Keith Waterhouse

Hack with Genius: Full of Fibs and Fantasies

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe


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A question that has exercised literary pedants down the years is why Robinson Crusoe found only a single footprint on his desert island. A shipwrecked sailor whose other leg had been taken by a shark? A stray member of some strange tribe of hopping cannibals?

A persuasive solution is offered by Professor John Sutherland in his second volume of literary puzzles, Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? (Oxford University Press £4.99). A lone savage has rowed up to the steeply inclined beach to investigate Crusoe’s canoe. Finding no one to eat and nothing to pillage, he pushes off again. The tide subsequently washes away all traces of his visit save for one footprint, where he stepped momentarily above the high-tide mark.

I prefer the less ingenious but more thrilling explanation that Daniel Defoe, instinctively or not, chose ‘a single print of a foot’ rather than a trail of footmarks or (he keeps this for later) the remains of a cannibal feast because, like a matchstick on the moon, it is more spine-tinglingly effective than detailed evidence of human presence could ever be.

That solitary footstep was a giant leap for Defoe, transforming him, in one bound, from pamphleteer and scribbler into one of the major literary figures of his century and beyond. But it is as a brilliant reporter that Richard West – who incidentally reminds us that Robinson Crusoe was a slavetrader – most admires his subject. West’s own seesaw career as a distinguished, much travelled and maverick journalist fits him eminently for the task.

This graphic biography is as much about Defoe’s times as about the man himself. Necessarily so: for despite his prodigious output, with hundreds of books, pamphlets and journals to his name (and many to other names, or none), he left precious little information about himself. Born into a family of Dissenters in the year of the Restoration, he was the first son of a City tallow-chandler. He was secretive and deceptive even before he took up seditious pamphleteering and espionage; probably from choice, he seems to have made little impression upon his contemporaries.

But what times they were! The Plague, the Fire of London, the banishment of the Dissenters, the ‘Popish Plot’, the Monmouth Rebellion (Defoe reputedly fought in the Battle of Sedgemoor, when he could count himself lucky to have escaped the Bloody Assizes), the Glorious Revolution, the birth of Great Britain … No journeyman hack (which for all his brilliance Defoe certainly was, for despite his firm principles he could cheerfully churn out pamphlets giving the opposing sides of the same argument) could have wished to live in a better period.

It was not until he was in his early thirties, however, that writing became the day job. Unlike most Grub Street drudges, he started a wealthy man and worked his way down. With the help of an enormous dowry brought by his bride, the squandering of which on unwise business ventures he bitterly regretted all his life, he set himself up in the wholesale hosiery line and was doing very nicely until his other enterprises began to go awry. He was made bankrupt for the then colossal sum of £17,000 and flung into the Fleet Prison. He turned to writing as a means of making ready money, his first and lasting hit being the verse satire The TrueBorn Englishman, a defence of William of Orange, who became something of a patron. Another pamphlet, the heavily ironic The Shortest Way with Dissenters (Defoe’s Modest Proposal), landed him in Newgate and the pillory. He extracted from that experience Moll Flanders and his Hymn to the Pillory, which was sold or handed out even as he was being pilloried. The spectators pelted him – with flowers.

But Defoe, who had by now built up another successful business as a brick merchant, was ruined, with seven mouths to feed. Robert Harley, later the first Earl of Oxford, commissioned him, as a sort of troubleshooter and observer, to travel about the country incognito and report back on the temper of the nation. A secret agent, in other words. This gave him, in due course, the three-volume Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, which West counts as Defoe’s masterpiece – though with the rider: ‘Just as his works of fiction … are based on fact, so his ostensibly factual Tour is full of amazing fibs and flights of imagination.’ A born journalist.

Pursued by creditors and political ill-wishers, occasionally imprisoned, and a martyr to bladderstones (the operation for which sounds like a sentence dreamed up by Judge Jeffreys), Defoe finished his life on the run, but still scribbling as he went.

With scant material to go on except history itself, in which he is well steeped, Richard West has produced a lively and colourful biography of ‘a person well known for his numerous and various publications’, as he was described by one obituarist.

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