Daniel Defoe

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In her preface, Paula Backscheider states the aims of her study: “I have tried to recreate the way the world felt to Defoe, to capture him in the act of living and writing, and to let him- and his contemporaries-speak for themselves whenever possible.” As familiar with Defoe as anyone-she published an earlier book on Defoe, Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation, in 1986 and has read virtually everything Defoe wrote-Backscheider admirably accomplishes these goals.

Writing a biography of Defoe is no easy task. Indeed, Peter Earle, author of The World of Defoe (1976), argued that it was impossible. One difficulty is Defoe’s productivity: He wrote for as many as eight periodicals at once and frequently produced close to half a million words a year. Even determining the Defoe canon poses another challenge, since so much of his output appeared anonymously. Defoe was also protean; at the same time that he was writing for the extreme Tory Nathaniel Mist he contributed to the Whig Whitehall Evening Post. Charles Gildon, one of Defoe’s contemporaries, claimed that future generations would not know where Defoe’s sympathies lay; the Weekly Journal described him as “one hour a Whig and the next hour a Tory.” This involvement with public affairs further complicates the biographer’s task, for Defoe lived through and participated in some of the most tumultuous times in English history. It is difficult to explain the period without losing sight of the man. Defoe’s financial affairs were as complicated and muddled as Great Britain’s politics in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; trying to sort through his numerous lawsuits and poor records can be daunting.

In the midst of all the confusion in and around Defoe’s life, Backscheider traces some unifying principles; one of the most important was his religious background. Defoe was a Dissenter-a non-Anglican Protestant-in an England that showed little religious toleration. (When Parliament passed the Jew Naturalization Act in 1753, riots forced its immediate repeal, and in 1780 the Gordon Riots, fueled by anti-Catholic sentiment, nearly toppled the government.) As a Dissenter, Defoe could not hold a commission in the army or take a university degree; neither could he hold public office unless he received Communion in the Church of England, a practice contrary to his beliefs. Before the 1689 Act of Toleration, restrictions were even more severe; fifteen thousand families were ruined, and five thousand Dissenters died in prison.

Defoe’s earliest controversies resulted from his religion. To remain faithful to Dissenting views and still enjoy the privileges of public office, many engaged in the practice of Occasional Conformity, taking the Anglican sacraments but still at-tending their non-Anglican meetinghouses. When the Dissenting Lord Mayor of London, Sir Humphrey Edwin, attended St. Paul’s, Defoe criticized his action in a pamphlet that called Occasional Conformity “playing Bo-peep with God Al- mighty.” According to Backscheider, Defoe’s real target was the 1673 Test Act, which forced Edwin to take Communion in an Anglican Church if he wanted to keep his post, but Defoe’s views were identical to those of the High Church Tories, who wanted to ban Occasional Conformity. A few years later Defoe would defend the practice, recognizing its importance to Dissenters; the Swiftian irony of The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702) angered Parliament, and, in May, 1703, Defoe was...

(The entire section is 1449 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Library Journal. CXIV, October 15, 1989, p.82.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, January 14, 1989, p.11.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, December 10, 1989, p.15.