On the night of November 24, the winter wind turned murderous. It toppled walls and sent the Thames raging into cellars.
Within 48 hours, it mutated into the worst storm in England’s history.
Coastal towns were “torn to pieces.” James Baker of Lymington heard that, in New Forest, “4000 trees were torn up by the roots.”
James King of London reported that a chimney came down upon a sleeping woman, who somehow walked away. Yet in Wells, the bishop’s wife was “found smothered in bed.”
By the time the storm subsided, it had killed over 8,000 people.
“No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it,” wrote an author who barely survived the collapse of his study.
This disaster sounds like it occurred last year, but it took place in 1703. By documenting it, Daniel, the fortunate author quoted above, gave the world its first piece of long-form literary journalism.
At age 42, he was a recent inmate of Newgate. But The Storm wasn’t his greatest late-blooming triumph.
After his release from prison, he went by the surname Defoe.
Of Debts and Diving Bells
Daniel was born to James and Annie Foe in 1660 (perhaps September 13), long before England embraced religious tolerance. His parents were Presbyterian, a persecuted group of “Dissenters” from the Church of England.
Oxford and Cambridge barred Daniel Foe because of his religion. He attended a Dissenting college to please his father, who wanted him to become a minister.
But the minister’s life didn’t appeal to Daniel, though he remained committed to religious freedom. Instead, he became a venture capitalist with more imagination than acumen.
He raised funds to search for sunken treasure via a diving bell. The venture tanked.
He bred African civets, collecting and selling the animals’ musky secretions for perfume manufacture. That proved messy.
At age 24, Daniel wed a London merchant’s daughter. She brought him a £3,700 dowry (about a half-million today).
With those funds, he set up a wine and wool import/export company, which might have thrived if war hadn’t intervened.
In 1685, the newly wed Daniel joined a revolt against James II, England’s unpopular Catholic monarch. The rebellion failed and Daniel somehow escaped a traitor’s death.
One legend says that, after the fatal Battle of Sedgemoor, he fled into a churchyard. Scared witless, praying for deliverance, he collapsed upon a grave. On its tombstone was carved the name “Robinson Crusoe.”
Three years later, James’ brother-in-law, the Protestant William of Holland, invaded England. James II fled to France, effectively abdicating.
Daniel supported, and perhaps even spied for, William III. But William embargoed trade with France, which ruined what was left of Daniel’s ventures.
He was arrested for debts close to £17,000 and declared bankruptcy. His civets were seized. He paid his debtors over the next ten years, but one would come back to haunt him.
Daniel eventually gave up venture capitalism and turned to propaganda.
The Turncoat Pamphleteer
In 1702, Daniel wrote a tract titled The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters, a satirical piece that argued for their extermination, presaging Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. He targeted the religious intolerance of high-church Tories.
For this, Daniel was fined, pilloried, and incarcerated for over a year. It deeply affected him:
I have seen the rough side of the World as well as the smooth, and have in less than half a Year tasted the difference between the Closet of a King, and the Dungeon of Newgate.
Tory spymaster Robert Harley finally offered freedom—if he’d spy for his jailers. So began Daniel’s career as a turncoat, and his regular use of the surname Defoe.
(Supposedly, he thought Defoe sounded more “gentlemanly.” But perhaps he saw the irony of a turncoat named Foe.)
A few months after his release, England’s most devastating storm struck and he almost died under a collapsed wall.
Today, journalists consider The Storm innovative because Defoe let the victims speak for themselves—personal narrative had no place in the omniscient reporting of the time.
After the Tories fell, Defoe became a propagandist for the Whig government. His biographers seem at a loss to explain his turncoat politics, but this 1907 essay provides the most interesting vindication:
His position was often equivocal, his actions ambiguous; but on the whole he worked consistently for the promotion of civil and religious liberty, the cause in which he believed…
For Defoe, ever the religious Dissenter, both political parties were equally oppressive.
The Late-Blooming Novelist
As he neared 60, Defoe grew weary of failed ventures and sleazy politics. He turned his pen to fiction with a tale titled The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
There’s no need for a synopsis. Almost every child has devoured it, except, perhaps, Jenni Diski of The Guardian. “As soon as I was able to read by myself, I tried and failed to finish it,” she admits.
But she tried again five decades later and found herself enthralled:
I suspect that what I most disliked then was the dogged, repetitive, unrelenting detail of Crusoe’s struggle for existence, which is now precisely what I find myself relishing, so much so that when I finished Defoe’s intensely readable book last year, I immediately started all over again.
Perhaps Defoe never considered Robinson Crusoe a children’s book. His life had been dogged by misfortune, his imagination shackled by stress. Perhaps it was a book borne of adult travail and hope.
At the age of 62, Defoe published Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack. His last great work of fiction, Roxana, came out a few years later.
After that, Defoe returned to nonfiction—the satirical Political History of the Devil, the intriguing Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions, and the captivating Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, among others.
The Affirmation of Literature Itself
He passed away at age 71 in rented lodgings, dodging the wrath of a Widow Brooke. She’d pursued him through the courts and through the decades for a debt dating back to 1692.
Defoe testified that he’d settled the debt, but the case went against him. He died destitute and was interred without a tombstone in a cemetery favored by Dissenters.
It’s a tragic end for a man who provided reading joy to so many.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Danny Heitman pinpoints Robinson Crusoe‘s deepest message—the “affirmation of literature itself.”
The centerpiece of the novel is the journal that Crusoe keeps during his exile, an attempt to shape the confusion of castaway existence into a coherent story.…His pen, as much as his ax or his musket, becomes a tool of survival.
The same could be said of Defoe, who gave us two pioneering works of literature—The Storm at age 42, considered the “first substantial work of modern journalism,” and Robinson Crusoe at age 59, a contender for the first novel.
In 1870, a London newspaper called for donations to create a memorial in his honor.
More than 1700 people, mostly children, contributed to the five-foot marble obelisk that marks his resting place today.
How fitting that Defoe’s unconventional spirit prompted the first literary crowdfunding campaign.
The University of Adelaide has some gorgeously-formatted downloads of public domain books and essays, including Defoe’s, in HTML, ePub, and Kindle formats. Don’t miss Robinson Crusoe with N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations and The Storm.
I’m curious. Like Jenni Diski, have you NOT read, or seen an adaptation of, Robinson Crusoe?
Artwork: Robinson Crusoe (endpaper) by N.C. Wyeth (1910).