BBC Radio 4 are currently running a series of programmes about the author Daniel Defoe, who is best known for his novels such as Robinson Crusoe (1719). But Defoe was also one of the most important political writers of the later Stuart period. Indeed, thinking about Defoe’s life and career helps us understand the political intrigues and events from his birth on the eve of Charles II’s restoration in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714.
As a boy Defoe experienced some of the iconic events of restoration London: the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire in the following year, and the Dutch raid on the Medway when he was about seven years old. Defoe’s parents were Presbyterians and send their son to a dissenting academy, where he was educated in the ways of English dissenters.
Soon after the accession of the Catholic king James II in 1685, Defoe joined thousands of his fellow Whigs in supporting the alternative claim of the Duke of Monmouth. He marched against James II in Monmouth’s army but gained a pardon, avoiding the harsh government reprisals of the Bloody Assizes. After 1688 Defoe claimed to have become an intimate and adviser of the new Dutch monarch William III, although recent scholarship strongly suggests that this was untrue. Defoe frequently looked back on William’s reign as a golden era and wrote an important elegy on the king called The Mock Mourners (1702).
Yet it was under Queen Anne that Defoe emerged into public life. After his prosecution and imprisonment for writing a seditious libel called The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters (1702), Defoe was rescued from prison by one of Anne’s chief ministers, Robert Harley, who employed the luckless author as a government propagandist and occasional spy. In this capacity, Defoe became key to the emergence of political journalism in Britain.
Mark Lawson’s documentary on Defoe contains interviews with established Defoe scholars such as Paula Backsheider and Maximillian E. Novak, and is not to be missed. But also listen to the lively dramatization of Defoe’s journalistic career and of his novels Moll Flanders and A Journal of a Plague Year (both 1722). When you listen, be sure to remember Defoe’s past as an opponent of Stuart absolutism under James II and a supporter of Williamite monarchy.