Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe
Engraving of Daniel Defoe from British Library RB.23.a.24563


During his lifetime Daniel Defoe produced, at a conservative estimate, 318 publications in many formats and on an extraordinary range of topics. Perhaps best known today as the author of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe is considered to have fundamentally shaped the novel as an emerging genre of English literature.

Early life

Defoe was born in London in 1660 to a family of Presbyterian Dissenters, and educated at a dissenting academy in Newington Green. He became a merchant, dealing in different commodities including hosiery. In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley (1665–1732); six of their eight children lived into adulthood.

After expanding into the import-export business for goods such as tobacco and alcohol, Defoe made some unwise investments and in 1692 declared bankruptcy. He was twice briefly imprisoned for his debts, negotiating his freedom with the aid of recognisants (guarantors) and becoming an accountant and investment advisor to the government and private business owners.

During this time he began writing political pamphlets and, later, poetry, such as The Pacificator (1700), a satirical comment on the literary criticism of the age. The True-Born Englishman (1701) defends King William III, who was Dutch, against xenophobia with the reminder that there was no such thing as a purely English person: ‘from a mixture of all kinds began / That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman’.

Defoe as religious dissenter and journalist

Throughout his lifetime Defoe was a vocal supporter of freedom of religion and the press. He played an important part in the ‘occasional conformity’ conflict in England in the late 1690s and early 1700s; this called attention to Dissenters’ occasional participation in ceremonies of the official Church of England, which they did so that they would still be eligible for office. Defoe’s pamphlet An Enquiry into Occasional Conformity (1698) was followed by the satirical Shortest Way With the Dissenters (1703), which led to his arrest for seditious libel in May 1703. He was in Newgate Prison for six months and pilloried three times. Though he went on to a successful career as a journalist and novelist, he was never entirely free of the stigma of sedition and imprisonment.

In 1704 Defoe founded The Review, a periodical discussing international and domestic politics. This brought him to the attention of the government, for whom he became a secret agent working for peace with France and towards union with Scotland, where he lived on and off until 1712.

Fiction writing

Scholar Maximillian Novak calls the years 1715–24 ‘the great creative period’ of Defoe’s life. Now in his fifties and sixties, Defoe wrote a wide variety of fiction, bringing verisimilitude and dramatic realism to the traditional genre of the domestic conduct book, and producing the novels for which he is now most famous: Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724) – the last two being notable for their morally ambiguous female heroines. In his later years he turned his attention once more to ‘state of the nation’ writings about British trade and foreign policy.

Before his death in April 1731, Defoe was plagued by debts and restlessly moved between several different lodgings. He is buried in Bunhill Fields, the cemetery for Nonconformists.

Further information about the life of Daniel Defoe can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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