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Daniel Defoe, 1660-1731 Biography

Born Daniel Foe in 1660 into a family of Presbyterian Dissenters, this was a man who struggled through life but was to become one of the most historically important contributors to English literature.

Defoe was a sometime trader, writer, journalist, pamphleteer and spy who's often radical views brought him into conflict with the establishment throughout his life. His activities were to see him pilloried and jailed, and he was to become something of a political pawn during the early part of the eighteenth century.

He embraced early forms of capitalism - but was a far from successful trader. Throughout his life he had lengthy periods of debt and was a frequent visitor to the debtor prisons of the time. He was bankrupted in 1692 with debts of £17,000 - a considerable sum in the seventeenth century. At various times he had businesses dealing in hosiery, woolen goods, tiles and bricks, wine and unusually, one of harvesting musk from the anal glands of cats.

Despite a somewhat tumultuous life Defoe was married to Mary Tuffley for forty-seven years and fathered eight children with her.

Defoe often sought to exert great influence through his writings. The change in his surname was to make him sound more aristocratic and he has been credited with over three hundred works on subjects including politics, religion, crime, marriage, psychology, the supernatural and fiction. He is also believed to have used around one hundred and ninety-eight pen names - largely due to the controversy some of his writing created.

His scrapes with sections of the establishment were mainly due to his Dissenting roots and both his political and religious views made him a controversial character of the time. Before embarking on a career in commerce he had intended to become a Dissenting Minister. Although his life was to take another course, his convictions remained with him and there was a great deal of moralising in his writings.

Defoe joined the Monmouth Rebellion against James II in 1685 but was on the losing side in the Battle of Sedgemoor. He was lucky to escape the retributions led by the notorious Judge Jeffries, known as the "Bloody Assizes". When James was subsequently overthrown by William of Orange (William III), Defoe became a close ally of the newcomer. In 1695 he was rewarded by being appointed "Commissioner of the Glass Duty", a role which involved collecting taxes on glass bottles. However, in 1702 William III died and was succeeded by Queen Anne, with whom Defoe had little in common. Anne led a purge on non-conformists which resulted in Defoe's arrest in 1703. He was pilloried for three days and then sent to Newgate Prison. His release from jail was arranged by the 1st Earl of Oxford (Robert Harvey) and Earl Mortimer on the condition that Defoe worked as an intelligence officer for the Tories. He subsequently had a key role in the Act of Union between England and Scotland.

In 1714 the Tory government fell and, with a distinct lack of loyalty, Defoe switched his allegeance to the Whigs. His work for them included producing Tory pamphlets which sought to undermine their political views.

Some of Defoe's most significant writings include:

True Born Englishman, a poem, 1701, inspired by William of Orange, revealing the falacies of racial prejudice.

The Storm, 1703, a selection of eye witness testimonies of the Great Storm of that year, lauded as one of the first examples of modern journalism.

Robinson Crusoe, 1719, a work of fiction which Defoe portrayed as a travelogue. A further example of Defoe's literary influence, many consider Robinson Crusoe to be the first of the modern fiction greats, whereby the story is underpinned by realism.

There are certainly some question marks about Daniel Defoe's character, but whatever we might make of him today, he was one of the most important English writers of the 18th century.