Daniel Defoe : A Hero for All Times

Dr Vernon Coleman

Daniel Defoe’s life was as packed with adventure as that of any storybook hero - including the eponymous hero of the novel Robinson Crusoe. But Defoe was real. He was the world’s first realistic novelist, a fearless political campaigner, the world’s first campaigning and investigative journalist and the publisher of one of the world’s first newspapers. He was a merchant, a soldier and a tireless traveller and worked as a secret agent in Scotland for William III. He even spent some time in prison and a spell in the pillory for his work as a political pamphleteer. He was, in truth, a real adventurer.

Born the son of a butcher in Stoke Newington, London, Daniel Defoe travelled widely in Europe before setting up in the hosiery trade in London when he was just 23 years old. He took part in Monmouth’s rebellion and joined William III’s army in 1688. Until 1704 he was an enthusiastic supporter of the King’s party and in 1701 earned royal favour with his satirical poem The True-born Englishman which was an attack on xenophobic prejudice.

He began writing as a pamphleteer in 1691, and quickly showed himself to be a brave and caring writer. In 1697 he published An Essay Upon Projects which proposed paving the highways, enlarging the Bank of England, instituting friendly societies, reforming the bankruptcy laws and abolishing press gangs. He wrote pamphlets showing how and why people become gamblers or beggars. He exposed the way that institutions often encourage swindling. He pleaded for the higher education of women and for a more humane treatment of lunatics. He always wrote in a fluent, fast, easy to read prose style.

When Queen Anne was on the throne he got into trouble with another satire entitled The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, which he wrote in 1702. The irony was so subtle that it at first deceived the authorities but once they understood the meaning of the book Defoe ended up with a massive fine, a spell in the pillory and a term of imprisonment ‘at the Queen’s pleasure’.

While in Newgate prison he continued to write pamphlets. He wrote one on Occasional Conformity and he even wrote his Hymn to the Pillory while in prison.

He was released from prison in 1704, and he quickly founded a newspaper called The Review which he wrote and published three times a week until 1713. The Review included articles on political and domestic topics and introduced the idea of newspapers publishing leading articles and editorials. He wrote not just to clear his debts but in order to criticise the many things he felt were unjust in society.

While he was writing The Review (he wrote the whole of the paper himself) Defoe produced a vast number of pamphlets and a ghost story called The Apparition of One Mrs Veal which was, he claimed, a true account of something that had actually happened. (He realised even then that readers would enjoy a novel much more if they believed it to be true. He did this by writing about believable characters in realistic situations and by using simple, easy to read prose. It was Defoe who invented the realistic novel – the type of novel we now recognise as fiction.) He also created, wrote and published a supplement to The Review called Mercure Scandale: or Advice from the Scandalous Club, being a Weekly History of Nonsense, Impertinence, Vice and Debauchery in which he recorded any private or official act which he thought worth exposing to the ridicule of his readers. (Defoe was, therefore, the first newspaper proprietor to add a supplement to his newspaper).

Defoe wrote an apparently endless number of pamphlets on a huge range of subjects, including travel, politics, religion, geography and the supernatural. Much of his political writing was in the form of satire and although he was popular with the public he made a number of powerful enemies. The people in authority didn’t like his attacking, fearless style.

Between 1704 and 1714 Defoe worked as a double agent and undertook a number of secret missions for the Tories. In 1715, he wrote a justification of this episode of his life entitled Appeal to Honour and Justice. After the closure of his own newspaper he founded another publication called Mercurius Politicus, in which he published hundreds of essays. And he was a prolific contributor to a number of other journals which sprang up during that period. His sympathy was always with the outcasts and the failures. He wrote sympathetically about the consequences of the South Sea Bubble and he supported the starving hay-makers in 1722. He wrote an article attacking the practice of flogging in the army. He wrote about the return to England of transported felons. He had a great insight into, and sympathy for, human beings who were exposed to the rough edges of life.

In 1715, exhausted by the realities of the world, he started writing fiction with great vigour, though he always insisted that all his novels were about people who really existed and about occurrences that really happened. He told his stories in the coarse but racy style of the common people of the time. He cared far more for his story than for grammar. He brilliantly rendered life as he saw it. These later books, though they were in truth novels, give us a tremendous insight into life in the early 18th century.

Defoe’s three greatest novels are undoubtedly The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year (which was written as a diary but was in fact a novel). The enormously successful and famous book about Robinson Crusoe was based on an interview Defoe did with a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk, who had been shipwrecked for several years on a remote Pacific island.

Defoe was nearly 60 when he published The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe which first appeared in serial form in a newspaper called the London Post. His later novels include Roxana, Memoirs of a Cavalier, Captain Singleton and Captain Jack.

While producing these remarkably successful novels Defoe continued to write a huge variety of non-fiction. Between 1724 and 1727 he wrote a three volume travel book called Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain. His other non-fiction books included The Great Law of Subordination Considered, The Complete English Tradesman, Plan of the English Commerce and Augusta Trimphans, or the Way to make London the Most Flourishing City in the Universe. In all his works he showed a great grasp of detail and an intuitive understanding which enabled him to forecast how the world would turnout. He was a courageous man and an extraordinarily prolific and versatile author and by the time he died he had published more than 250 works. Every word he wrote was, of course, written out by hand.

Taken from `Vernon Coleman’s English Heroes’ which is available as a paperback and an eBook.

Copyright Vernon Coleman August 2022