Restless Daniel

John Mullan

  • The Life of Daniel Defoe: A Critical Biography by John Richetti
    Blackwell, 406 pp, £50.00, December 2005, ISBN 0 631 19529 7
  • A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe by P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens
    Pickering & Chatto, 277 pp, £60.00, January 2006, ISBN 1 85196 810 5

Writers do not always know what their best writings are. Daniel Defoe believed his magnum opus to be his huge, passionately political, intermittently philosophical poem in heroic couplets, Jure Divino (1706). Begun while he was imprisoned in Newgate, its 12 books assailed the doctrine of the divine right of monarchs from every angle he could imagine. The argument mattered very much to him, as it did to many of his fellow countrymen. They had recently rid themselves of a monarch, James II, who had shown unmistakeable absolutist tendencies. For Defoe, the Revolution had been Glorious indeed. His opposition to the doctrine of divine right shaped all his political views. Jure Divino was designed to be a work to do justice to a lofty subject. It runs to some eight thousand lines of verse, plus a lengthy preface and substantial buttonholing footnotes, where Defoe explicates historical references or emphasises ideological points. It was published in a sumptuous folio edition, with an engraved portrait of the proud author for a frontispiece. It is also a work that only Defoe scholars – and perhaps not all of them – could ever bear to read.

Defoe always fancied himself a poet. John Richetti notes that he wrote more lines of verse than either Milton or Dryden, though it is now almost all forgotten. ‘To some extent, that is a shame,’ Richetti observes, not quite believing that he is putting right a wrong. The best of Defoe’s poetry was self-consciously rumbustious, and Jure Divino has some snappy couplets. Here are its opening lines:

Nature has left this Tincture in the Blood,
That all Men would be Tyrants if they cou’d:
If they forbear their Neighbours to devour,
’Tis not for want of Will, but want of Power

Rochester was, surprisingly, one of Defoe’s favourite poets. The allusion in the second line is to an aphorism from Rochester’s ‘Satire against Reason and Mankind’: ‘For all men would be cowards if they durst.’ However, you wouldn’t want to read much more of what P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens call ‘the most complete statement of Defoe’s political and ethical philosophy’. You might guess this from Defoe’s own preface: ‘As to the Poetical Part of it, where the Argument of it lies strong, I have been very careless of Censure that way, and have often sacrific’d the Poet to the Reasoning Stile.’ In the last couple of books, even the plea of ‘Reasoning’ cannot excuse the bathos, as we lurch into pages of panegyric to William of Orange and Queen Anne and a parade of Whig politicians.

For a biographer, Defoe’s own sense of the importance of what he wrote must matter a good deal. During most of his career as a writer, he was preoccupied with politics. He was almost 60 when he published his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, in 1719. If he had died a year or two earlier, his work would not be on any English literature syllabus. Given that A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain was written even later than his novels, he would probably be entirely unknown to the general reader. He would, however, still be familiar to scholars interested in early 18th-century Britain, and its political and religious controversies. He was notorious long before he wrote those great and unprecedented works of fiction near the end of his life. A bit-part player in Pope’s Dunciad, and worth only a grumpy aside from Swift, he was a leading combatant in the pamphlet battles of his age, and the paid familiar of men of power. When he died in 1731, an obituary described him as someone who wrote ‘in the Interest of Civil and Religious Liberty, in behalf of which he appeared on several remarkable Occasions’. He would have been happy with the characterisation.

So, in writing a ‘political biography’ of Defoe, Furbank and Owens are trying to recover the author as he was once known, and even as he knew himself. They have already had a huge influence on the academic study of Defoe. They initiated a redrawing – specifically a narrowing – of the Defoe canon with a series of publications that began with The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe in 1988. Thanks largely to them, scepticism about attribution has become fundamental to Defoe studies. More recently they have been putting Defoe onto the library shelf in properly annotated form as general editors of the ongoing Pickering & Chatto edition of Defoe’s works (44 volumes, but still only ‘selected’). The annotation of almost any of Defoe’s writings from the first two decades of the 18th century takes such lengths of political explanation that the fashioning of a clear and connected account of his activities has come to seem indispensable. This ‘political biography’ is a report back by those who have been down each alley of Defoe’s life as a controversialist. If you want to know about his involvement in the Sacheverell affair or his idiosyncratic treatment of the occasional conformity issue or his contribution to the Bangorian debate, you will find admirably lucid summaries here.

The isolation of Defoe’s political activities from the rest of his life is useful, though it is peculiar to hear so little of his other commitments. The Furbank and Owens narrative is certainly counter-literary. It ends in 1720, when Defoe, according to them, ‘turned his back on politics’. Robinson Crusoe apart, his novels are still to come. Richetti has some of the same biographical duties, but the opposite purpose. His ‘critical biography’ is, as its preface says, ‘chiefly concerned to evaluate’ Defoe’s ‘specifically literary achievements, to describe the still attractive and perennially interesting features of his writing’. Richetti conscientiously explains the political controversies that possessed Defoe, but cannot always be gripped by them. He swerves away from chronology on occasion in order to pursue some topic that Defoe pursued, to find patterns in a life of writing that can otherwise seem a rapid stumble from one controversy or opportunity to another. Richetti has written extensively on the development of the 18th-century novel, and a good deal on Defoe; when he reaches his chapters on Defoe’s novels you get the eloquent condensation of his expertise.

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