This remarkable collection of letters comprises the correspondence between Daniel Defoe and Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford, between 1703 and 1714. It reveals Defoe’s turbulent life – as a businessman, journalist, prisoner and spy – before he wrote his first novel Robinson Crusoe (1719).
What do the letters reveal about Defoe’s fiction?
The letters shine a light on the world which shaped Defoe’s most famous novels ‒ Crusoe, Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724). They show the precarious climate in which one’s fortunes could lurch between wealth and poverty. They also expose Defoe’s involvement in reshaping England’s identity through colonialism and union with Scotland, during the reign of Queen Anne (1702‒14). And they suggest how he developed his characteristic style – blending journalistic realism with disguise and imaginative self-invention.
‘Publick Disaster’, 1704
In the first letter shown here (probably dating from May‒June 1704), Defoe alludes to the scandal that led him to prison. He got embroiled in the debate between the Church of England and religious Non-conformists, and wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702). For this, he was charged with libel, pilloried, fined and imprisoned at Newgate in May 1703. In November, Defoe was released with the help of Robert Harley (1661‒1724), the Tory Speaker of the House of Commons.
Defoe uses an image of shipwreck – later echoed in Robinson Crusoe – to describe his ‘Misfortunes’, worrying that he might not ‘Get ashore again’ but trusting in God’s ‘Providence’. He laments the ‘Ruin’ of his brick factory in Essex, and the suffering of his wife Mary, an ‘Excellent Mother to Seaven Beautifull [children]’.
Undercover in Scotland, 13 September 1706
In exchange for Harley’s assistance, Defoe started working for him as an undercover agent. By 1706, Harley was the government’s Northern Secretary and he sent Defoe to Edinburgh to help negotiate union with Scotland. In this letter, Defoe outlines his secret mission ‘to Dispose peoples minds to the Union’, which was later approved in 1707.
Instructions from Harley, 1706
These ‘Instrucions’ were probably sent from Harley to Defoe, around October 1706. They warn him to use the ‘utmost caution’ to conceal his English ‘business’ in Scotland. He should report back ‘constantly’, but be sure to write ‘under Cover’.
Proposal for an English colony in South America, 23 July 1711
By May 1711, Harley was Lord Treasurer and planned to set up the South Sea Company, with the aim of securing Britain a monopoly on trade with South America, including exclusive rights to the trade in enslaved Africans. Defoe was interested, not just in trade, but in settling colonies and extracting raw materials. Here, he sends Harley ‘A Proposall for Seizing’ and ‘forming an English Collony’ in Chile and other regions in South America. Defoe claims to have shared these plans with King William III, but says he’s been ‘forced to Burn Them’ while under prosecution in 1703.
Defoe insists that the climate in Chile is perfect for ‘English bodyes’, the location suitably distant from Spanish colonies, and the stores of gold ‘Incredible’. He says the natives are ‘Tractable’ enough to be employed as workers, particularly because they ‘Go Cloathed’.