Daniel Defoe


Daniel Defoe is best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, a widely read novel about a man who is shipwrecked for twenty years on an Island in the South Seas. It was one of the first novels written in English, and Defoe is sometimes credited with "inventing" the novel, due to its long-lasting popularity. Defoe wrote several other well known novels, including Moll Flanders, and Roxanna, which were both written in first person, from the point of view of relatively adventurous women. In addition he wrote literally hundreds of articles, essays, poems, and religious pamphlets, over a career spanning decades.

Defoe lived through interesting times, and his 70 years were crowded with events, turns-of-fortune, and publishing activity. As a prolific writer with a vivid imagination, he communicated his experiences in a manner that brought many of the incidents of his life alive with interest. A good example of this is his Journal of the Plague Year, which was published many years after the actual Plague of London, and which is so realistic and detailed that many readers take it for a contemporary account. Likewise, his novel Crusoe was very loosely based on the incident of an actual castaway, by the name of Selkirk, that Defoe befriended, but when it was published many readers assumed it was a true story.

Defoe was born to a dissenting Christian family around the time of the Restoration of Charles II. He grew up in London and therefore witnessed the Great Plague of London, the Great Fire of London, and the Dutch invasion of the Thames. He was educated in a non-conformist academy and there made several friends who were later Whiggish statesmen. In 1685 the Catholic James II ascended to the throne and Defoe was involved a rebellion against him, but escaped with his life. He then married and became a merchant, but his fortunes varied considerably, and he was at some time times imprisoned for debt and at other times, seemingly well off.

Sometime after William III came to the throne Defoe became acquainted with the king and wrote one of his better known poems The True Born Englishman in his honor. From this time Defoe became interested in politics and wrote political pamphlets. One, of his essays, which satirized high churchmen, got him arrested and thrown in the pillory. He was sprung from prison by one of his friends in parliament and during the War of the Austrian Succession, published a journal containing war news. The novels for which he is most famous were written relatively late in his life, mostly after 1719. He continued publishing essays, pamphlets, religious tracts, and satire for the rest of his life. He is thought to have authored over 500 published titles before his death in 1731.

Key events during the life of Daniel Defoe:

Birth of Daniel Defoe.
  Survived the Great Fire of London, the Plague of London, and the Dutch attack on London.
  Educated in a non-conformist academy.
Married. (fathered 8 children).
Participated in the Monmouth Rebellion, but was not hung.
Imprisoned for debt.
Published True-Born Englishman in honor of William III.
Arrested for political writings, and sent to the pillory.
Witnessed the Great Storm of 1703 and wrote collection of eye-witness accounts.
  Wrote news about the ongoing War of Spanish Succession for magazine.
Published Robinson Crusoe.
Published Moll Flanders.
Published A Journal of the Plague Year.
  Continued writing articles, essays, and novels.
Death of Daniel Defoe.

Book Links
Robinson Crusoe Written Anew for Children  by  James Baldwin

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Story of a Great Story  in  Fifty Famous People  by  James Baldwin
Great Plague  in  Stories from English History, Part Third  by  Alfred J. Church
Defoe—The First Newspapers  in  English Literature for Boys and Girls  by  H. E. Marshall

Image Links

Selkirk, the inspiration for Crusoe
 in Fifty Famous People

Short Biography
Alexander Selkirk Scottish sailor who was shipwrecked and inspired Robinson Crusoe.
William III King of Netherlands, called to be king of England when James II, his father-in-law, was deposed.
Robert Harley Influential Whiggish Statesman, and friend of Daniel Defoe.