Dissident and lewd writings

1st August 1997 at 01:00

Laurence Kennedy reads a life of Daniel Defoe, creator of Moll Flanders and modern journalism.

Girl power, clearly, holds sway in these post-colonial times, for Daniel Defoe's moralising thief Moll Flanders is bigger at the box office than Robinson Crusoe, the castaway and slave-trader, could ever dream of being. Moll's multiple marriages, one of them incestuous, now hold the attention of readers and viewers in ways that erecting stockades, killing cannibals, and watching for distant sails just don't.

Richard West thus makes sexiness one of the selling points in his entertaining, if at times idiosyncratic, account of modern journalism's secretive, and occasionally bankrupt, father. West's decision to give less space to the famous fictions and historical novels than to Defoe's later three-volume Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain, which the biographer considers to be his masterpiece, is however what really individualises this handsomely produced and well-illustrated volume.

Born in the early 1660s, the awkward Dissenter was an often deliberately provocative pamphleteer who wrote a newspaper unassisted for nearly a decade. Defoe saw the inside of a prison more than once and stood in the potentially fatal pillory for being ironic about religious intolerance in the Shortest Way with the Dissenters. A popular poet until 1707, he was involved in the Union of England and Scotland as the spy of Robert Harley, his political master. If he could never make taxation seem interesting, Defoe was usually capable of making memorable anything from road construction to the bizarrely ritualistic executions at Halifax.

Defoe's vast output is often inextricably linked to long-forgotten religious and political arguments. Yet West moves easily from Charles II to George I without going into unwanted detail. Various adventures spring to life in an informed and sympathetic account that draws heavily on the Tour to illuminate Defoe's earlier years and the events surrounding his involvement in Monmouth's rebellion. West pays attention to monsters such as Judge Jeffreys and takes time to provide a sympathetic portrait of Defoe's antagonistic but ultimately respectful relationship with the Whig journalist, John Tutchin. He is also good on later relations between the aged writer and his beloved daughter, Sophia.

Apart, however, from Paul Backscheider's impressive 1989 biography, West rarely cites any source later than Trevelyan. He has no time for literary theory, and also seems to feel that such academic approaches have done little "to reveal the complexity and richness of the novels and other texts". More worryingly, he gives no indication of having taken on board the profound implications behind the canonical revision undertaken by Defoe's current Cambridge bibliographers, P N Furbank and W R Owens. So West's argument at times depends on works that have been generously given to his author over centuries without any material evidence.

Conjugal Lewdness, in truth a fairly dry treatise on marital relations, is said to contain probable insights about the author and his wife's sex life. Who can tell? This "hymn to the joys of sex", a work available in a modern edition, isn't hot enough to transform Defoe into an 18th century Alex Comfort.

Given that the issue of whether Defoe was really responsible for some of the works discussed is largely glossed over, West's rightly sceptical response to an unsubstantiated contemporary accusation that Defoe had cuckolded a friend is surprising. The contradiction, perhaps, arises from this biographer's desire to make Defoe saucy on the page but sexually well behaved off it. Later, when discussing the far livelier Political History of the Devil, he repeats the tack taken with Conjugal Lewdness and notes an occasion when the "Devil tempted a man who, we can almost certainly say, was Defoe himself" with naked ladies.

Sexual conjectures, though, are a poor substitute for more extended reflections on this fascinating work, and, if West rightly finds his author able to respond to eroticism, he says little about Rochester, whom Defoe attacked for immorality while quoting him nearly as much as he did Milton.

West, then, in my view never really plumbs Defoe's deeper contradictions. He also makes some errors. The Consolidator, a long prose narrative from 1765, is called "a verse satire", and his handling of pamphlet sources is at times confused. In addition, though this text is largely meticulous, two earlier biographers, William Lee and George Chalmers, become George Lee, referred to as Defoe's "first full-length biographer". This assertion ignores Walter Wilson and his three-volume monument which preceded the real Mr Lee's less substantial effort.

West's preference for the Tour is, nevertheless, genuinely re-freshing. To follow these partly fictionalised travels by means of extensive quotation and commentary for more than 80 pages offers a welcome introduction to the resources of the plain style when handled by a prolific master. My earlier reservations aside, West's biography is well written, and those with an affection for Defoe will find much to enjoy.

Laurence Kennedy has just completed a PhD thesis on Defoe's political journalism.

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