Daniel Defoe, by William Minto

Chapter 8.

Later Journalistic Labours.

For the discovery of this “strange and surprising” chapter in Defoe’s life, which clears up much that might otherwise have been disputable in his character, the world is indebted solely to Mr. William Lee. Accident put Mr. Lee on the right scent, from which previous biographers had been diverted by too literal and implicit a faith in the arch-deceiver’s statements, and too comprehensive an application of his complaint that his name was made the hackney title of the times, upon which all sorts of low scribblers fathered their vile productions. Defoe’s secret services on Tory papers exposed him, as we have seen, to misconstruction. Nobody knew this better than himself, and nobody could have guarded against it with more sleepless care. In the fourth year of King George’s reign a change took place in the Ministry. Lord Townshend was succeeded in the Home Secretary’s office by Lord Stanhope. Thereupon Defoe judged it expedient to write to a private secretary, Mr. de la Faye, explaining at length his position. This letter along with five others, also designed to prevent misconstruction by his employers, lay in the State Paper Office till the year 1864, when the “whole packet” fell into the hands of Mr. Lee. The following succinct fragment of autobiography is dated April 26, 1718.

“Though I doubt not but you have acquainted my Lord Stanhope with what humble sense of his lordship’s goodness I received the account you were pleased to give me, that my little services are accepted, and that his lordship is satisfied to go upon the foot of former capitulations, etc.; yet I confess, Sir, I have been anxious upon many accounts, with respect as well to the service itself as my own safety, lest my lord may think himself ill-served by me, even when I have best performed my duty.”

“I thought it therefore not only a debt to myself, but a duty to his lordship, that I should give his lordship a short account, as clear as I can, how far my former instructions empowered me to act, and in a word what this little piece of service is, for which I am so much a subject of his lordship’s present favour and bounty.”

“It was in the Ministry of my Lord Townshend, when my Lord Chief Justice Parker, to whom I stand obliged for the favour, was pleased so far to state my case that notwithstanding the misrepresentations under which I had suffered, and notwithstanding some mistakes which I was the first to acknowledge, I was so happy as to be believed in the professions I made of a sincere attachment to the interest of the present Government, and, speaking with all possible humility, I hope I have not dishonoured my Lord Parker’s recommendation.”

“In considering, after this, which way I might be rendered most useful to the Government, it was proposed by my Lord Townshend that I should still appear as if I were, as before, under the displeasure of the Government, and separated from the Whigs; and that I might be more serviceable in a kind of disguise than if I appeared openly; and upon this foot a weekly paper, which I was at first directed to write, in opposition to a scandalous paper called the Shift Shifted, was laid aside, and the first thing I engaged in was a monthly book called Mercurius Politicus, of which presently. In the interval of this, Dyer, the News–Letter writer, having been dead, and Dormer, his successor, being unable by his troubles to carry on that work, I had an offer of a share in the property, as well as in the management of that work.”

“I immediately acquainted my Lord Townshend of it, who, by Mr. Buckley, let me know it would be a very acceptable piece of service; for that letter was really very prejudicial to the public, and the most difficult to come at in a judicial way in case of offence given. My lord was pleased to add, by Mr. Buckley, that he would consider my service in that case, as he afterwards did.”

“Upon this I engaged in it; and that so far, that though the property was not wholly my own, yet the conduct and government of the style and news was so entirely in me, that I ventured to assure his lordship the sting of that mischievous paper should be entirely taken out, though it was granted that the style should continue Tory as it was, that the party might be amused and not set up another, which would have destroyed the design, and this part I therefore take entirely on myself still.”

“This went on for a year, before my Lord Townshend went out of the office; and his lordship, in consideration of this service, made me the appointment which Mr. Buckley knows of, with promise of a further allowance as service presented.”

“My Lord Sunderland, to whose goodness I had many years ago been obliged, when I was in a secret commission sent to Scotland, was pleased to approve and continue this service, and the appointment annexed; and with his lordship’s approbation, I introduced myself, in the disguise of a translator of the foreign news, to be so far concerned in this weekly paper of Mist’s as to be able to keep it within the circle of a secret management, also prevent the mischievous part of it; and yet neither Mist, or any of those concerned with him, have the least guess or suspicion by whose direction I do it.”

“But here it becomes necessary to acquaint my lord (as I hinted to you, Sir), that this paper, called the Journal, is not in myself in property, as the other, only in management; with this express difference, that if anything happens to be put in without my knowledge, which may give offence, or if anything slips my observation which may be ill-taken, his lordship shall be sure always to know whether he has a servant to reprove or a stranger to correct.”

“Upon the whole, however, this is the consequence, that by this management, the weekly Journal, and Dormer’s Letter, as also the Mercurius Politicus, which is in the same nature of management as the Journal, will be always kept (mistakes excepted) to pass as Tory papers and yet, be disabled and enervated, so as to do no mischief or give any offence to the Government.”

Others of the tell-tale letters show us in detail how Defoe acquitted himself of his engagements to the Government—bowing, as he said, in the house of Rimmon. In one he speaks of a traitorous pamphlet which he has stopped at the press, and begs the Secretary to assure his superiors that he has the original in safe keeping, and that no eye but his own has seen it. In another he apologizes for an obnoxious paragraph which had crept into Mist’s Journal, avowing that “Mr. Mist did it, after I had looked over what he had gotten together,” that he [Defoe] had no concern in it, directly or indirectly, and that he thought himself obliged to notice this, to make good what he said in his last, viz. that if any mistake happened, Lord Stanhope should always know whether he had a servant to reprove or a stranger to punish. In another he expresses his alarm at hearing of a private suit against Morphew, the printer of the Mercurius Politicus, for a passage in that paper, and explains, first, that the obnoxious passage appeared two years before, and was consequently covered by a capitulation giving him indemnity for all former mistakes; secondly, that the thing itself was not his, neither could any one pretend to charge it on him, and consequently it could not be adduced as proof of any failure in his duty. In another letter he gives an account of a new treaty with Mist. “I need not trouble you,” he says, “with the particulars, but in a word he professes himself convinced that he has been wrong, that the Government has treated him with lenity and forbearance, and he solemnly engages to me to give no more offence. The liberties Mr. Buckley mentioned, viz. to seem on the same side as before, to rally the Flying Post, the Whig writers, and even the word ‘Whig,’ &c., and to admit foolish and trifling things in favour of the Tories. This, as I represented it to him, he agrees is liberty enough, and resolves his paper shall, for the future, amuse the Tories, but not affront the Government.” If Mist should break through this understanding, Defoe hopes it will be understood that it is not his fault; he can only say that the printer’s resolutions of amendment seem to be sincere.

“In pursuance also of this reformation, he brought me this morning the enclosed letter, which, indeed, I was glad to see, because, though it seems couched in terms which might have been made public, yet has a secret gall in it, and a manifest tendency to reproach the Government with partiality and injustice, and (as it acknowledges expressly) was written to serve a present turn. As this is an earnest of his just intention, I hope he will go on to your satisfaction.”

“Give me leave, Sir, to mention here a circumstance which concerns myself, and which, indeed, is a little hardship upon me, viz. that I seem to merit less, when I intercept a piece of barefaced treason at the Press, than when I stop such a letter as the enclosed; because one seems to be of a kind which no man would dare to meddle with. But I would persuade myself, Sir, that stopping such notorious things is not without its good effect, particularly because, as it is true that some people are generally found who do venture to print any thing that offers, so stopping them here is some discouragement and disappointment to them, and they often die in our hands.”

“I speak this, Sir, as well on occasion of what you were pleased to say upon that letter which I sent you formerly about Killing no Murder, as upon another with verses in it, which Mr. Mist gave me yesterday; which, upon my word, is so villainous and scandalous that I scarce dare to send it without your order, and an assurance that my doing so, shall be taken well, for I confess it has a peculiar insolence in it against His Majesty’s person which (as blasphemous words against God) are scarce fit to be repeated.”

In the last of the series (of date June 13, 1718), Defoe is able to assure his employers that “he believes the time is come when the journal, instead of affronting and offending the Government, may many ways be made serviceable to the Government; and he has Mr. M. so absolutely resigned to proper measures for it, that he is persuaded he may answer for it.”

Following up the clue afforded by these letters, Mr. Lee has traced the history of Mist’ Journal under Defoe’s surveillance. Mist did not prove so absolutely resigned to proper measures as his supervisor had begun to hope. On the contrary, he had frequent fits of refractory obstinacy, and gave a good deal of trouble both to Defoe and to the Government. Between them, however, they had the poor man completely in their power. When he yielded to the importunity of his Jacobite correspondents, or kicked against the taunts of the Whig organs about his wings being clipped—they, no more than he, knew how—his secret controllers had two ways of bringing him to reason. Sometimes the Government prosecuted him, wisely choosing occasions for their displeasure on which they were likely to have popular feeling on their side. At other times Defoe threatened to withdraw and have nothing more to do with the Journal. Once or twice he carried this threat into execution. His absence soon told on the circulation, and Mist entreated him to return, making promises of good behaviour for the future. Further, Defoe commended himself to the gratitude of his unconscious dupe by sympathizing with him in his troubles, undertaking the conduct of the paper while he lay in prison, and editing two volumes of a selection of Miscellany Letters from its columns. At last, however, after eight years of this partnership, during which Mist had no suspicion of Defoe’s connexion with the Government, the secret somehow seems to have leaked out. Such at least is Mr. Lee’s highly probable explanation of a murderous attack made by Mist upon his partner.

Defoe, of course, stoutly denied Mist’s accusations, and published a touching account of the circumstances, describing his assailant as a lamentable instance of ingratitude. Here was a man whom he had saved from the gallows, and befriended at his own risk in the utmost distress, turning round upon him, “basely using, insulting, and provoking him, and at last drawing his sword upon his benefactor.” Defoe disarmed him, gave him his life, and sent for a surgeon to dress his wounds. But even this was not enough. Mist would give him nothing but abuse of the worst and grossest nature. It almost shook Defoe’s faith in human nature. Was there ever such ingratitude known before? The most curious thing is that Mr. Lee, who has brought all these facts to light, seems to share Defoe’s ingenuous astonishment at this “strange instance of ungrateful violence,” and conjectures that it must have proceeded from imaginary wrong of a very grievous nature, such as a suspicion that Defoe had instigated the Government to prosecute him. It is perhaps as well that it should have fallen to so loyal an admirer to exhume Defoe’s secret services and public protestations; the record might otherwise have been rejected as incredible.

Mr. Lee’s researches were not confined to Defoe’s relations with Mist and his journal, and the other publications mentioned in the precious letter to Mr. de la Faye. Once assured that Defoe did not withdraw from newspaper-writing in 1715, he ransacked the journals of the period for traces of his hand and contemporary allusions to his labours. A rich harvest rewarded Mr. Lee’s zeal. Defoe’s individuality is so marked that it thrusts itself through every disguise. A careful student of the Review, who had compared it with the literature of the time, and learnt his peculiar tricks of style and vivid ranges of interest, could not easily be at fault in identifying a composition of any length. Defoe’s incomparable clearness of statement would alone betray him; that was a gift of nature which no art could successfully imitate. Contemporaries also were quick at recognising their Proteus in his many shapes, and their gossip gives a strong support to internal evidence, resting as it probably did on evidences which were not altogether internal. Though Mr. Lee may have been rash sometimes in quoting little scraps of news as Defoe’s, he must be admitted to have established that, prodigious as was the number and extent of the veteran’s separate publications during the reign of the First George, it was also the most active period of his career as a journalist. Managing Mist and writing for his journal would have been work enough for an ordinary man; but Defoe founded, conducted, and wrote for a host of other newspapers—the monthly Mercurius Politicus, an octavo of sixty-four pages (1716–1720); the weekly Dormer’s News–Letter (written, not printed, 1716–1718); the Whitehall Evening Post (a tri-weekly quarto-sheet, established 1718); the Daily Post (a daily single leaf, folio, established 1719); and Applebee’s Journal (with which his connexion began in 1720 and ended in 1726).

The contributions to these newspapers which Mr. Lee has assigned, with great judgment it seems to me, to Defoe, range over a wide field of topics, from piracy and highway robberies to suicide and the Divinity of Christ. Defoe’s own test of a good writer was that he should at once please and serve his readers, and he kept this double object in view in his newspaper writings, as much as in Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and the Family Instructor. Great as is the variety of subjects in the selections which Mr. Lee has made upon internal evidence, they are all of them subjects in which Defoe showed a keen interest in his acknowledged works. In providing amusement for his readers, he did not soar above his age in point of refinement; and in providing instruction, he did not fall below his age in point of morality and religion. It is a notable circumstance that one of the marks by which contemporaries traced his hand was “the little art he is truly master of, of forging a story and imposing it on the world for truth.” Of this he gave a conspicuous instance in Mist’s Journal in an account of the marvellous blowing up of the island of St. Vincent, which in circumstantial invention and force of description must be ranked among his master-pieces. But Defoe did more than embellish stories of strange events for his newspapers. He was a master of journalistic art in all its branches, and a fertile inventor and organizer of new devices. It is to him, Mr. Lee says, and his researches entitle him to authority, that we owe the prototype of the leading article, a Letter Introductory, as it became the fashion to call it, written on some subject of general interest and placed at the commencement of each number. The writer of this Letter Introductory was known as the “author” of the paper.

Another feature in journalism which Defoe greatly helped to develop, if he did not actually invent, was the Journal of Society. In the Review he had provided for the amusement of his readers by the device of a Scandal Club, whose transactions he professed to report. But political excitement was intense throughout the whole of Queen Anne’s reign; Defoe could afford but small space for scandal, and his Club was often occupied with fighting his minor political battles. When, however, the Hanoverian succession was secured, and the land had rest from the hot strife of parties, light gossip was more in request. Newspapers became less political, and their circulation extended from the coffee-houses, inns, and ale-houses to a new class of readers. “They have of late,” a writer in Applebee’s Journal says in 1725, “been taken in much by the women, especially the political ladies, to assist at the tea-table.” Defoe seems to have taken an active part in making Mist’s Journal and Applebee’s Journal, both Tory organs, suitable for this more frivolous section of the public. This fell in with his purpose of diminishing the political weight of these journals, and at the same time increased their sale. He converted them from rabid party agencies into registers of domestic news and vehicles of social disquisitions, sometimes grave, sometimes gay in subject, but uniformly bright and spirited in tone.

The raw materials of several of Defoe’s elaborate tales, such as Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack, are to be found in the columns of Mist’s and Applebee’s. In connexion with Applebee’s more particularly, Defoe went some way towards anticipating the work of the modern Special Correspondent. He apparently interviewed distinguished criminals in Newgate, and extracted from them the stories of their lives. Part of what he thus gathered he communicated to Applebee; sometimes, when the notoriety of the case justified it, he drew up longer narratives and published them separately as pamphlets. He was an adept in the art of puffing his own productions, whether books or journals. It may be doubted whether any American editor ever mastered this art more thoroughly than Defoe. Nothing, for instance, could surpass the boldness of Defoe’s plan for directing public attention to his narrative of the robberies and escapes of Jack Sheppard. He seems to have taken a particular interest in this daring gaol-breaker. Mr. Lee, in fact, finds evidence that he had gained Sheppard’s affectionate esteem. He certainly turned his acquaintance to admirable account. He procured a letter for Applebee’s Journal from Jack, with “kind love,” and a copy of verses of his own composition. Both letter and verses probably came from a more practised pen, but, to avert suspicion, the original of the letter was declared to be on view at Applebee’s, and “well known to be in the handwriting of John Sheppard.” Next Defoe prepared a thrilling narrative of Jack’s adventures, which was of course described as written by the prisoner himself, and printed at his particular desire. But this was not all. The artful author further arranged that when Sheppard reached his place of execution, he should send for a friend to the cart as he stood under the gibbet, and deliver a copy of the pamphlet as his last speech and dying confession. A paragraph recording this incident was duly inserted in the newspapers. It is a crowning illustration of the inventive daring with which Defoe practised the tricks of his trade.

One of Defoe’s last works in connection with journalism was to write a prospectus for a new weekly periodical, the Universal Spectator, which was started by his son-in-law, Henry Baker, in October, 1728. There is more than internal and circumstantial evidence that this prospectus was Defoe’s composition. When Baker retired from the paper five years afterwards, he drew up a list of the articles which had appeared under his editorship, with the names of the writers attached. This list has been preserved, and from it we learn that the first number, containing a prospectus and an introductory essay on the qualifications of a good writer, was written by Defoe. That experienced journalist naturally tried to give an air of novelty to the enterprise. “If this paper,” the first sentence runs, “was not intended to be what no paper at present is, we should never attempt to crowd in among such a throng of public writers as at this time oppress the town.” In effect the scheme of the Universal Spectator was to revive the higher kind of periodical essays which made the reputation of the earlier Spectator. Attempts to follow in the wake of Addison and Steele had for so long ceased to be features in journalism; their manner had been so effectually superseded by less refined purveyors of light literature—Defoe himself going heartily with the stream—that the revival was opportune, and in point of fact proved successful, the Universal Spectator continuing to exist for nearly twenty years. It shows how quickly the Spectator took its place among the classics, that the writer of the prospectus considered it necessary to deprecate a charge of presumption in seeming to challenge comparison.

“Let no man envy us the celebrated title we have assumed, or charge us with arrogance, as if we bid the world expect great things from us. Must we have no power to please, unless we come up to the full height of those inimitable performances? Is there no wit or humour left because they are gone? Is the spirit of the Spectators all lost, and their mantle fallen upon nobody? Have they said all that can be said? Has the world offered no variety, and presented no new scenes, since they retired from us? Or did they leave off, because they were quite exhausted, and had no more to say?”

Defoe did not always speak so respectfully of the authors of the Spectator. If he had been asked why they left off, he would probably have given the reason contained in the last sentence, and backed his opinion by contemptuous remarks about the want of fertility in the scholarly brain. He himself could have gone on producing for ever; he was never gravelled for lack of matter, had no nice ideas about manner, and was sometimes sore about the superior respectability of those who had. But here he was on business, addressing people who looked back regretfully from the vulgarity of Mist’s and Applebee’s to the refinement of earlier periodicals, and making a bid for their custom. A few more sentences from his advertisement will show how well he understood their prejudices:—

“The main design of this work is, to turn your thoughts a little off from the clamour of contending parties, which has so long surfeited you with their ill-timed politics, and restore your taste to things truly superior and sublime.”

“In order to this, we shall endeavour to present you with such subjects as are capable, if well handled, both to divert and to instruct you; such as shall render conversation pleasant, and help to make mankind agreeable to one another.”

“As for our management of them, not to promise too much for ourselves, we shall only say we hope, at least, to make our work acceptable to everybody, because we resolve, if possible, to displease nobody.”

“We assure the world, by way of negative, that we shall engage in no quarrels, meddle with no parties, deal in no scandal, nor endeavour to make any men merry at the expense of their neighbours. In a word, we shall set nobody together by the ears. And though we have encouraged the ingenious world to correspond with us by letters, we hope they will not take it ill, that we say beforehand, no letters will be taken notice of by us which contain any personal reproaches, intermeddle with family breaches, or tend to scandal or indecency of any kind.”

“The current papers are more than sufficient to carry on all the dirty work the town can have for them to do; and what with party strife, politics, poetic quarrels, and all the other consequences of a wrangling age, they are in no danger of wanting employment; and those readers who delight in such things, may divert themselves there. But our views, as is said above, lie another way.”

Good writing is what Defoe promises the readers of the Universal Spectator, and this leads him to consider what particular qualifications go to the composition, or, in a word, “what is required to denominate a man a good writer”. His definition is worth quoting as a statement of his principles of composition.

“One says this is a polite author; another says, that is an excellent good writer; and generally we find some oblique strokes pointed sideways at themselves; intimating that whether we think fit to allow it or not, they take themselves to be very good writers. And, indeed, I must excuse them their vanity; for if a poor author had not some good opinion of himself, especially when under the discouragement of having nobody else to be of his mind, he would never write at all; nay, he could not; it would take off all the little dull edge that his pen might have on it before, and he would not be able to say one word to the purpose.”

“Now whatever may be the lot of this paper, be that as common fame shall direct, yet without entering into the enquiry who writes better, or who writes worse, I shall lay down one specific, by which you that read shall impartially determine who are, or are not, to be called good writers. In a word, the character of a good writer, wherever he is to be found, is this, viz., that he writes so as to please and serve at the same time.”

“If he writes to please, and not to serve, he is a flatterer and a hypocrite; if to serve and not to please, he turns cynic and satirist. The first deals in smooth falsehood, the last in rough scandal; the last may do some good, though little; the first does no good, and may do mischief, not a little; the last provokes your rage, the first provokes your pride; and in a word either of them is hurtful rather than useful. But the writer that strives to be useful, writes to serve you, and at the same time, by an imperceptible art, draws you on to be pleased also. He represents truth with plainness, virtue with praise; he even reprehends with a softness that carries the force of a satire without the salt of it; and he insensibly screws himself into your good opinion, that as his writings merit your regard, so they fail not to obtain it.”

“This is part of the character by which I define a good writer; I say ’tis but part of it, for it is not a half sheet that would contain the full description; a large volume would hardly suffice it. His fame requires, indeed, a very good writer to give it due praise; and for that reason (and a good reason too) I go no farther with it.”

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56