One of the women who escaped Pepys deserves a cautious curtsy here as the mother of the Restoration novel, and the first Englishwoman to live by her pen. Aphra Behn was remarkable in a dozen ways. Born in England, brought up in South America, she returned to England at the age of eighteen (1658), married a London merchant of Dutch descent, impressed Charles II by her shrewdness and wit, was sent on secret service to the Netherlands, accomplished her missions with skill, but was so meagerly paid that she took to writing as a means of support. She composed comedies, as obscene and successful as any. In 1678 she published Oroonoko, the story of a Negro “royal slave” and his beloved Imoinda. It was an original blend of realism and romance. The way was open forRobinson Crusoe, and for the romantic novel.
Defoe too lived by his pen, and it was one of the most versatile in history. His father was James Foe, a London butcher of strong Presbyterian doctrine. Daniel was expected to become a preacher, but he preferred marriage, business, and politics. He begot seven children, became a wholesale hosier, joined Monmouth’s army in rebellion (1685), and William’s army in overthrowing James II. In 1692 he went bankrupt, owing £ 17,000; later he paid his creditors almost in full. While making and losing money he issued pamphlets on a variety of subjects, and containing an astonishing wealth of original thought. His Essay on Projects (1698) offered practical suggestions, much in advance of his time, on banking, insurance, roads, lunatic asylums, military colleges, the higher education of women. He moved to Tilbury, where he became secretary, then manager, then owner, of a tile factory. Introduced to William III, he was appointed to a minor post in the government, and supported the King’s war policy so vigorously that he was accused of being more Dutch than English. He defended himself in a vigorous poem, The True-born Englishman (1701), reminding the English that the whole nation was of mixed origin and blood. Himself a Dissenter, he issued in 1702 an anonymous tract, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, in which, anticipating Swift’s method of stultification by exaggeration, he ridiculed the Anglican persecution of Dissent by recommending that every Dissenter who preached should be hanged, and every Dissenter who listened should be driven from England. He was arrested (February, 1703), fined, jailed, and condemned to the pillory. He was released in November, but meanwhile his tile business had gone to ruin.
The man who secured his release was Robert Harley, secretary of state. Harley recognized Defoe’s ability as a journalist; apparently he struck a bargain with him for the services of his pen, and for the remainder of Anne’s reign Defoe was in the employ of the government. Soon after his release he started a triweekly four-page periodical, The Review, which ran till 1713 and was almost entirely written by Defoe.
In 1704–5 he rode horseback through England as an election agent for Harley; en courant he picked up the data for his Tour through England and Wales. In 1706–7 he served Harley and Godolphin as a spy in Scotland. His powerful pamphlets won him many readers, but also many enemies. He was arrested again in 1713 and in 1715; and again he earned release by promising to put his pen at the service of the government.
He was full of literary devices. In 1715 he published tracts allegedly written by a Quaker, and in the same year The Wars of Charles XII as reported by “a Scots Gentleman in the Swedish Service.” In 1717 he issued letters supposedly by a Turk, ridiculing Christian intolerance; to a magazine well called Mist he contributed material signed by fictitious correspondents; rarely did he write as Defoe. To this skill in impersonation he added a wide reading in geography, especially of Africa and the Americas. He was apparently fascinated by William Dampier’s New Voyage round the World (1697). On one of Dampier’s voyages his galley, the Cinque Ports, put in at Juan Fernandez Islands, some four hundred miles west of Chile. A Scottish sailing master, Alexander Selkirk, having quarreled with his captain, asked to be left on one of the three islands, with a few necessaries. He remained alone there for four years, when he was taken back to England. He told his story to Richard Steele, who reported it in The Englishman for December 3, 1713. He told it also to Defoe, and claimed to have given Defoe a written record of his adventure in solitude. 66 Defoe transformed the account into literature, and published in 1719 the most famous of English novels.
The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe caught the imagination of England, running through four editions in four months. Here was a new conception of adventure and conflict—not of man against man, nor of civilized man amid savages, but of man against nature, of man alone, frankly afraid, unaided till “Friday” came, building a life out of nature’s raw materials; this was the history of civilization in one volume and one man. Many readers took it as history, for seldom in all literature had a story been told with such verisimilitude of circumstantial detail. Defoe’s training in literary deception had lifted him out of journalism into art.
He lived now in moderate affluence in London, but he did not abate his unparalleled productivity. While still sending forth pamphlets, he turned out full-length books as if they were novelettes. In 1720 he published Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; The Life and Adventures of Mrs. Duncan Campbell (a deaf-and-dumb conjurer); a month later The Memoirs of a Cavalier, so ben trovato that the elder Pitt took it for history; and another month later The Life, Adventures, Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton, which contained astonishing anticipations of discoveries in Africa. In 1722 he issued The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders, and A Journal of the Plague Year, and The History of Colonel Jacque, and The Religious Courtship, and The Impartial History of Peter Alexoivitz, the Present Czar of Muscovy—his second anticipation of Voltaire’s biographies. These substantial volumes were intended as potboilers to provide food for his family; but, by the man’s power of imagination and fluency of style, they became literature. In Moll Flanders Defoe entered into the mind and character of a prostitute, made her tell her story with apparent candor and plausibility, and dared to leave her prosperous “in good heart and health” at the age of seventy. 67 The Journal of the Plague Year was so minutely realistic and statistical that historians look upon it as tantamount to history.
The year 1724 was slightly less astonishing: Defoe published one of his major novels, The Fortunate Mistress, now known as Roxana; the first of two volumes reporting his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain; and a Life of John Sheppard, purporting to be a manuscript handed to a friend by Sheppard just before his execution. This was one of several short lives that Defoe wrote of famous criminals. One of these biographies, The Highland Rogue (1724), prepared for Scott’s Rob Roy; another, An Account of Jonathan Wild (1725), prepared for Fielding. Any popular topic drew ink from Defoe’s well and pounds from his publishers: Political History of the Devil (1726), The Mysteries of Magic (1720), Secrets of the Invisible World Discovered, or History and Reality of Apparitions (1727–28). Add to these a poem in twelve books, Jure Divino, defending every man’s natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Amid so many breadwinning condescensions to popular taste and fancies were honest contributions to serious thought: so in The Complete English Tradesman (1725–27), and A Plan of the English Commerce (1728), and the unfinished Complete English Gentleman, he offered useful information and practical advice, not always geared to Gospel morality.
We cannot recommend his literary morals, but we can admire his industry. Probably never since Rameses II’s 150 children has history seen such a prodigy of progeny. The only thing incredible in Defoe is that he wrote all that he wrote. For we marvel, too, at the quality of Defoe’s mind, in which imagination and memory, harnessed to hard labor, produced the most plausible unrealities in literature. We recognize the genius and courage of a man who, in such a mass and haste of work, could maintain so high a level of matter and style. In all his 210 volumes (if we may speak from hearsay) there is hardly one dull page; and where Defoe is dull he is deliberately so, to add to the verisimilitude of his tale. No one has surpassed him in direct and simple narrative, convincingly natural. Here his haste was his fortune: he had no time for ornament; his journalistic training and bent compelled him to brevity and clarity. He was by all means the greatest journalist of his time, though that included Steele and Addison and Swift; his Reviewplowed the furrow in which The Spectator planted choicer seed. That was distinction enough; but add to it the cosmic and living popularity of Robinson Crusoe, and the influence it had upon novels of adventure, even upon a story so differently motivated asTravels . . . by Lemuel Gulliver. Barring the author of that brilliant indictment of mankind, Defoe was the greatest genius of English letters in that abounding age.