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eight thousand lines of verse, plus a lengthy preface and substantial buttonholing footnotes, where Defoe explicates historical references or emphasises ideological points.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.
Richetti calls Defoe ‘a veritable writing machine’. The force of his personality is to be felt in his ‘compulsion to write’. Yet his life of writing was only part of it. A good deal of Defoe’s life was unrecorded. Born around 1660, Daniel Foe, as he was christened, published very little before the 18th century began. His life had hardly been uneventful before then – by his own later account he joined Monmouth’s abortive 1685 rebellion against James II – but a biographer has little to go on. There had already been marriage and travel, business ventures and bankruptcies. He had tried to be an entrepreneur – his Stoke Newington farm for civet cats has entered literary mythology – but without lasting success. As Johnson was to say of Richard Savage, another denizen of Grub Street, ‘he was therefore obliged to seek some other means of support; and, having no profession, became by necessity an author.’
The accession of the Roman Catholic James II in 1685, and his deposition in 1688 by his nephew William of Orange, husband of his staunchly Protestant daughter Mary, were the crucial public events of Defoe’s early life. ‘I believe no Man in the World was ever the Peoples King more than his present Majesty,’ Defoe wrote in 1697. His devotion to William spurred him to write The True-Born Englishman (1701), the work that, as Furbank and Owens put it with understandable hyperbole, ‘rocketed him to fame’. It was a scornful rejoinder to attacks on the king as a foreigner, and gleefully celebrated the ‘mongrel’ genealogy of the English: ‘A True-Born Englishman’s a contradiction,/In Speech an Irony, in fact a Fiction.’ The transmutation of William of Orange’s Dutch friends into English-sounding lords was to be applauded, not resented. ‘But England, Modern to the last degree,/Borrows, or makes her own Nobility.’ In The True-Born Englishman Defoe’s rough fluency with rhyming couplets was at its most effective. A year later, he managed his greatest political triumph, when the king found his military opposition to the power of France frustrated by a Tory-dominated House of Commons. Whig lords who had negotiated a tough treaty with the French were impeached and five ‘Kentish gentlemen’ who presented a petition imploring Parliament to give the king the money he needed for his army were imprisoned. Accompanied by a guard of 16 ‘gentlemen of quality’, Defoe delivered to the speaker of the Commons a paper, Legion’s Memorial, threatening the retribution of ‘the People of England’ if these moves were not reversed. ‘Our Name is Legion and we are Many.’ Rattled MPs acquiesced. The king got his ‘supplies’ and Defoe briefly looked like a man of influence.
Then came The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1702), an anonymous pamphlet in which Defoe parodied the High Church opponents of religious toleration for Dissenters so well that it was not at first recognised as a parody. He was arrested for this ‘seditious’ publication and was already notorious enough to attract the attentions of the Earl of Nottingham, the secretary of state, who interrogated him in person. According to Furbank and Owens, this was the origin of Defoe’s claim to have been familiar with King William. They argue that it was a fiction, initially forged to deal with his interrogation by Nottingham. This would fit well enough with Richetti’s picture of Defoe’s self-representations. One of Defoe’s ‘saving graces’, Richetti believes, was a ‘nearly delusional but unwavering sense of self-importance’. It attached even to his private writings, notably his surviving letters to Robert Harley, soon to be secretary of state and eventually unofficial prime minister. Harley rescued Defoe from Newgate, after he was convicted of seditious libel. He wanted to use him, and gave him a heady sense of influence over the times.
For the first decade and a half of the 18th century, there are two invaluable bundles of evidence about Defoe: his letters to Harley (more than 170 survive, comprising the bulk of the standard edition of his letters) and the pages of his one-man journal, the Review. As Richetti observes, the Review became ‘a deeply personal airing of Defoe’s opinions’. When one of Defoe’s innumerable enemies described the journal as the product of several hands, the Review included an outraged rejoinder. It was his alone, and ‘wherever the Author may be, the Papers are wrote with his own Hand, and the Originals may be seen at the Printers.’ Unflaggingly, the Review ran for more than nine years, first weekly, then twice weekly, then three times a week. It covered the politics and issues of state of the day, sometimes frantically hurrying to catch up with events, but through it ripple deeper currents of autobiographical anecdote and personal reflection. With the help of the index to Arthur Secord’s facsimile edition, or even better to John McVeagh’s Pickering & Chatto edition (still in progress), you can pick out Defoe’s private preoccupations. A casual browser would find the minute attention to European politics overwhelming, but Richetti does a good job of finding passages that display Defoe’s ‘tangy stylistic signature’, a collision of ‘colloquial vigour’ with ‘genuine eloquence’.
His release from Newgate heralded a decade of frenetic pamphleteering and polemicising. Both biographies give a sense of the ferment and the polemical freedom that the world of print created after the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695. Defoe was its creature, a taker of freedoms, an inventor of more personae than he needed. This delight in speaking in different voices is evident in his reports on his activities as a secret agent. As biographers have noticed before, what he most enjoyed was being a spy, sent round the country by Harley on fact-gathering missions, and eventually employed as a secret witness in Edinburgh to the final negotiations over England’s union with Scotland, concluded in 1707. Both Richetti and Furbank and Owens quote the passage from one of his Edinburgh letters in which he talks with slightly mad gusto of this capacity to adapt himself to his company:
I talk to Everybody in Their Own way. To the Merchants I am about to Settle here in Trade, Building ships &c. With the Lawyers I Want to purchase a House and Land to bring my family & live Upon it (God knows where the Money is to pay for it). To day I am Goeing into Partnership with a Membr of parliamt in a Glass house, to morrow with Another in a Salt work. With the Glasgow Mutineers I am to be a fish Merchant, with the Aberdeen Men a woollen and with the Perth and western men a Linen Manufacturer, and still at the End of all Discourse the Union is the Essentiall and I am all to Every one that I may Gain some.
This range of roles was surely more than his mission required, but perhaps he is just showing off to his paymaster. Richetti points out that his service to Harley was highly remunerative. During his years as a secret agent and propagandist (he was writing in whatever cause Harley favoured) he received £300 to £400 a year, the income of a well-to-do gentleman. This made possible his handsome house in Stoke Newington, with its four acres of land and substantial library. Though the image of Defoe as the greatest hack in English literature is not wrong, there was a decade when his financial well-being did not really depend on selling books. Though he was, inadvertently, to invent the form that would eventually dominate the literary marketplace, the Novel, he himself depended on patrons rather than booksellers.
So he shows, as Richetti puts it, ‘a curious combination of assertive independence and self-abasing servitude’ when addressing ‘the great’. Defoe was also closely attached to the Earl of Godolphin and the Earl of Sunderland. When he was not cockily advising the nation’s potentates on their best course of action, he was dramatising his dependence on them. ‘I Most Humbly Seek your Ldpps Help,’ he writes to Godolphin, the lord treasurer, from Edinburgh in August 1708, ‘which with the breath of your Mouth can Restore the Distresses of your faithful Servant, who shall Ever Dedicate his life, and strength, to your Ldpps Intrest and Service.’ Harley and Godolphin often kept their creature waiting and imploring them for cash. Bizarrely, even in his private correspondence with such men, Defoe needed to declare his complete independence. He always obeys, he tells Harley in a letter of August 1712, ‘the Dictates of My Own Principles’. ‘This My Lord Gives Me Room to Declare, as I do in Print Every day, That I am Neither Employ’d, Dictated to, Or Rewarded for, or in, what I write by any Person Undr Heaven.’ Richetti openly wonders at the self-delusion.
Defoe used to have a reputation for opportunistic adaptability. In charting their way through his rhetorical shifts and alternations of personae, Furbank and Owens take his essential political beliefs to be unchanging, honoured so far as possible in shifting circumstances. Sometimes this needs careful argument. It is not so bad when Defoe is just trying to keep his place as a hired hand while Queen Anne’s ministers come and go. The pacts and conflicts of succeeding ministries are often so obscure that it is easy to share the perplexity of the poor writer, tacking and adjusting as best he can. However, when Harley returns to power in 1710, after a short interlude, Defoe’s disingenuousness begins to look deep-dyed. He may still have believed that Harley was so moderate a Tory as to be a bulwark against Jacobitism, but his willingness to serve his political master committed him to take up what Furbank and Owens call ‘hopelessly false’ positions. So, for instance, the former panegyrist of the Duke of Marlborough celebrated the great Whig’s fall from power, as he was required to do. The former parodist of Tory rhetoric had come to sound like what he had once mocked.
During these years (1710-14) Defoe’s impersonations became inordinately elaborate. He often seems to have taken the opportunity afforded by his anonymity to write against himself. Some of the pro-ministry pamphlets that he wrote in various personae for Harley quoted, as if from the work of another author, recent issues of the Review. On occasion he would even ‘expostulate a little’ with pieces that, as we now believe, he had recently produced himself. Defoe ‘follows his old Trade of Writing against himself’, the St James’s Weekly Journal declared, ‘and frequently scolds in Controversy, wherein no one else is concerned’. All this was intended as political subtlety: different arguments were pitched to different constituencies. Yet in the biographical scheme of things, Defoe’s protean self-quotation seems a matter of self-assertion – another symptom of that self-reliance that Richetti finds so distinctive.
In 1714, with Harley’s fall from power and then the death of Queen Anne, Defoe was in trouble. Whose interest would he now serve? In a letter from this time he tells Harley of his work for a trenchant Whig journal, the Flying Post: ‘It has been long That I have been Endeavouring to Take off the Virulence and Rage of the Flying Post.’ Even his biographical defenders have trouble making out his true purposes, and it is difficult not to think that he might have lost sight of them himself. He is steeped so far in dissimulation that only the next tactical adjustment is visible: ‘As rats do run from falling Houses,/So Dan another Cause espouses,’ as a verse of the time has it. The Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 created new opportunities for such a flexible propagandist. Soon he was at work for a new Whig ministry, apparently taking over leading Tory journals in order to extract the ‘sting’ from them. In 1864, six letters from Defoe to the Whig undersecretary of state revealing this deception were discovered in the State Papers. Furbank and Owens say that these letters constitute ‘a dazzling piece of mendacity’. Defoe was writing what he believed, they argue, while kidding a government representative that it was part of a covert pro-administration strategy.
Yet even Furbank and Owens cannot really settle what he was up to: ‘The root of the problem, for biographers, is attribution.’ When the evidence of Defoe’s political allegiances is all in his writings, what can you do when you are not sure what he wrote? ‘We have here the reason why, it strikes us, the later pages of most biographies of Defoe tend to lose direction.’ All critics and biographers who immerse themselves in Defoe’s dubious oeuvre will have something to say about his capacity for disguise or ventriloquism. A few prestige productions apart, he always wrote as someone else. What Richetti catches, despite all this, is Defoe’s ‘special and shameless egomania (he takes everything personally)’. A grudge is never let alone, a past victory – even a good line – is never forgotten. Never has a writer been so happy to repeat himself.
One of the gains to be had from knowing Defoe’s biography and reading some of his more obscure writings is the bringing alive of either bitter or redemptive personal experience in the works that have outlived him. Think of that extraordinary moment when Moll Flanders tells us of being carried to Newgate, ‘that horrid Place!’: for the invisible, anonymous author this was recollection, not invention. Richetti spots many surprising uses in fiction of personal fragments. Part of the passage from his Edinburgh letter to Harley that I quoted earlier, for instance, turns up slightly rephrased in Colonel Jack. The work that Richetti thinks Defoe’s best, A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, is ‘full of his crotchets, pet ideas, and preoccupations’, animated by personal observation and anecdote. (It is also characteristic in containing substantial passages plagiarised from other writers.)
Harley’s fall and the establishment of a new dynasty pushed Defoe into different genres. His pretensions to insider knowledge were flourished in several examples of that peculiar early 18th-century genre, the ‘secret history’. He produced a sequence of these supposedly revelatory, risky accounts of goings-on at court and in state councils. Their threads of fact and fiction can hardly be disentangled, yet they leave the reader with the impression of a man who did indeed catch hints and reports from the great. He also wrote one explicitly autobiographical narrative, An Appeal to Honour and Justice, tho’ it be of his Worst Enemies, published in 1715. (Furbank and Owens reprint this impassioned self-vindication in its entirety as an appendix.) ‘I alone have been silent under the infinite Clamours and Reproaches, causeless Curses, unusual Threatnings, and the most unjust and injurious Treatment in the World,’ it begins. It owns up to some of his political pamphlets and justifies his serving Harley, who always had in view ‘the true interest of the Protestant Religion’ and never prescribed what Defoe wrote. It also complains at length about the anonymous and pseudonymous works that keep being attributed to him. ‘Very often the first Knowledge I have had of a Books being publish’d, has been from seeing my self abused for being the Author of it, in some other Pamphlet.’ For anyone interested in Defoe’s career, An Appeal is an indispensable document, though also, as Richetti says, ‘deeply evasive and even mendacious’.
With the disappearance of Harley from the scene, and the need to turn to a different kind of writing for money, Defoe produced his first bestseller. This was The Family Instructor, his most popular work after Robinson Crusoe. Though a pious Puritan conduct book, it is enlivened by being cast in the form of dialogues, usually between family members caught in various moral perplexities. In this and its successor, Religious Courtship, the drama of domesticity begins to flicker into life. Richetti makes a good case for the conversational vigour and ‘handling of intimacy’ in Religious Courtship in particular. It is no accident that the two earliest pioneers of the English novel, Defoe and Samuel Richardson, both wrote conduct books just before they turned to fiction. Richardson’s Familiar Letters tested friends and relations through imagined exchanges of letters, but the moral quandaries were comparable. Both these pious Protestant authors made their novels out of the religious dilemmas of private life.
When Richetti deals with Defoe’s writing in the 1720s, the attribution question seems to matter more and more. So, for instance, Richetti has some searching things to say about pirates, and the spate of stories about them, but we do not know how many of these stories Defoe wrote. When he gets to Moll Flanders, which Defoe certainly did write, Richetti speculates about his involvement in Applebee’s Weekly Journal, a popular contemporary repository of crime reporting. John Applebee, its proprietor, was the leading publisher of criminal biographies and confessions in the early 18th century, and many have supposed Defoe to have been his main reporter. Yet it remains guesswork. Equally, if all the articles about the plague in Mist’s Journal are by Defoe, then we can trace a deep preoccupation in the years leading up to his wonderful factual fiction A Journal of the Plague Year. But they might just be evidence of a widespread anxiety in years when plague in France revived fears in England. We will never know.
In his late sixties, Defoe was still prolific, though he stopped writing novels as abruptly as he had begun. There is some evidence from his last writings that he turned into a cross old man, fulminating against the times. He produced a series of polemics in what Richetti calls the ‘crusty and cranky persona’ of ‘Andrew Moreton, Esq.’, but these tirades against modern vices sound too heartfelt to be merely dramatic. In some of his novels, servants may become gentlemen or gentlewomen, or at least the best advisers to their social betters, but in late works like Every-Body’s Business Is No-Body’s Business, Defoe berates the servant class for pride and insolence. The lower orders have got above themselves. In England, ‘the Poor govern, and the Rich submit’. In Conjugal Lewdness he lambasts all the ways in which men and women can use marriage as a cloak for lust. Readers of Moll Flanders and Roxana might be surprised by his abiding anxieties about sexual desire, even between husband and wife. He died without the companionship of his wife and children, apparently in hiding from creditors. ‘Restless Daniel’, as Pope called him, was still trying to leave work of lasting importance behind him. In old age he had no settled oeuvre, no gentlemanly edition of his literary works, to look back on with complacency. He can have had no idea that he would become, many years after his death, one of the great authors of English literature.