Daniel Defoe, 1661?-1731

Portrait

Biographical note

Journalist and novelist, son of a butcher in St. Giles, where he was born His father being a Dissenter, he was educated at a Dissenting college at Newington with the view of becoming a Presbyterian minister. He joined the army of Monmouth, and on its defeat was fortunate enough to escape punishment. In 1688 he joined William III. Before settling down to his career as a political writer, Defoe had been engaged in various enterprises as a hosier, a merchant-adventurer to Spain and Portugal, and a brickmaker, all of which proved so unsuccessful that he had to fly from his creditors. Having become known to the government as an effective writer, and employed by them, he was appointed Accountant in the Glass–Duty Office, 1659–1699.

Among his more important political writings are an Essay on Projects [1698], and The True-born Englishman [1701], which had a remarkable success. In 1702 appeared The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, written in a strain of grave irony which was, unfortunately for the author, misunderstood, and led to his being fined, imprisoned, and put in the pillory, which suggested his Hymns to the Pillory [1704]. Notwithstanding the disfavour with the government which these disasters implied, Defoe’s knowledge of commercial affairs and practical ability were recognised by his being sent in 1706 to Scotland to aid in the Union negotiations. In the same year Jure Divino, a satire, followed by a History of the Union [1709], and The Wars of Charles XII. [1715]. Further misunderstandings and disappointments in connection with political matters led to his giving up this line of activity, and, fortunately for posterity, taking to fiction.

The first and greatest of his novels, Robinson Crusoe, appeared in 1719, and its sequel (of greatly inferior interest) in 1720. These were followed by Captain Singleton [1720], Moll Flanders, Colonel Jacque, and Journal of the Plague Year [1722], Memoirs of a Cavalier [1724], A New Voyage Round the World [1725], and Captain Carlton [1728]. Among his miscellaneous works are Political History of the Devil [1726], System of Magic [1727], The Complete English Tradesman [1727], and The Review, a paper which he edited. In all he published, including pamphlets, etc., about 250 works.

All Defoe’s writings are distinguished by a clear, nervous style, and his works of fiction by a minute verisimilitude and naturalness of incident which has never been equalled except perhaps by Swift, whose genius his, in some other respects, resembled.

The only description of his personal appearance is given in an advertisement intended to lead to his apprehension, and runs, “A middle-sized, spare man about forty years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown-coloured hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole near his mouth.” His mind was a peculiar amalgam of imagination and matter-of-fact, seeing strongly and clearly what he did see, but little conscious, apparently, of what lay outside his purview.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

Works

Novels

Essays, Satires and other pieces

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