William Minto.

Daniel Defoe online

. (page 12 of 13)
Online LibraryWilliam MintoDaniel Defoe → online text (page 12 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

is to be sold, and though he knows they cannot be better
pleased than they are at some other shop where they intend
to buy, 'tis all one; the tradesman must take it, he must place
it to the account of his calling, that 'tis his business to be ill-used,
and resent nothing; and so must answer as obligingly
to those who give him an hour or two's trouble, and buy
nothing, as he does to those who, in half the time, lay out
ten or twenty pounds. The case is plain; and if some do
give him trouble, and do not buy, others make amends and
do buy; and as for the trouble, 'tis the business of the shop."

All Defoe's heroes and heroines are animated by this practical spirit,
this thorough-going subordination of means to ends. When they have an
end in view, the plunder of a house, the capture of a ship, the
ensnaring of a dupe, they allow neither passion, nor resentment, nor
sentiment in any shape or form to stand in their way. Every other
consideration is put on one side when the business of the shop has to
be attended to. They are all tradesmen who have strayed into unlawful
courses. They have nothing about them of the heroism of sin; their
crimes are not the result of ungovernable passion, or even of antipathy
to conventional restraints; circumstances and not any law-defying bias
of disposition have made them criminals. How is it that the novelist
contrives to make them so interesting? Is it because we are a nation of
shopkeepers, and enjoy following lines of business which are a little
out of our ordinary routine? Or is it simply that he makes us enjoy
their courage and cleverness without thinking of the purposes with which
these qualities are displayed? Defoe takes such delight in tracing their
bold expedients, their dexterous intriguing and manoeuvring, that he
seldom allows us to think of anything but the success or failure of
their enterprises. Our attention is concentrated on the game, and we pay
no heed for the moment to the players or the stakes. Charles Lamb says
of _The Complete English Tradesman_ that "such is the bent of the book
to narrow and to degrade the heart, that if such maxims were as catching
and infectious as those of a licentious cast, which happily is not the
case, had I been living at that time, I certainly should have
recommended to the grand jury of Middlesex, who presented The Fable of
the Bees, to have presented this book of Defoe's in preference, as of a
far more vile and debasing tendency. Yet if Defoe had thrown the
substance of this book into the form of a novel, and shown us a
tradesman rising by the sedulous practice of its maxims from errand-boy
to gigantic capitalist, it would have been hardly less interesting than
his lives of successful thieves and tolerably successful harlots, and
its interest would have been very much of the same kind, the interest of
dexterous adaptation of means to ends."



"The best step," Defoe says, after describing the character of a
deceitful talker, "such a man can take is to lie on, and this shows the
singularity of the crime; it is a strange expression, but I shall make
it out; their way is, I say, to lie on till their character is
completely known, and then they can lie no longer, for he whom nobody
deceives can deceive nobody, and the essence of lying is removed; for
the description of a lie is that it is spoken to deceive, or the design
is to deceive. Now he that nobody believes can never lie any more,
because nobody can be deceived by him."

Something like this seems to have happened to Defoe himself. He touched
the summit of his worldly prosperity about the time of the publication
of _Robinson Crusoe_ (1719). He was probably richer then than he had
been when he enjoyed the confidence of King William, and was busy with
projects of manufacture and trade. He was no longer solitary in
journalism. Like his hero, he had several plantations, and companions to
help him in working them. He was connected with four journals, and from
this source alone his income must have been considerable. Besides this,
he was producing separate works at the rate, on an average, of six a
year, some of them pamphlets, some of them considerable volumes, all of
them calculated to the wants of the time, and several of them extremely
popular, running through three or four editions in as many months. Then
he had his salary from the Government, which he delicately hints at in
one of his extant letters as being overdue. Further, the advertisement
of a lost pocket-book in 1726, containing a list of Notes and Bills in
which Defoe's name twice appears, seems to show that he still found time
for commercial transactions outside literature.[6] Altogether Defoe was
exceedingly prosperous, dropped all pretence of poverty, built a large
house at Stoke Newington, with stables and pleasure-grounds, and kept a

[Footnote 6: _Lee's Life_, vol. i. pp. 406-7.]

We get a pleasant glimpse of Defoe's life at this period from the notes
of Henry Baker, the naturalist, who married one of his daughters and
received his assistance, as we have seen, in starting _The Universal
Spectator_. Baker, original a bookseller, in 1724 set up a school for
the deaf and dumb at Newington. There, according to the notes which he
left of his courtship, he made the acquaintance of "Mr. Defoe, a
gentleman well known by his writings, who had newly built there a very
handsome house, as a retirement from London, and amused his time either
in the cultivation of a large and pleasant garden, or in the pursuit of
his studies, which he found means of making very profitable." Defoe "was
now at least sixty years of age, afflicted with the gout and stone, but
retained all his mental faculties entire." The, diarist goes on to say
that he "met usually at the tea-table his three lovely daughters, who
were admired for their beauty, their education, and their prudent
conduct; and if sometimes Mr. Defoe's disorders made company
inconvenient, Mr. Baker was entertained by them either singly or
together, and that commonly in the garden when the weather was
favourable." Mr. Baker fixed his choice on Sophia, the youngest
daughter, and, being a prudent lover, began negotiations about the
marriage portion, Defoe's part in which is also characteristic. "He
knew nothing of Mr. Defoe's circumstances, only imagined, from his very
genteel way of living, that he must be able to give his daughter a
decent portion; he did not suppose a large one. On speaking to Mr.
Defoe, he sanctioned his proposals, and said he hoped he should be able
to give her a certain sum specified; but when urged to the point some
time afterwards, his answer was that formal articles he thought
unnecessary; that he could confide in the honour of Mr. Baker; that when
they talked before, he did not know the true state of his own affairs;
that he found he could not part with any money at present; but at his
death his daughter's portion would be more than he had promised; and he
offered his own bond as security." The prudent Mr. Baker would not take
his bond, and the marriage was not arranged till two years afterwards,
when Defoe gave a bond for £500 payable at his death, engaging his house
at Newington as security.

Very little more is known about Defoe's family, except that his eldest
daughter married a person of the name of Langley, and that he speculated
successfully in South Sea Stock in the name of his second daughter, and
afterwards settled upon her an estate at Colchester worth £1020. His
second son, named Benjamin, became a journalist, was the editor of the
_London Journal_, and got into temporary trouble for writing a
scandalous and seditious libel in that newspaper in 1721. A writer in
_Applebee's Journal_, whom Mr. Lee identifies with Defoe himself,
commenting upon this circumstance, denied the rumour of its being the
well-known Daniel Defoe that was committed for the offence. The same
writer declared that it was known "that the young Defoe was but a
stalking-horse and a tool, to bear the lash and the pillory in their
stead, for his wages; that he was the author of the most scandalous
part, but was only made sham proprietor of the whole, to screen the true
proprietors from justice."

This son does not appear in a favourable light in the troubles which
soon after fell upon Defoe, when Mist discovered his connexion with the
Government. Foiled in his assault upon him, Mist seems to have taken
revenge by spreading the fact abroad, and all Defoe's indignant denials
and outcries against Mist's ingratitude do not seem to have cleared him
from suspicion. Thenceforth the printers and editors of journals held
aloof from him. Such is Mr. Lee's fair interpretation of the fact that
his connexion with _Applebee's Journal_ terminated abruptly in March,
1726, and that he is found soon after, in the preface to a pamphlet on
_Street Robberies_, complaining that none of the journals will accept
his communications. "Assure yourself, gentle reader," he says,[7] "I had
not published my project in this pamphlet, could I have got it inserted
in any of the journals without feeing the journalists or publishers. I
cannot but have the vanity to think they might as well have inserted
what I send them, _gratis_, as many things I have since seen in their
papers. But I have not only had the mortification to find what I sent
rejected, but to lose my originals, not having taken copies of what I
wrote." In this preface Defoe makes touching allusion to his age and
infirmities. He begs his readers to "excuse the vanity of an
over-officious old man, if, like Cato, he inquires whether or no before
he goes hence and is no more, he can yet do anything for the service of
his country." "The old man cannot trouble you long; take, then, in good
part his best intentions, and impute his defects to age and weakness."

[Footnote 7: Lee's _Life_, vol. i. p. 418.]

This preface was written in 1728; what happened to Defoe in the
following year is much more difficult to understand, and is greatly
complicated by a long letter of his own which has been preserved.
Something had occurred, or was imagined by him to have occurred, which
compelled him to fly from his home and go into hiding. He was at work on
a book to be entitled _The Complete English Gentleman_. Part of it was
already in type when he broke off abruptly in September, 1729, and fled.
In August, 1730, he sent from a hiding-place, cautiously described as
being about two miles from Greenwich, a letter to his son-in-law, Baker,
which is our only clue to what had taken place. It is so incoherent as
to suggest that the old man's prolonged toils and anxieties had at last
shaken his reason, though not his indomitable self-reliance. Baker
apparently had written complaining that he was debarred from seeing him.
"Depend upon my sincerity for this," Defoe answers, "that I am far from
debarring you. On the contrary, it would be a greater comfort to me than
any I now enjoy that I could have your agreeable visits with safety, and
could see both you and my dear Sophia, could it be without giving her
the grief of seeing her father _in tenebris_, and under the load of
insupportable sorrows." He gives a touching description of the griefs
which are preying upon his mind.

"It is not the blow I received from a wicked, perjured,
and contemptible enemy that has broken in upon my spirit;
which, as she well knows, has carried me on through greater
disasters than these. But it has been the injustice, unkindness,
and, I must say inhuman, dealing of my own son, which
has both ruined my family, and in a word has broken my
heart.... I depended upon him, I trusted him, I gave up
my two dear unprovided children into his hands; but he
has no compassion, but suffers them and their poor dying
mother to beg their bread at his door, and to crave, as it
were an alms, what he is bound under hand and seal, besides
the most sacred promises, to supply them with, himself at
the same time living in a profusion of plenty. It is too
much for me. Excuse my infirmity, I can say no more; my
heart is too full. I only ask one thing of you as a dying request.
Stand by them when I am gone, and let them not be
wronged while he is able to do them right. Stand by them
as a brother; and if you have anything within you owing to
my memory, who have bestowed on you the best gift I have
to give, let them not be injured and trampled on by false
pretences and unnatural reflections. I hope they will want
no help but that of comfort and council; but that they will
indeed want, being too easy to be managed by words and

The postscript to the letter shows that Baker had written to him about
selling the house, which, it may be remembered, was the security for
Mrs. Baker's portion, and had inquired about a policy of assurance. "I
wrote you a letter some months ago, in answer to one from you, about
selling the house; but you never signified to me whether you received
it. I have not the policy of assurance; I suppose my wife, or Hannah,
may have it." Baker's ignoring the previous letter about the house seems
to signify that it was unsatisfactory. He apparently wished for a
personal interview with Defoe. In the beginning of the present letter
Defoe had said that, though far from debarring a visit from his
son-in-law, circumstances, much to his sorrow, made it impossible that
he could receive a visit from anybody. After the charge against his son,
which we have quoted, he goes on to explain that it is impossible for
him to go to see Mr. Baker. His family apparently had been ignorant of
his movements for some time. "I am at a distance from London, in Kent;
nor have I a lodging in London, nor have I been at that place in the
Old Bailey since I wrote you I was removed from it. At present I am
weak, having had some fits of a fever that have left me low." He
suggests, indeed, a plan by which he might see his son-in-law and
daughter. He could not bear to make them a single flying visit. "Just to
come and look at you and retire immediately, 'tis a burden too heavy.
The parting will be a price beyond the enjoyment." But if they could find
a retired lodging for him at Enfield, "where he might not be known, and
might have the comfort of seeing them both now and then, upon such a
circumstance he could gladly give the days to solitude to have the
comfort of half an hour now and then with them both for two or three
weeks." Nevertheless, as if he considered this plan out of the question,
he ends with a touching expression of grief that, being near his
journey's end, he may never see them again. It is impossible to avoid
the conclusion that he did not wish to see his son-in-law, and that
Baker wished to see him about money matters, and suspected him of
evading an interview.

Was this evasion the cunning of incipient madness? Was his concealing
his hiding-place from his son-in-law an insane development of that
self-reliant caution, which for so many years of his life he had been
compelled to make a habit, in the face of the most serious risks? Why
did he give such an exaggerated colour to the infamous conduct of his
son? It is easy to make out from the passage I have quoted, what his
son's guilt really consisted in. Defoe had assigned certain property to
the son to be held in trust for his wife and daughters. The son had not
secured them in the enjoyment of this provision, but maintained them,
and gave them words and promises, with which they were content, that he
would continue to maintain them. It was this that Defoe called making
them "beg their bread at his door, and crave as if it were an alms" the
provision to which they were legally entitled. Why did Defoe vent his
grief at this conduct in such strong language to his son-in-law, at the
same time enjoining him to make a prudent use of it? Baker had written
to his father-in-law making inquiry about the securities for his wife's
portion; Defoe answers with profuse expressions of affection, a touching
picture of his old age and feebleness, and the imminent ruin of his
family through the possible treachery of the son to whom he has
entrusted their means of support, and an adjuration to his son-in-law to
stand by them with comfort and counsel when he is gone. The inquiry
about the securities he dismisses in a postscript. He will not sell the
house, and he does not know who has the policy of assurance.

One thing and one thing only shines clearly out of the obscurity in
which Defoe's closing years are wrapt - his earnest desire to make
provision for those members of his family who could not provide for
themselves. The pursuit from which he was in hiding, was in all
probability the pursuit of creditors. We have seen that his income must
have been large from the year 1718 or thereabouts, till his utter loss
of credit in journalism about the year 1726; but he may have had old
debts. It is difficult to explain otherwise why he should have been at
such pains, when he became prosperous, to assign property to his
children. There is evidence, as early as 1720, of his making over
property to his daughter Hannah, and the letter from which I have quoted
shows that he did not hold his Newington estate in his own name. In this
letter he speaks of a perjured, contemptible enemy as the cause of his
misfortunes. Mr. Lee conjectures that this was Mist, that Mist had
succeeded in embroiling him with the Government by convincing them of
treachery in his secret services, and that this was the hue and cry from
which he fled. But it is hardly conceivable that the Government could
have listened to charges brought by a man whom they had driven from the
country for his seditious practices. It is much more likely that Mist
and his supporters had sufficient interest to instigate the revival of
old pecuniary claims against Defoe.

It would have been open to suppose that the fears which made the old man
a homeless wanderer and fugitive for the last two years of his life,
were wholly imaginary, but for the circumstances of his death. He died
of a lethargy on the 26th of April, 1731, at a lodging in Ropemaker's
Alley, Moorfields. In September, 1733, as the books in Doctors' Commons
show, letters of administration on his goods and chattels were granted
to Mary Brooks, widow, a creditrix, after summoning in official form the
next of kin to appear. Now, if Defoe had been driven from his home by
imaginary fears, and had baffled with the cunning of insane suspicion
the efforts of his family to bring him back, there is no apparent reason
why they should not have claimed his effects after his death. He could
not have died unknown to them, for place and time were recorded in the
newspapers. His letter to his son-in-law, expressing the warmest
affection for all his family except his son, is sufficient to prevent
the horrible notion that he might have been driven forth like Lear by
his undutiful children after he had parted his goods among them. If they
had been capable of such unnatural conduct, they would not have failed
to secure his remaining property. Why, then, were his goods and chattels
left to a creditrix? Mr. Lee ingeniously suggests that Mary Brooks was
the keeper of the lodging where he died, and that she kept his personal
property to pay rent and perhaps funeral expenses. A much simpler
explanation, which covers most of the known facts without casting any
unwarranted reflections upon Defoe's children, is that when his last
illness overtook him he was still keeping out of the way of his
creditors, and that everything belonging to him in his own name was
legally seized. But there are doubts and difficulties attending any

Mr. Lee has given satisfactory reasons for believing that Defoe did not,
as some of his biographers have supposed, die in actual distress.
Ropemaker's Alley in Moorfields was a highly respectable street at the
beginning of last century; a lodging there was far from squalid. The
probability is that Defoe subsisted on his pension from the Government
during his last two years of wandering; and suffering though he was from
the infirmities of age, yet wandering was less of a hardship than it
would have been to other men, to one who had been a wanderer for the
greater part of his life. At the best it was a painful and dreary ending
for so vigorous a life, and unless we pitilessly regard it as a
retribution for his moral defects, it is some comfort to think that the
old man's infirmities and anxieties were not aggravated by the pressure
of hopeless and helpless poverty. Nor do I think that he was as
distressed as he represented to his son-in-law by apprehensions of ruin
to his family after his death, and suspicions of the honesty of his
son's intentions. There is a half insane tone about his letter to Mr.
Baker, but a certain method may be discerned in its incoherencies. My
own reading of it is that it was a clever evasion of his son-in-law's
attempts to make sure of his share of the inheritance. We have seen how
shifty Defoe was in the original bargaining about his daughter's
portion, and we know from his novels what his views were about
fortune-hunters, and with what delight he dwelt upon the arts of
outwitting them. He probably considered that his youngest daughter was
sufficiently provided for by her marriage, and he had set his heart upon
making provision for her unmarried sisters. The letter seems to me to be
evidence, not so much of fears for their future welfare, as of a
resolution to leave them as much as he could. Two little circumstances
seem to show that, in spite of his professions of affection, there was a
coolness between Defoe and his son-in-law. He wrote only the prospectus
and the first article for Baker's paper, the _Universal Spectator_, and
when he died, Baker contented himself with a simple intimation of the

If my reading of this letter is right, it might stand as a type of the
most strongly marked characteristic in Defoe's political writings. It
was a masterly and utterly unscrupulous piece of diplomacy for the
attainment of a just and benevolent end. This may appear strange after
what I have said about Defoe's want of honesty, yet one cannot help
coming to this conclusion in looking back at his political career before
his character underwent its final degradation. He was a great, a truly
great liar, perhaps the greatest liar that ever lived. His dishonesty
went too deep to be called superficial, yet, if we go deeper still in
his rich and strangely mixed nature, we come upon stubborn foundations
of conscience. Among contemporary comments on the occasion of his death,
there was one which gave perfect expression to his political position.
"His knowledge of men, especially those in high life (with whom he was
formerly very conversant) had weakened his attachment to any political
party; but, in the main, he was in the interest of civil and religious
liberty, in behalf of which he appeared on several remarkable
occasions." The men of the time with whom Defoe was brought into
contact, were not good examples to him. The standard of political
morality was probably never so low in England as during his lifetime.
Places were dependent on the favour of the Sovereign, and the
Sovereign's own seat on the throne was insecure; there was no party
cohesion to keep politicians consistent, and every man fought for his
own hand. Defoe had been behind the scenes, witnessed many curious
changes of service, and heard many authentic tales of jealousy,
intrigue, and treachery. He had seen Jacobites take office under
William, join zealously in the scramble for his favours, and enter into
negotiations with the emissaries of James either upon some fancied
slight, or from no other motive than a desire to be safe, if by any
chance the sceptre should again change hands. Under Anne he had seen
Whig turn Tory and Tory turn Whig, and had seen statesmen of the highest
rank hold out one hand to Hanover and another to St. Germains. The most
single-minded man he had met had been King William himself, and of his
memory he always spoke with the most affectionate honour. Shifty as
Defoe was, and admirably as he used his genius for circumstantial
invention to cover his designs, there was no other statesman of his
generation who remained more true to the principles of the Revolution,
and to the cause of civil and religious freedom. No other public man saw
more clearly what was for the good of the country, or pursued it more
steadily. Even when he was the active servant of Harley, and turned
round upon men who regarded him as their own, the part which he played

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12

Online LibraryWilliam MintoDaniel Defoe → online text (page 12 of 13)