Biography of Daniel Defoe

By the time he took up his pen to write Robinson Crusoe at about the age of fifty-eight, Daniel Defoe had a broader range of experiences behind him than most can claim in a lifetime. At one time or another he was a merchant, a manufacturer, an insurer of ships, a convict, a soldier, an embezzler, a spy, a fugitive, a political spokesman, and, of course, an author. He produced over 500 works on politics, geography, crime, religion, superstition, marriage, and psychology. Many critics and historians consider him the first true novelist.

Defoe's life was, to say the least, a strange one. He was born Daniel Foe to a family of Dissenters in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, London; his exact birth date is unknown, but historians estimate the year to be either 1659 or 1660. Why he added the "De" to his surname is a subject of speculation; he might have decided to return to an original family name, or wanted to give himself a high-born cachet. In any event, in his mid-thirties he began signing his name as Defoe. James Foe, his father, a butcher by trade, was a sober, deeply pious Presbyterian of Flemish descent - one of perhaps twenty percent of the population that had relinquished ties to the main body of the Church of England. Very little is known of Defoe's childhood. However, it is reasonable to assume that, as the son of a Dissenter, much of his time was spent in religious observances. It is likely that this spurred the fervent belief in Divine Providence that is so evident in his writings. Since they were barred from Oxford and Cambridge universities, Dissenters sent their children to their own schools. Defoe's education began in the Rev. James Fisher's school in Dorking, and later, at about the age of fourteen, he was enrolled in the Dissenting academy in Newington Green. Newington's headmaster, Rev. Charles Morton, a plain-spoken Puritan, was a progressive educator (despite a belief in storks spending the winter on the moon). He gave his students a thorough grounding in English as well as the customary Greek and Latin. Morton is seen as a major influence on Defoe's writing style; another primary influence was the Bible.

Although intended for the ministry, Defoe settled instead on a career as a commission agent. For more than a decade he traded in a wide range of goods, including stockings, wine, tobacco, and oysters. Defoe's love for trade permeated his writings. He wrote countless essays and pamphlets on economic theory which were advanced for his time. Indeed, had he taken his own advice, he would have been a wealthy man. While his years as a broker endowed him with insight into human nature, his risky and unscrupulous ventures (he was sued at least eight times, and once bilked his own mother-in-law out of four hundred pounds in a cat-breeding deal), combined with bad luck and faulty judgment, more often than not steered him into debt, deceit, and political double-dealing. Still, in his mind and heart, Defoe undoubtedly saw himself in the role of a solid, middle-class family man. He wrote numerous treatises which demonstrated that he considered himself an expert on most, if not all, family matters. However, his own marriage to Mary Tuffley, a merchant's daughter, despite its length of forty-seven years and fecundity of eight children, cannot be considered a model of matrimonial paradise. Defoe's unstable fortunes, his extended visits abroad, and his absence while a fugitive from enemies and creditors would have tried the patience of even the most patient, loving spouse. There is also evidence that, in spite of loving them deeply, Defoe alienated some, if not all of his children. A year after his marriage, Defoe took up arms as a Dissenter in Monmouth's failed rebellion against the Catholic King James II. Unlike three of his former classmates who were caught and sent to the gallows, Defoe narrowly missed the troops and hastened to safety in London. When the king was deposed, Daniel rode with the volunteer guard of honor that escorted William of Orange and his wife Mary into the city.

Due mainly to losses incurred by insuring ships during a war with France, Defoe faced bankruptcy in 1692. With creditors hot on his trail he fled to a debtor sanctuary in Bristol, and from there was able to negotiate terms that spared him the humiliation of debtor's prison. Within ten years he had repaid most of what he owed. Unfortunately, Defoe never fully recovered from that fiasco. Debt would haunt him as long as he lived. This circumstance manifested itself in his ambivalent political actions and his prodigious output as a writer. He was able to win King William's favor, and was appointed Commissioner of the Glass Duty. He was put in charge of proceeds from a lottery and became the king's confidential advisor and leading pamphleteer. Defoe's fervent sense of justice often led him to tweak the noses of those in high places. His essay, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, would bring him great grief. A satire that poked fun at the manner in which the Church and State dealt with Dissenters, it infuriated the powers that be and forced Defoe to go into hiding. He was betrayed by an informant and brought to trial for "seditious libel against the Church". He was jailed and sentenced to three days in the pillory, a manacle device that exposed a criminal to public ridicule.

A pardon some months later from Queen Anne was hardly a chance to start over. Defoe's tile and brick business had fallen apart during his absence, and he once again faced debtor's prison. A grant of 1000 pounds from the Earl of Oxford allowed Defoe to climb out of debt and start his own newspaper, The Review. He trumpeted his own views and was frequently in trouble for them. After another libel arrest in 1715, Defoe spent his time covertly editing other newspapers as he worked on novels such as Robinson Crusoe, Roxana (1724), A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), and Moll Flanders (1722). He died on April 24th, 1731 of a stroke and was buried in Bunhill Fields, a cemetery for Dissenters. His wife was buried with him on December 19th of that same year.


Study Guides on Works by Daniel Defoe

Moll Flanders, published in 1722, was one of the earliest English novels (the earliest is probably Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, published in 1688). Like many early novels, it is told in the first person as a narrative, and is presented as a truthful...

The adventures of Crusoe on his island, the main part of Defoe's novel, are based largely on the central incident in the life of an undisciplined Scotsman, Alexander Selkirk. Although it is possible, even likely that Defoe met Selkirk before...