Daniel Defoe was born around 1659-1661 as Daniel Foe (he later added the ‘De’, claiming ancestry in the De Beaux Faux family). His parents were working-class Presbyterian dissenters living in London. His mother died when Defoe was just thirteen.
He began his working life not in the church, as perhaps was expected, but as a merchant in the up-and-coming middle class. In 1684 he married Mary Tuffey and had eight children in all, six of whom survived. He struggled with his finances, eventually ending up in a debtor’s prison in 1692. On his release, he travelled in Scotland and Europe, traded in Spain, and then returned to set up a brick factory in 1696.
Throughout his life, Defoe was heavily involved in political activities, particularly through the writing and distributing of pamphlets. One of his most famous works, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1703), earned him another spell in prison for expounding the view that dissenters should be exterminated. He was released on condition that he become an intelligence agent for the Whig government. He continued writing political and religious pamphlets and manuals, but turned to novels between 1719 and 1724, the first of which was Robinson Crusoe.
Defoe is widely considered to have invented the novel. Robinson Crusoe is thought to have been based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish mariner marooned on a desert island for a little over four years, but there are many other possible inspirations. The book received instant acclaim, although it was also widely derided, particularly by the Puritans, for being a dangerous work of fiction (hence Defoe’s claim that the title character and all events were true). More novels followed, the most famous of which were his final two, Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724).
Defoe’s novels are singular for their titular characters, all outcasts from society in unusual circumstances – often of their own making – who nevertheless retain the reader’s sympathy. His writing spanned several genres, examining not only his local society, but also colonialism, materialism, Empire and the Church. The detached way in which he presents his protagonists is often considered to be lacking in emotion; in fact it creates the opposite effect, binding reader and character closely together in a shared but subconsciously intimated sympathy.
In the final years of his life, Defoe returned to writing pamphlets, again largely political and religious, as well as works on travel and trade. In total, over 500 works, ranging from poems to novels, have been credited to Defoe, under 198 different pen names. He died on 24 April 1731 and was buried in Burnhill Fields, London. The founder of modern fiction, he remains one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen.
Postscript: The double Booker Prize winner J.M. Coetzee wrote a novel, Foe, in which he envisages a rather different relationship between Crusoe and Friday, and introduces a woman into the castaway mix – who, once rescued, tries to sell her story to English writer Daniel Foe.