Where to start with an interesting biography of Daniel Defoe? Defoe has been called the father of the English novel. But what is less well known is the fascinating life he led, and the interesting facts pertaining to his life. His life involved more than one brush with death, destructive fires, outbreaks of plague, and many encounters with the authorities. He found himself before the law, in the pillory, with his house falling down around him, with his entire neighbourhood laid waste. His work as a journalist was groundbreaking (no pun intended on his house falling down). And his countless pen names are absurd, hilarious, and revealing. These facts about Defoe deserve to be better known, this is what this short but, we hope, interesting account of Defoe’s life will introduce.
Imagine a world without Daniel Defoe. To start with, the novel as we know it would be … well, would not be as we know it, without Defoe’s input and influence. Journalism, too, might have been different, if it hadn’t been for Defoe’s pioneering work in that field. But what’s remarkable is that Defoe did exist, and survived – on several occasions in his life, narrowly – and we mean narrowly – avoiding death through some calamity or other, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or rubbing up the wrong people the wrong way. It’s quite fitting that his most famous novel, Robinson Crusoe, is a tale of survival, of one man’s ability to face life head-on and, in the teeth of overwhelming odds, emerge not only intact, but a success.
Defoe had been born Daniel Foe – the French ‘De’ was a later affectation, used to make him sound ‘more socially and upward sounding’ and to suggest ties to a respected aristocratic family. He was born in around 1660, though we cannot know the date for certain. He lived through the Great Plague of 1665 which killed 100,000 people; it was an event he would later document in a work of part-fiction, part non-fiction, his Journal of the Plague Year. During the Great Fire of London a year later in 1666, when Defoe was little more than five or six years old, he was almost caught up in the blaze: of all the houses in his neighbourhood, only Defoe’s and two other houses remained standing.
At the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, when he was in his twenties, Defoe fought on the side of the rebels and, when the rebel army was defeated, Defoe (or plain Foe as he then still was) was lucky to receive a pardon and narrowly avoided being sentenced to hanging at the Bloody Assizes, presided over by none other than the infamous Judge Jeffreys. Once again, he brushed past death and destruction but emerged unscathed.
He turned his hand to trading, becoming a merchant: early business ventures included dealing in wine, an attempt at making it in the world as a hosier, and a more ambitious enterprise involving the harvesting of musk, which he extracted from the anal glands of cats. Unfortunately for Defoe (but fortunately for the cats), this and all of his business ventures proved a disaster. Though he was able to purchase a country estate, Defoe was rarely out of debt, and all of these entrepreneurial ventures ended in penury. We cannot be sure how close he came to starvation, but he certainly found it difficult to make money and to keep his growing family, which would comprise his wife and, eventually, eight children, six of whom would survive past infancy.
Foe – he now recast himself as Defoe – turned his hand to writing in an effort to make money from his pen, and in order to support social, religious, and political causes (and to attack others). Over the next few decades he would write on numerous topics including politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology and the supernatural. For his pamphleteering and campaigning he adopted numerous pen names – at least 198 at the latest count. These included (and this is only a partial list): A Converted Thief, A Sufferer, Abigail, Anglipolski of Lithuania, Anthony Antiplot, Bankrupt, Betty Blueskin, Count Kidney Face, Sir Fopling Tittle-Tattle, Hubble Bubble, Jeffrey Sing-Song, Jeremiah Dry-Boots, Jonathan Problematick, Lionel Lye-Alone, Obadiah Blue Hat, Penelope Firebrand, and the Man in the Moon. (These and more can be found at the Registry of Pseudonyms site.)
The mischievous Defoe (or whatever name he happened to be using at the time) went on to have many more brushes with the law. In 1703, he was put in the pillory for writing a satirical pamphlet attacking the treatment of religious dissenters. But this attempt on the part of the authorities to humiliate and punish Defoe for the atrocities of his pen gloriously backfired when the kindly and sympathetic crowd pelted him, not with stones and rotten fruit (as was the norm), but with flowers. They also chanted the song, ‘Hymn to the Pillory’, which Defoe himself had written, in support and solidarity for the writer. They even drank to his health.
But the multi-talented and enterprising Defoe didn’t simply use his pen to satirise the treatment of religious minorities. He also saw, before hardly anybody else had, the power of the pen to document and share information, both for one’s contemporaries and for posterity. Among Defoe’s other notable but less famous works is The Storm, a 1704 work which is the first detailed and scientific account of a hurricane in Britain, the ‘Great Storm of 1703’, possibly the most ferocious storm in British history. For the book, Defoe sought eyewitness accounts from people affected by the storm around the country, and incorporated some sixty testimonies into his finished book. John J. Miller, writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, called The Storm the first substantial work of modern journalism. It is extremely difficult to convey the ferocity of the hurricane and its devastating effects. Some estimates have the death toll at as high as 15,000 people. Once again, Defoe stared Death in the face: part of his house was destroyed and the writer narrowly avoided being crushed to death.
His pamphleteering turned to novel-writing – though he wouldn’t have described himself as a novelist, and our modern notion of the novel hadn’t yet developed. His interest in fiction had begun when some of his short publications had been closer to short stories than to pamphlets, including several short pieces, published in 1705, about a man voyaging to the moon (some 150 years before Jules Verne would write about such an idea). Marjorie Nicolson, writing in her book Voyages to the Moon, has argued that ‘No English writer played more frequently with the theme of a world in the moon than did Daniel Defoe.’
As well as Robinson Crusoe, Defoe went on to write several other works of fiction, including Moll Flanders (1722) and the lesser-known works Captain Singleton (1720), Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720), Colonel Jack (1722), and Roxana (1724). He also wrote Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which drew on his training as a journalist and his childhood memories of the 1660s. (He probably drew on the journal of his uncle Henry Foe for many of the first-hand descriptions of the plague in the book.) Indeed, it is Journal of the Plague Year which most clearly exemplifies his trajectory from pamphleteer and journalist to novelist: although sometimes read as an early historical novel, this book is painstakingly realist in its detail, drawing on contemporary accounts of the plague of 1665 in an effort to alert the people of 1721 to the dangers of the disease, which was threatening Europe again. Indeed, Defoe’s apprenticeship as a pamphleteer was crucial to the development of the novel in English: his journalistic training brought a sense of realism to the novel, something that has been hugely important ever since.
Defoe died in 1731 – of ‘a lethargy’, according to the records. This may give the impression that Defoe was merely tired and exhausted after a long life of pamphleteering and novel-writing (which would have been fair enough), but it was probably an eighteenth-century term for a stroke. Some of his work, particularly Robinson Crusoe, continues to be enjoyed by readers of all ages, all over the world. (We will address the interesting aspects of this novel in a future post.) And he continues to be honoured in all sorts of ways: recently, the deluxe jewellery company Montblanc honoured Defoe in their 2014 Writers’ Edition fountain pen. The pen echoes aspects of Robinson Crusoe (you can see what the pen looks like in the image above). Perhaps it is fitting that a writer who made his living by his pen in such a diverse number of ways should be honoured in such a way.
If you enjoyed this short Daniel Defoe biography, we’ve also put together a short biography of T. S. Eliot, in the same series.