David Nokes on the duality of Defoe

  • Daniel Defoe: His Life by Paula Backscheider
    Johns Hopkins, 671 pp, £20.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 8018 3785 5

In many ways, Paula Backscheider has written a highly appropriate life of Defoe. Fat, fact-filled and repetitious, her book offers a meandering narrative of merchant adventures and spying, opportunism and piety, taking us from fire and plague to bankruptcy via the battlefield of Sedgemoor, Newgate prison and the pillory. It is, in other words, much like a novel by Defoe. The one essential difference is that at the heart of all Defoe’s novels there is a voice, the beguilingly candid tones of a first-person narrator skilfully blending puritan confessional with con-man’s patter to impose a rhetorical identity upon the turmoil of events. It is not merely that Professor Backscheider’s book inevitably lacks the strong dramatic unison of such an autobiographical persona. More disappointingly, she seems uncomfortable describing, or attempting to account for, the virtuoso feats of moral and political ventriloquism which render Defoe’s true ‘identity’ a reverberating compromise between rhetorical fantasy and documentary fact.

Writing a biography of Defoe is a daunting task. Quite apart from his relentless mercantile activities as hosier, brick-and-tile manufacturer, wine-importer, horse-dealer, salt-factor, oyster-farmer, perfumier, linen-trader, timber-merchant etc etc, and his extensive espionage work on behalf of Robert Harley, Defoe was an indefatigable writer. Peter Earle, in the introduction to The World of Defoe (1976), confesses the alarm he experienced when ‘with the contract signed, I began to realise just what I had let myself in for ... To my horror I discovered that Defoe was probably the most prolific writer in the English language, a writer moreover who wrote on every conceivable topic from angels to annuities and from adultery to agriculture.’ More recently, in their book The Canonisation of Defoe (1988) P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens have argued – persuasively, in my view – that the traditional check-list of Defoe’s output may considerably exaggerate the number of items written by him. Backscheider appears unhappy at this revisionist attempt to cut her author down to size. Her prefatory note that ‘my own use of the received canon is conservative’ is itself ambiguous. It appears to mean that she has, as she claims, ‘re-examined and re-evaluated every work attributed to Defoe’: yet in practice her conservatism is more evident in her acceptance of almost all the traditional canon and her rejection of the radical cut-backs proposed by Furbank and Owens. Indeed the sheer volume of Defoe’s output becomes for her a measure of his literary stature as she sets about proving his ‘superiority as a propagandist’ over his contemporaries Swift and Steele. Swift, she tells us, ‘spent many months on “The Conduct of the Allies”, and while working on it had written little else’. By contrast, the vastly more prolific Defoe ‘seems to have had no trouble sustaining the Review and publishing more than twenty tracts on the [peace] negotiations (plus half a dozen pamphlets on other subjects) in twelve months’. Her chapter titles reinforce this admiration for heroic feats of productivity. Chapter Seven is entitled ‘Four Hundred Thousand Words’, a record easily surpassed by Chapter 14’s ‘Six Hundred Thousand Words’. To gauge Defoe’s true superiority over his literary rivals one doesn’t need to read his works, merely to weigh them.

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