several pupils who did credit to his labours.
In one respect Mr. Morton's system was better than that which then
prevailed at the Universities; all dissertations were written and all
disputations held in English; and hence it resulted, Defoe says, that
his pupils, though they were "not destitute in the languages," were
"made masters of the English tongue, and more of them excelled in that
particular than of any school at that time." Whether Defoe obtained at
Newington the rudiments of all the learning which he afterwards claimed
to be possessed of, we do not know; but the taunt frequently levelled at
him by University men of being an "illiterate fellow" and no scholar,
was one that he bitterly resented, and that drew from him many
protestations and retorts. In 1705, he angrily challenged John Tutchin
"to translate with him any Latin, French, or Italian author, and after
that to retranslate them crosswise for twenty pounds each book;" and he
replied to Swift, who had spoken of him scornfully as "an illiterate
fellow, whose name I forget," that "he had been in his time pretty well
master of five languages, and had not lost them yet, though he wrote no
bill at his door, nor set Latin quotations on the front of the
_Review_." To the end of his days Defoe could not forget this taunt of
want of learning. In one of the papers in _Applebee's Journal_
identified by Mr. Lee (below, Chapter VIII.), he discussed what is to be
understood by "learning," and drew the following sketch of his own
attainments: -

"I remember an Author in the World some years ago, who was generally
upbraided with Ignorance, and called an 'Illiterate Fellow,' by some of
the _Beau-Monde_ of the last Age...."

"I happened to come into this Person's Study once, and I found him busy
translating a Description of the Course of the River Boristhenes, out of
_Bleau's_ Geography, written in _Spanish_. Another Time I found him
translating some Latin Paragraphs out _of Leubinitz Theatri Cometici_,
being a learned Discourse upon Comets; and that I might see whether it
was genuine, I looked on some part of it that he had finished, and found
by it that he understood the Latin very well, and had perfectly taken
the sense of that difficult Author. In short, I found he understood the
_Latin_, the _Spanish_, the _Italian_, and could read the _Greek_, and I
knew before that he spoke _French_ fluently - _yet this Man was no

"As to Science, on another Occasion, I heard him dispute (in such a
manner as surprised me) upon the motions of the Heavenly Bodies, the
Distance, Magnitude, Revolutions, and especially the Influences of the
Planets, the Nature and probable Revolutions of Comets, the excellency
of the New Philosophy, and the like; _but this Man was no Scholar_."

"In Geography and History he had all the World at his Finger's ends. He
talked of the most distant Countries with an inimitable Exactness; and
changing from one Place to another, the Company thought, of every Place
or Country he named, that certainly he must have been born there. He
knew not only where every Thing was, but what everybody did in every
Part of the World; I mean, what Businesses, what Trade, what
Manufacture, was carrying on in every Part of the World; and had the
History of almost all the Nations of the World in his Head - _yet this
Man was no Scholar_."

"This put me upon wondering, ever so long ago, what this _strange Thing_
called a Man of Learning _was_, and what is it that constitutes a
_Scholar_? For, _said I_, here's a man speaks five Languages and reads
the Sixth, is a master of Astronomy, Geography, History, and abundance
of other useful Knowledge (which I do not mention, that you may not
guess at the Man, who is too Modest to desire it), and yet, they say
_this Man is no Scholar_."

How much of this learning Defoe acquired at school, and how much he
picked up afterwards under the pressure of the necessities of his
business, it is impossible to determine, but at any rate it was at least
as good a qualification for writing on public affairs as the more
limited and accurate scholarship of his academic rivals. Whatever may
have been the extent of his knowledge when he passed from Mr. Morton's
tuition, qualified but no longer willing to become a Dissenting
preacher, he did not allow it to rust unused; he at once mobilised his
forces for active service. They were keen politicians, naturally, at the
Newington Academy, and the times furnished ample materials for their
discussions. As Nonconformists they were very closely affected by the
struggle between Charles II. and the defenders of Protestantism and
popular liberties. What part Defoe took in the excitement of the closing
years of the reign of Charles must be matter of conjecture, but there
can be little doubt that he was active on the popular side. He had but
one difference then, he afterwards said in one of his tracts, with his
party. He would not join them in wishing for the success of the Turks in
besieging Vienna, because, though the Austrians were Papists, and though
the Turks were ostensibly on the side of the Hungarian reformers whom
the Austrian Government had persecuted, he had read the history of the
Turks and could not pray for their victory over Christians of any
denomination. "Though then but a young man, and a younger author" (this
was in 1683), "he opposed it and wrote against it, which was taken very
unkindly indeed." From these words it would seem that Defoe had thus
early begun to write pamphlets on questions of the hour. As he was on
the weaker side, and any writing might have cost him his life, it is
probable that he did not put his name to any of these tracts; none of
them have been identified; but his youth was strangely unlike his mature
manhood if he was not justified in speaking of himself as having been
then an "author." Nor was he content merely with writing. It would have
been little short of a miracle if his restless energy had allowed him to
lie quiet while the air was thick with political intrigue. We may be
sure that he had a voice in some of the secret associations in which
plans were discussed of armed resistance to the tyranny of the King. We
have his own word for it that he took part in the Duke of Monmouth's
rising, when the whips of Charles were exchanged for the scorpions of
James. He boasted of this when it became safe to do so, and the truth of
the boast derives incidental confirmation from the fact that the names
of three of his fellow-students at Newington appear in the list of the
victims of Jeffreys and Kirke.

Escaping the keen hunt that was made for all participators in the
rebellion, Defoe, towards the close of 1685, began business as a hosier
or hose-factor in Freeman's Court, Corn hill. The precise nature of his
trade has been disputed; and it does not particularly concern us here.
When taunted afterwards with having been apprentice to a hosier, he
indignantly denied the fact, and explained that though he had been a
trader in hosiery he had never been a shopkeeper. A passing illustration
in his _Essay on Projects_, drawn from his own experience, shows that he
imported goods in the course of his business from abroad; he speaks of
sometimes having paid more in insurance premios than he had cleared by
a voyage. From a story which he tells in his _Complete English
Tradesman_, recalling the cleverness with which he defeated an attempt
to outwit him about a consignment of brandy, we learn that his business
sometimes took him to Spain. This is nearly all that we know about his
first adventure in trade, except that after seven years, in 1692, he had
to flee from his creditors. He hints in one of his _Reviews_ that this
misfortune was brought about by the frauds of swindlers, and it deserves
to be recorded that he made the honourable boast that he afterwards paid
off his obligations. The truth of the boast is independently confirmed
by the admission of a controversial enemy, that very Tutchin whom he
challenged to translate Latin with him. That Defoe should have referred
so little to his own experience in the _Complete English Tradesman_, a
series of Familiar Letters which he published late in life "for the
instruction of our Inland Tradesmen, and especially of Young Beginners,"
is accounted for when we observe the class of persons to whom the
letters were addressed. He distinguishes with his usual clearness
between the different ranks of those employed in the production and
exchange of goods, and intimates that his advice is not intended for the
highest grade of traders, the merchants, whom he defines by what he
calls the vulgar expression, as being "such as trade beyond sea."
Although he was eloquent in many books and pamphlets in upholding the
dignity of trade, and lost no opportunity of scoffing at pretentious
gentility, he never allows us to forget that this was the grade to which
he himself belonged, and addresses the petty trader from a certain
altitude. He speaks in the preface to the _Complete Tradesman_ of
unfortunate creatures who have blown themselves up in trade, whether
"for want of wit or from too much wit;" but lest he should be supposed
to allude to his own misfortunes, he does not say that he miscarried
himself, but that he "had seen in a few years' experience many young
tradesmen miscarry." At the same time it is fair to conjecture that when
Defoe warns the young tradesman against fancying himself a politician or
a man of letters, running off to the coffee-house when he ought to be
behind the counter, and reading Virgil and Horace when he should be busy
over his journal and his ledger, he was glancing at some of the causes
which conduced to his own failure as a merchant. And when he cautions
the beginner against going too fast, and holds up to him as a type and
exemplar the carrier's waggon, which "keeps wagging and always goes on,"
and "as softly as it goes" can yet in time go far, we may be sure that
he was thinking of the over-rashness with which he had himself embarked
in speculation.

There can be no doubt that eager and active as Defoe was in his trading
enterprises, he was not so wrapt up in them as to be an unconcerned
spectator of the intense political life of the time. When King James
aimed a blow at the Church of England by removing the religious
disabilities of all dissenters, Protestant and Catholic, in his
Declaration of Indulgence, some of Defoe's co-religionists were ready to
catch at the boon without thinking of its consequences. He differed from
them, he afterwards stated, and "as he used to say that he had rather
the Popish House of Austria should ruin the Protestants in Hungaria,
than the infidel House of Ottoman should ruin both Protestants and
Papists by overrunning Germany," so now "he told the Dissenters he had
rather the Church of England should pull our clothes off by fines and
forfeitures, than the Papists should fall both upon the Church and the
Dissenters, and pull our skins off by fire and faggot." He probably
embodied these conclusions of his vigorous common sense in a pamphlet,
though no pamphlet on the subject known for certain to be his has been
preserved. Mr. Lee is over-rash in identifying as Defoe's a quarto sheet
of that date entitled "A Letter containing some Reflections on His
Majesty's declaration for Liberty of Conscience." Defoe may have written
many pamphlets on the stirring events of the time, which have not come
down to us. It may have been then that he acquired, or made a valuable
possession by practice, that marvellous facility with his pen which
stood him in such stead in after-life. It would be no wonder if he wrote
dozens of pamphlets, every one of which disappeared. The pamphlet then
occupied the place of the newspaper leading article. The newspapers of
the time were veritable chronicles of news, and not organs of opinion.
The expression of opinion was not then associated with the dissemination
of facts and rumours. A man who wished to influence public opinion wrote
a pamphlet, small or large, a single leaf or a tract of a few pages, and
had it hawked about the streets and sold in the bookshops. These
pamphlets issued from the press in swarms, were thrown aside when read,
and hardly preserved except by accident. That Defoe, if he wrote any or
many, should not have reprinted them when fifteen years afterwards he
published a collection of his works, is intelligible; he republished
only such of his tracts as had not lost their practical interest. If,
however, we indulge in the fancy, warranted so far by his describing
himself as having been a young "author" in 1683, that Defoe took an
active part in polemical literature under Charles and James, we must
remember that the censorship of the press was then active, and that
Defoe must have published under greater disadvantages than those who
wrote on the side of the Court.

At the Revolution, in 1688, Defoe lost no time in making his adhesion to
the new monarch conspicuous. He was, according to Oldmixon, one of "a
royal regiment of volunteer horse, made up of the chief citizens, who,
being gallantly mounted and richly accoutred, were led by the Earl of
Monmouth, now Earl of Peterborough, and attended their Majesties from
Whitehall" to a banquet given by the Lord Mayor and Corporation of the
City. Three years afterwards, on the occasion of the Jacobite plot in
which Lord Preston was the leading figure, he published the first
pamphlet that is known for certain to be his. It is in verse, and is
entitled _A New Discovery of an Old Intrigue, a Satire levelled at
Treachery and Ambition_. In the preface, the author said that "he had
never drawn his pen before," and that he would never write again unless
this effort produced a visible reformation. If we take this literally,
we must suppose that his claim to have been an author eighteen years
before had its origin in his fitful vanity. The literary merits of the
satire, when we compare it with the powerful verse of Dryden's _Absalom
and Achitophel_, to which he refers in the exordium, are not great.
Defoe prided himself upon his verse, and in a catalogue of the Poets in
one of his later pieces assigned himself the special province of
"lampoon." He possibly believed that his clever doggerel was a better
title to immortality than _Robinson Crusoe_. The immediate popular
effect of his satires gave some encouragement to this belief, but they
are comparatively dull reading for posterity. The clever hits at living
City functionaries, indicated by their initials and nicknames, the rough
ridicule and the biting innuendo, were telling in their day, but the
lampoons have perished with their objects. The local celebrity of Sir
Ralph and Sir Peter, Silly Will and Captain Tom the Tailor, has vanished,
and Defoe's hurried and formless lines, incisive as their vivid force
must have been, are not redeemed from dulness for modern readers by the
few bright epigrams with which they are besprinkled.



Defoe's first business catastrophe happened about 1692. He is said to
have temporarily absconded, and to have parleyed with his creditors from
a distance till they agreed to accept a composition. Bristol is named as

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryWilliam MintoDaniel Defoe → online text (page 1 of 13)