Born in London in 1660, the same year as the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, to a tallow chandler, Daniel Foe (to alter his name to Defoe around 1695), is perhaps now best known for his fiction The Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In his own time, however, Defoe did not put his name to his fictions and by the time Robinson Crusoe was written in 1719, Defoe, aged 59, had been a merchant, following in his father's footprints, a journalist, centre of controversy with his satirical pamphlet The Quickest Way With Dissenters (1702), for which he was arrested the following year, and again in 1713, when he was arrested for writings in favour of Hanoverian succession, and a spy (working for government minister Robert Harley, 1703). Defoe's fiction evidently takes elements of these life experiences: the propensity for role-playing, the determined realism that characterises his writing, the economics and obsession with meticulously recording monetary gains and losses.
By the time Defoe was ten, he had lived through the Plague and the Great Fire of London. Yet, the event which arguably had the most sustained effect on his life and writings was the conversion of his family in 1662 to Nonconformism: Protestant Dissenters from the Church of England. This took place in 1662, as the family followed their pastor, Samuel Annesley and Defoe's family background was thus as a part of a persecuted minority. Defoe attended the Charles Morton Academy from c.1674-79. Nurturing a tolerant attitude towards philosophy and literature, the Academy encouraged freedom of inquiry and self-discipline. Thus Defoe's education included non-standard subjects, such as history, modern languages and physics, as well as listing for reading works such as Locke's An Essay on Human Understanding (written in 1690, after Defoe had left), a work banned at Oxford. The teaching of science was justified as being, "God manifested in the world" (Backscheider). The idea of examining one's spiritual state through everyday noting of physical state (i.e. a journal) was important to the Dissenting Community, both for personal spiritual examination and for keeping a faith alive through the written word at a time when you were not allowed to speak it. See chapter on Background: "Dissenters" for further discussion of this point.
Having completed four of the five years expected of candidates for the ministry at the Morton Academy, Defoe made began to think about his future, weighing the retired and necessarily secretive life of the Dissenting clergy against the excitement of his father's life. Around the same time he became acquainted with Mary Tuffley, whom he was to marry in 1684. Two years after his marriage, Defoe made the decision to go into trade, a profession he followed for about ten years. In this time, Defoe did not lead a quiet life: he served in the Duke of Monmouth's Rebellion in 1685, fighting for a Protestant successor to the throne rather than the Catholic James II. The rebellion did not last long, but it is surprising that Defoe returned and remained untouched by repercussions and uncaptured. He stayed with his family and business, becoming a member of the Butchers' Company in 1687 and thus a freeman of the City.
It was in 1688 that Defoe wrote first major political tract A Letter to a Dissenter from His Friend at the Hague, concerning the Penal Laws and the Test in which he took on the role of a Dutchman criticising motives behind King James's 2nd declaration of Indulgence in April 1688. Not only does this illustrate Defoe's profound distrust of Catholics, but it shows the beginnings of his satirical writing (Holland was an example held up by King James of a country in which the religious tolerance that he sought was successful) and his use of persona, taking on a fictional voice for the sake of presenting a serious argument or moral. By 1689, Defoe's troubles had begun. His daughter had died the previous year and his father in law in 1686, leaving financial decisions to Defoe. Despite personal loss, his self- presentation as a businessman made him continue to appear successful. In fact financial problems had already begun to surface. Problems with shipping, at times a too trusting nature, and carelessness with records and accounts eventually led to his imprisonment for debt to the sum of £17,000 in 1692.
Upon leaving the prison, the company kept by Defoe led him to become associated with the booksellers trade. Various works, including an elegy written on the death of Samuel Annesley were written by Defoe in the same year as his first book, An Essay upon Projects, published in 1697. Over the next few years, Defoe became well known in London for his pamphlets and poetry, until by the end of 1701 he was in the position of making money and being known for his writing, but being severely mistrusted by some for the same work. "Hot-brain'd Scribler," is one contemporary description of Defoe. One of Defoe's most
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