Contrariness: Defoe and Political Biography

Stephen H. Gregg
Bath Spa University

What chance would the craftiest biographer stand against the subject who saw him coming and decided to amuse himself?[1]

P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens, in A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe (Pickering & Chatto, 2006), take on what all biographers of Daniel Defoe fear: that they have been lied to.   Geoffrey Braithwaite, the compulsive biographer of Flaubert in Julian Barnes’s novel quoted above, voices his anxiety that something of his subject will always escape detection, or–even worse than that–the subject intentionally resists definitive analysis out of sheer contrariness.   The subject of biography who does this risks much in regard to their reputation: they may be called to account for obfuscation, misdirection, insincerity, playing for both sides, hypocrisy, and even lying.

Defoe was accused of all of these in his lifetime, and there’s no doubt amongst all the scholars and biographers of Defoe that he could be contrary and self-contradictory.   His attitudes toward women, slavery, luxury, South Seas schemes, Dissenters, and, most notoriously, his involvement with the Tory press (to name but a few) have all been pored over, criticized, and defended.   Or is it that his writings are contrary?   It is precisely this relationship–and potential split–between Defoe the man and his opinions as expressed in his writings that has been central to critical biographies.   In the second half of the twentieth century the issue of Defoe’s moral reputation, which vexed nineteenth-century scholars, has been replaced by a less judgmental critical framework that has tended to emphasize various aspects of Defoe’s ability–compulsion, perhaps–to impersonate and ventriloquize, or to adopt masks and personae.

This relationship between the real person and his writing was given a further twist when what actually constitutes Defoe’s writings was vigorously contested by Furbank and Owens in the late 1980s.[2]

In other words, the questions surrounding Defoe’s biography and his political opinions have become particularly fraught with difficulty when questions of attribution are added; as they note in A Political Biography :

It is with political matters that attribution becomes most problem-ridden.   Biography and bibliography here become inextricably intertwined, and our effort throughout has been to elicit a coherent story.   We have a feeling that no biographer, up to now, has quite succeeded in this, and that is why we are making a new attempt. (3)

This attempt is voiced in a characteristic way (more of which later), and the idea to link biography and politics can be seen as the culmination of Furbank and Owens’s research since The Canonisation of Defoe .  Yet it is not just their project, for this is the first of a series of “political biographies” by Pickering & Chatto that will include similar books on Swift, Pope, Manley, Haywood, Arbuthnot, Toland, Steele, and Addison.   What precisely is a political biography? Furbank and Owens define this as “Daniel Defoe’s political career . . . his influence, or attempts to influence, as a purveyor of ideas and opinions, and also the influence, sometimes very unnerving, of political events on him” (1).   Their claim to “elicit a coherent story” where no one has succeeded before is intriguing and characteristically forthright (3).   The claim rests on an exhaustive analysis that attempts to iron out ambiguity or inconsistency in Defoe’s politics by pinpointing exactly when Defoe was being politically consistent with his public statements, and when he was lying (which is not, of course, the same as being inconsistent).   Part of this project depends upon rejecting uncertain attributions when they are politically inconsistent, as when they question the Victorian biographer William Lee’s wholesale attribution of Mist’s Weekly Journal and Applebee’s Original Weekly Journal to Defoe (3).

The grand claim of their book is the exposure of Defoe’s two magnificent (or heinous) lies: an assertion that goes against the current understanding of Defoe’s political career.   Firstly, they argue that his letters to Charles Delafaye in 1718 (in which he claims he was working within but against the Tory press) are not to be taken at face value.   Secondly, this study also disproves his claim to know King William III personally.   Defoe’s letters to Delafaye are “a dazzling piece of mendacity. They are, in our view, a fiction only equalled by his claim to have known, and even been intimate with, King William” (4).   While their book covers Defoe’s writing career from his first publication in 1688 up to 1720 (indeed, each page has a date that accords to the year under discussion), I want to look at two specific sections because they tell us much about how the authors sense Defoe and how they go about the business of political biography.

No one doubts Defoe’s hero-worship of William III: his writings consistently support and even propagandize King William’s policies.   Defoe’s various claims to personal intimacy–principally in letters to Robert Harley, in the Review and An Appeal to Honour and Justice (included in an Appendix)–have been treated in different ways: Paula Backscheider rather skirts the issue, and John Richetti is cautious.[3]

Maximillian Novak offers a more careful consideration before concluding that “most probably he tended to exaggerate the intimacy of his relationship with William in his own mind.”[4]   In describing his fascination for secret movers and shakers as part of his willingness to self-aggrandize, even to himself, Novak persuasively sums up Defoe’s mindset.   Furbank and Owens have no truck with equivocation: Defoe is an outright liar.   They base their argument on some assiduous cross-matching of details and evidence–first of all, that his claim to have witnessed the signing of the Second Partition Treaty (in 1699) contradicts his assertion that he became known to King William only after the publication of The True Born Englishman in 1701 (moreover, they say, the way Defoe describes the Treaty does not match the actual contents of that Treaty).   Secondly, that when challenged by the Observator over the favors Defoe ostensibly received from the King, Defoe’s response in the Review is timid to say the least.   Thirdly, that there was only a very narrow timeframe during which Defoe could have struck up his personal acquaintance with the King.   Finally, that Defoe borrowed the details of a meeting between William Patterson and the King in 1701, which discussed a scheme to seize Spanish-American colonies, and put himself in Patterson’s role.   It was all, they argue, an “audacious” fiction that Defoe concocted during his 1703 interrogation (for writing The Shortest Way with the Dissenters ) in an attempt to save himself from the pillory (30).

This is a good example of their procedure: close argument with an eye to detail, and a sense of Defoe as a man capable of outrageous brinkmanship.   The King William business also serves to exemplify the feeling they have for the biography of Defoe, and one which sees them grappling with the biographer’s fear evinced in my epigraph:

It would certainly be no disgrace for his biographers to have been hoodwinked by him. But further, it would suggest an explanation for an all-important fact about Defoe, experienced by all who write about him: that it is impossible to reach any close intimacy with him or read his heart.   A man capable of a deception of the scale of Defoe’s over King William would be perpetually on his guard against intimacy and on the defensive against the world. (31)

The analysis of this affair enables them to claim that they, unlike other biographers, have not been “hoodwinked.”   They also imply that biographers cannot get to know Defoe through supposition or psychology, though the implied argument is self-fulfilling in a way: “We’re not going to claim to get to know Defoe intimately, because Defoe was a deceptive man and the kind of man who avoided intimacy.”

Similarly audacious is their argument that Defoe lied to Undersecretary Delafaye and, through him, Secretary of State Lord Stanhope.   This turns upside down the received wisdom on Defoe’s involvement with the Tory press in the years 1716 to 1718, which has maintained that Defoe, on behalf of the Whig ministry, undertook to infiltrate the Tory press (posing as a disaffected Whig) in order to tame their excesses.   This is certainly what Defoe claimed in his letters to Delafaye (1718) in relation to his work for the journals Mercurius Politicus and Mist’s Weekly Journal .[5]

Central to Furbank and Owens’s argument here is the simple but radical implication that Defoe says what he actually means in these journals–that he is truly disaffected with the Whig ministry.   Crucial to this is the question of politics and attribution: what is the exact nature of the politics in these Tory journals and which pieces did Defoe actually write?   Surprisingly (given Novak’s vigorous criticism of their de-attributions) both Furbank and Owens and Novak implicitly agree on a number of key points: that the tone of the politics in Mercurius Politicus was consistent with Defoe’s lifetime habit of letting fly at tyranny and “exorbitant power” ( Review , 19 April, 1709) ; that the politics of both journals is consistent; and that the offensively anti-government “Sir Andrew Politick” letters in Mist’s Weekly Journal are Defoe’s.[6]

What would have added to this discussion is a grasp of the complex rhetoric of political opposition that often created ideologically strange bedfellows: Defoe’s opinions in both Mercurius Politicus and Mist’s Weekly Journal overlap significantly with the opposition’s rhetoric of liberty.[7]

But it is left to Furbank and Owens to follow the logic to its end: Defoe’s claims to Delafaye were a lie to assure the Stanhope government of his ostensible loyalty; and Defoe was what he said he was in these journals–a critic of the government.   “That their purpose was to advance the interests of the Whig administration,” Furbank and Owens conclude, “is a proposition that brute logic forbids one to swallow” (171).

However, some of the defining features of the book are odd.   While constraints of word-length may have, of course, been a factor, there are some questions left dangling regarding the time frame of the book, and its demarcation of “political” writing.   The book ends on a surprisingly unemphatic note in 1720, a date explained thus: “In 1719 Defoe turned novelist, and the enormous success of Robinson Crusoe may have caused him from now on to be less obsessed by party-politics” (174).   The argument is weak because it suggests that this “success” was enough to turn him away from party politics.   They briefly discuss Robinson Crusoe and his 1720 journal The Commentator , then conclude that his political career was over.   They have, at the start, already ruled out his writings on social reform or social/economic projects (2).   It might have been better to not have mentioned the novels at all: to include Robinson Crusoe, and to exclude his numerous writings on trade, history, economics, geography, travel, and plague in the 1720s strikes one as a perverse vision of the “political.”

It’s also partly a question of how you like your biographies.   As Backscheider has pointed out elsewhere, the construction of the “voice of the biographer” is inextricable from the way questions are asked of the biographical subject and how that subject appears.[8]

Furbank and Owens have constructed a trenchant persona in their writings (partly, I suspect, because of the imposing voice of that royal “we”).   In this book they are a very discernable presence in their use of evidential rhetoric, the insistent questioning and the “brute logic” of their forensic analyses (171).   And while Richetti’s kind of biography gets at Defoe by a perceptive reading of his narrative strategies, and Novak carefully constructs a “masterful writer of fiction” (apropos the Tory journals), Furbank and Owens’s biography senses a deliberately mischievous writer.   Setting aside its polemical–dare I say, contrary–tone, A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe is impressive, and while I occasionally missed the feel for the man himself, I also share Furbank and Owens’s wry admiration for Defoe’s rare, if dangerously unpredictable, gift of contrariness.


[1]   Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot (London, 1984), 35.

[2]   P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens, The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (New Haven, 1988).

[3]   Paula Backscheider, Daniel Defoe: His Life (Baltimore, 1989), 72; John J. Richetti, The Life of Daniel Defoe (Oxford, 2005), 13.

[4]   Maximillian E. Novak, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions (Oxford, 2001), 109.

[5]   The Letters of Daniel Defoe , ed. George Harris Healey (Oxford, 1955), 450-60.

[6]   Novak, 505-6.

[7]   See Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England, 1715-1785 (Cambridge, 1998), 113-14.   Wilson points out that even the Tory and pro-Jacobite press (and she includes Mist’s Weekly Journal ) appropriated the Whig language of popular resistance and liberty.

[8]   Backscheider, Reflections on Biography (Oxford, 1999), xx.