Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dissenter, novelist and spy

Ian Clary reviews a biography, Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures, about someone of whom I knew little beyond Robinson Crusoe.
Posterity is inclined to think of Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) primarily as one of the great authors of the so-called "Western Canon." Indeed, Defoe's fame for such works of fiction such as Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and Roxana is justly bestowed upon him. For instance, he is considered the creator of the first, modern novel.

However, Defoe also finds himself in the company of the greats of church history as an important Dissenter of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century. A Presbyterian of Puritan conviction, Defoe was just as well-known for his works on religious and political matters. ....

Defoe was originally born Daniel Foe, likely in the autumn of 1660 during the reign of Charles II, who after the Restoration of the monarchy was antagonistic to Protestant Nonconformity. On April 24, 1731 Defoe died in hiding. His life spanned the reigns of four monarchs—Charles II, William III, Anne and George I—the middle two regents with whom Defoe was intimately acquainted. ....

During much of this period of his life Defoe was engaged as a spy for the administration of William of Orange, spending much time collecting intelligence on High Church Tories and Jacobite rebels in Scotland.

The work that was likely his most famous in his lifetime was The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1702), an anonymous satirical piece that argued for the total annihilation of the Dissenters. After his authorship was made public, resulting in the realization that The Shortest Way was a satire that poked fun at many leading Church of England leaders and politicians, Defoe was thrown in the pillory and the infamous and brutal Newgate Prison, the latter a common place for Dissenters. This did not prevent Defoe from writing in defense of Nonconformity and religious toleration, though he often had to be more adept and subversive in order to dodge subsequent prison sentences. .... [more]
Discerning Reader: Review of Daniel Defoe by Richard West