Born in London in 1660, the same year as the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, to a tallow chandler, Daniel Foe (to alter his name to Defoe around 1695), is perhaps now best known for his fiction The Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In his own time, however, Defoe did not put his name to his fictions and by the time Robinson Crusoe was written in 1719, Defoe, aged 59, had been a merchant, following in his father's footprints, a journalist, centre of controversy with his satirical pamphlet The Quickest Way With Dissenters (1702), for which he was arrested the following year, and again in 1713, when he was arrested for writings in favour of Hanoverian succession, and a spy (working for government minister Robert Harley, 1703). Defoe's fiction evidently takes elements of these life experiences: the propensity for role-playing, the determined realism that characterises his writing, the economics and obsession with meticulously recording monetary gains and losses.
By the time Defoe was ten, he had lived through the Plague and the Great Fire of London. Yet, the event which arguably had the most sustained effect on his life and writings was the conversion of his family in 1662 to Nonconformism: Protestant Dissenters from the Church of England. This took place in 1662, as the family followed their pastor, Samuel Annesley and Defoe's family background was thus as a part of a persecuted minority. Defoe attended the Charles Morton Academy from c.1674-79. Nurturing a tolerant attitude towards philosophy and literature, the Academy encouraged freedom of inquiry and self-discipline. Thus Defoe's education included non-standard subjects, such as history, modern languages and physics, as well as listing for reading works such as Locke's An Essay on Human Understanding (written in 1690, after Defoe had left), a work banned at Oxford. The teaching of science was justified as being, "God manifested in the world" (Backscheider). The idea of examining one's spiritual state through everyday noting of physical state (i.e. a journal) was important to the Dissenting Community, both for personal spiritual examination and for keeping a faith alive through the written word at a time when you were not allowed to speak it. See chapter on Background: "Dissenters" for further discussion of this point.
Having completed four of the five years expected of candidates for the ministry at the Morton Academy, Defoe made began to think about his future, weighing the retired and necessarily secretive life of the Dissenting clergy against the excitement of his father's life. Around the same time he became acquainted with Mary Tuffley, whom he was to marry in 1684. Two years after his marriage, Defoe made the decision to go into trade, a profession he followed for about ten years. In this time, Defoe did not lead a quiet life: he served in the Duke of Monmouth's Rebellion in 1685, fighting for a Protestant successor to the throne rather than the Catholic James II. The rebellion did not last long, but it is surprising that Defoe returned and remained untouched by repercussions and uncaptured. He stayed with his family and business, becoming a member of the Butchers' Company in 1687 and thus a freeman of the City.
It was in 1688 that Defoe wrote first major political tract A Letter to a Dissenter from His Friend at the Hague, concerning the Penal Laws and the Test in which he took on the role of a Dutchman criticising motives behind King James's 2nd declaration of Indulgence in April 1688. Not only does this illustrate Defoe's profound distrust of Catholics, but it shows the beginnings of his satirical writing (Holland was an example held up by King James of a country in which the religious tolerance that he sought was successful) and his use of persona, taking on a fictional voice for the sake of presenting a serious argument or moral. By 1689, Defoe's troubles had begun. His daughter had died the previous year and his father in law in 1686, leaving financial decisions to Defoe. Despite personal loss, his self- presentation as a businessman made him continue to appear successful. In fact financial problems had already begun to surface. Problems with shipping, at times a too trusting nature, and carelessness with records and accounts eventually led to his imprisonment for debt to the sum of £17,000 in 1692.
Upon leaving the prison, the company kept by Defoe led him to become associated with the booksellers trade. Various works, including an elegy written on the death of Samuel Annesley were written by Defoe in the same year as his first book, An Essay upon Projects, published in 1697. Over the next few years, Defoe became well known in London for his pamphlets and poetry, until by the end of 1701 he was in the position of making money and being known for his writing, but being severely mistrusted by some for the same work. "Hot-brain'd Scribler," is one contemporary description of Defoe. One of Defoe's most inflammatory works The Shortest Way with Dissenters was written in the following year. In this satire, Defoe takes the part of a High Church spokesman, parodying phrases which had been published over the previous fifteen years to denounce Dissenters. The initial reaction to the pamphlet showed his skill at taking on a persona, in this case one that speaks of Dissenters as villains and traitors. Backscheider notes that the pamphlet led to Anglicans being treated in the same manner as Dissenters had been, "it stirred up the common people to that degree that the clergy were insulted in the streets and on the highways, and were in danger of being mobbed all over the nation" (Daniel Defoe: His Life p.99). Not everyone was so gullible and the House of Commons raised a complaint that the pamphlet, "promot[ed] sedition". It was ordered that the work should be burned; Defoe was eventually arrested in May and questioned for three days before being sent to Newgate. In November, Defoe was released with four men standing as sureties for his keeping the peace. His fines and fees which were due to Newgate were paid, indirectly, through secret service money, authorised by Robert Harley and Godolphin, with the consent of Queen Anne.
Defoe's publications continued, but at the same time he was writing to Harley, looking for a way to be of service to the government, finding out what he was required to do for the favour that had been granted him. In 1704 there appeared Defoe's first imaginative works, which include The Storm, a work pretending an eye-witness account of the great storm of November 1703, looking at the effect of the event upon human behaviour and at the idea of providence being enacted through a natural disaster.
Between 1703-1713 Defoe wrote and edited The Review, a pro-government newspaper, and in 1704 the chance to serve Harley arose. Defoe travelled and gathered information on various political factions, infiltrating groups and gaining the trust of influential leaders. Despite monetary remuneration for his writings, Defoe was still troubled by debt and it was political influence that kept him out of jail. In 1705, Defoe was situated in Scotland, using contacts at the Church of Scotland in order to support the parliamentary union of Scotland and England, an aim achieved in 1707.
Debt and political writings continued to be reasons for Defoe's arrest, but influence from government allowed his freedom. 1714 saw both the accession of George I and the fall from power of Harley and in 1715, The Family Instructor, a conduct manual was published. Between the years of 1719 and 1724, Defoe's best known works, the novels, were written. The Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) may be the most famous of these, but it would be wrong to ignore the sequel which was published in 1720, Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe or the essays of the third part, Serious Reflections on the Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720). The novels about criminals -
Moll Flanders in 1722 and Roxana (The Fortunate Mistress) in 1724 - and the examination of providence in the form of a warning - A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) - should be given as much time as the more famous Robinson Crusoe for their comments upon contemporary literature and events, as well as their examination of providence: God manifested in the physical world. Defoe also wrote Captain Singleton (1720) and Colonel Jack (1722). Towards the end of his life, Defoe remained as prolific as ever, producing the first volume of A Tour thro the Whole Isle of Great Britain in 1724, The Complete English Tradesman in 1725, The Political History of the Devil in 1726, and a tract against "matrimonial whoredom," Conjugal Lewdness, in 1727. At one point, it was thought that Defoe had written in excess of 500 works by the time he died in April 1731, although Furbank and Owen's work has proved the canon to be rather smaller.
Nonetheless, Defoe was a prolific writer and it is perhaps this that has led to the overstating of his haste in writing and the idea that Defoe was less concerned with artistry and the whole than the minutia of each episode within his fictions. Defoe's writing is characterised by a sharpness of detail and a wit that surpassed many of his contemporaries. His fictional works, especially the novels, combine the realism of journalism and the satirical take on current affairs with a propensity for role-play that lends a far greater interest in character and identity to his writing than shown in any contemporary fiction.
Note: It is important to bear in mind the debate about the canon of Defoe's works, or at least to know that there is a debate! J.A. Moore's A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe (2nd ed. 1971) was, until recently, generally taken as the authoritative guide, but Furbank and Owen's Canonisation of Defoe disproved many of the works previously thought to be Defoe's. Their A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe (London 1998) is now most commonly referred to as the authority on the canon, outlining works definitely and 'probably' by Defoe.