”Defoe’s political writing seems to have come to an end when, in 1718, he was discovered to be writing for both the Tory “Weekly Journal or Secondary Post” and the Whig “Whitehall Evening Post”. So, when he was nearly sixty, Defoe decided to try his hand at novels. He then went on to write, as rapidly as ever, “Robinson Crusoe”, “The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe”, “Moll Flanders”, “Roxana” and the “Adventures of Captain Singleton”. He also wrote “Journal of the Plague Year” which for centuries was considered an authentic account. In these writings, Defoe continued to use the tricks he had used as a journalist and spy. He would write accounts under false names. “Moll Flanders”, for example, is described as an authentic account which came into his hands and which he now presents to the public.”
Daniel Defoe’s life could be called plunging with the rogue; or at the very least, the rogue, the thief, the lover and the writer,all performed with a dose of moderation. The eighteenth-century was the time of ”desert-island literature”, the time of ”Gulliver’s Travels”. There were many accounts of shipwrecked mariners about. The great Age of Discovery had deposited a pile of documents about maroonings, mutinies and piracy. Daniel Defoe knew them. His originality lay in first seeing them through the eyes of the very ordinary man who has no romantic or dramatic desire to find himself in these situations. The originality also lay in his use of the primitive, childlike love of playing house, the sense of game or craft in all of Defoe’s work, even in Moll Flander’s thieving, is remarkable and, above all, in a style so plain that it was a transparency through which a survivor’s life could be seen in detail. It was not the detail of a catalogue but detail as it seen in life; the detail of accident. Of his drowned shipmates after the wreck, Crusoe says: ”….as for them I never saw them afterward, or any sign of them, except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.”
Defoe, the natural liar, had a genius for verisimilitude. He had an eye for the convincing singularity, that is to say, for the normal. A conventional nonobserver would have written ”and a pair of shoes”. One sees Defoe’s superiority when his story is compared with the Abbe Prevost’s treatement of great portions of ”Crusoe”, which he translated into French and used in his novel ”Cleveland”. The Abbe makes his hero see not one footprint but a mob of footprints in the sand! In reporting real probability, Defoe has not been surpassed in any literature.
There is a famous moment in ”Moll Flanders” when Moll takes to stealing. She had already stolen from a maid in a shop; now, this is the test of the storyteller, she must go one worse. Defoe always manages the art of progression in his tales.
”I went out now by daylight, and wandered about I knew not whither, and in search of I knew not what, when the devil put a snare in my way of a dreadful nature indeed, and such a one as I have never had before or since. Going through Aldersgate Street, there was a pretty little child who had been at a dancing-
school, and was going home, all alone; and my prompter, like a true devil, set me upon this innocent creature. I talked to it, and it prattled to me again, and I took it by the hand and led it along till I came to a paved alley that goes into Bartholomew Close, and I led it in there. The child said that was not its way home. I said, ‘Yes, my dear, it is; I’ll show you the way home.’ The child had a little necklace on of gold beads, and I had my eye upon that, and in the dark of the alley I stooped, pretending to mend the child’s clog that was loose, and took off her necklace, and the child never felt it, and so led the child on again. Here, I say, the devil put me upon killing the child in the dark alley, that it might not cry, but the very thought frighted me so that I was ready to drop down; but I turned the child about and bade it go back again, for that was not its way home.”
We see the exact route Moll takes back to her lodgings, the real streets, and then she says something which we have all heard criminals say in the courts: ”The thoughts of this booty put out all the thoughts of the first, and the reflections I had made wore quickly off; poverty, as I have said, hardened my heart, and my own necessities made me regardless of anything. The last affair left no great concern upon me, for as I did the poor child no harm, I only said to myself, I had given the parents a just reproof for their negligence in leaving the poor little lamb to come home by itself, and it would teach them to take more care of it another time.”
She complacently adds that the necklace was worth ”about twelve of fourteen pounds”. And we then learn, and how intelligent of Defoe to leave it till the end of the anecdote because it is the question at the back of our minds; why should she steal a child’s necklace? ”This string of beads was worth about twelve or fourteen pounds. I suppose it might have been formerly the mother’s, for it was too big for the child’s wear, but that perhaps the vanity of the mother, to have her child look fine at the dancing-school, had made her let the child wear it; and no doubt the child had a maid sent to take care of it, but she, careless jade, was taken up perhaps with some fellow thad met her by the way, and so the poor baby wandered till it fell into my hands.”
Defoe follows the surprising facts, but he notes, as we have seen, the psychological facts. In his own life Defoe was always eloquent in self-justification, and he is aware in his tales, of how important an act this is to people. Moll’s confession is a moralization on other people’s shortcomings; and if this is an attempt to distract us and is hypocritical, it is also an assertion of her strongest wish; to be respectable. In her love affairs, her marriages and her crimes, what she seeks is solid security which she can reckon up in terms of linens and chattels. She is very much a woman in her regard for property, domestic at heart, ”bold” as she would say, and pretty confident about the attractions of her person.
Moll Flanders is the average sensual woman of the Spanish proverb; ”prudent in the house and mad in bed”. She is a very managing, but fundamentally good humored woman, and again very ”true-born English” in Defoe’s sense; her passions do not make her lose her head; she is warmly frank but not exhibitionistic about her appetites.
It is often said that Defoe is hypocritical when he prefaces his accounts of low, immoral life with the claim that they are written in order to teach us that sin and crime must be avoided. The charge is true, up to a point, but it is very much part of the double-faced Dissenting ethos and is the expression of what, when we look at his political career, appears to be a genuine conflict in himself. The rogue is an active, vital, energetic, enterprising person whose ultimate aim is that very moderate and unenquiring and insensitive kind of virtue we call respectability. Having led a lose life, Moll ends as a veritible Mrs. Grundy. The rogues’ many disasters are caused by Defoe’s own weakness for ”plunging”
So Colonel Jack, in the novel named for him, achieves a sort of respectability in Virginia and returns to Europe , where he marries four times. Although happily married to his fourth wife, he cannot resist plunging once more and joining the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. Defoe’s attitude toward women is remarkable. He is sympathetically aware of their household character; they are affectionately regarded but never idealized, and even when they are bad women, his attitude is practical rather than distorted.
”At some point, Defoe was recruited as a spy. This may have been in1695, when he was appointed to the post (possibly a cover) of accountant to commissioner’s of the glass duty. Certainly, the Secretary of State, Robert Harley, was instrumental in obtaining his release. In 1706 he was sent up to Scotland as an agent working towards the Act of Union. Defoe’s own unreliable testimony to this time was that he was involved in “a special service…in which I had to run as much risk of my life as a grenadier upon a counterscarp”.
Harley was dismissed from the government in 1708. Defoe then left his employ and went to work for Godolphin. During this time he edited and wrote the pro-Whig “Review” newspaper. In 1710 Harley returned to office and Defoe went back to working for him again. In 1714 he was imprisoned for libel but continued to produce his newspapers. He was freed on the orders of the Secretary of State, Lord Townsend. He then resumed his spying during the period of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion.
In 1716, he was employed by the Whig government but wrote for the High Tory “Newsletter”. In 1717 he also wrote for the Jacobite “Mist’s Journal”. Anonymously he wrote and published as many as four newspapers at a time – sometimes as frequently as three times a week. Working at such a speed, Defoe could be repetitive and contradictory. He could write anonymous letters and reviews praising, recommending or reviling himself. Defoe was not a witty writer but he could produce straightforward pamphlets and articles on practically any subject. His journalistic style was, in keeping with the time – a mixture of research, opinion, political expediency. Facts were for shaping to fit the argument. True accounts were embellished to suit some moral, religious or political purpose. So what’s so different nowadays?
Defoe died “of a lethargy” in April 1731, whilst hiding out from his creditors in lodgings in Ropemaker’s Alley. He is buried in the old dissenters cemetery in Bunhill Fields, London. He is in good company for John Bunyan and William Blake also lie there.”