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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

I. Defoe—The Newspaper and the Novel

§ 11. Defoe’s early and business life

Defoe is usually said to have been born in London in 1661, the date being derived from a reference to his age made in the preface to one of his tracts. That this is an error seems clear from his marriage license allegation. He must have been born in London, the son of James Foe, a butcher of the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, at the end of 1659 or early in 1660. His father came of Northamptonshire stock; but the name of his mother’s family has not been ascertained. Beyond the fact that his parents were presbyterians, who early set him apart for the ministry, we know little concerning his childhood. When he was about fourteen, he entered a dissenters’ school kept at Stoke Newington by Charles Morton, a somewhat distinguished scholar and minister, and he probably remained there three or four years, by which time he had given up the idea of becoming a preacher. He has left some account of his education, which appears to have been practical and well adapted to the needs of his journalistic career, since emphasis was laid on history, geography and politics, the modern languages and proficiency in the vernacular.

Scarcely anything is known of his life between 1677 or 1678, when he may be presumed to have left school, and January, 1683–4, the date of his marriage, when he was a merchant in Cornhill, probably a wholesale dealer in hosiery. There is evidence from his writings that, at one time, he held some commercial position in Spain, and it is clear that his biographers have not collected all the passages that tend to show his acquaintance with Italy, southern Germany and France. As it is difficult to place any long continued absence from England after his marriage, it seems plausible to hold that he may have been sent to Spain as an apprentice in the commission business and have taken the opportunity, when returning, to see more of Europe. His “wander-years,” if he had them, must be placed between 1678, the year of the popish plot and the murder of Godfrey, and 1683, the year of the repulse of the Turks from Vienna, since it is practically certain that he was in London at each of these periods.

Not much more is known of his early life as a married man. His wife, Mary Tuffley, who survived him, was of a well-to-do family, bore him seven children and, from all we can gather, proved a good helpmeet. That he soon left her to take some share in Monmouth’s rebellion seems highly probable; but that, between 1684 and 1688, he became an embryo sociologist and was engaged in the systematic travelling about England that has been attributed to him is very doubtful. How he escaped Jeffreys, whether he ever was a presbyterian minister at Tooting, what precisely he wrote and published against James II—these and other similar matters are still mysteries. It seems plain that he joined William’s army late in 1688; that he took great interest in the establishment of the new government; that his standing in the city among his fellow dissenters was outwardly high; and that he cherished literary aspirations. His first definitely ascertained publication is a satire in verse of 1691. In the following year he became a bankrupt, with a deficit of about £17,000.

It is usual to attribute his failure to unbusinesslike habits, and to pay little attention to the charges of fraud brought against him later. As a matter of fact, this period of his life is so dark that positive conclusions of any kind are rash. It would seem, however, that he suffered unavoidable losses through the war with France, that he was involved in too many kinds of enterprises, some of them speculative, and that his partial success in paying off his creditors warrants leniency toward him. Some friends appear to have stood by him to the extent of offering him a situation in Spain, which he could afford to reject because of better opportunities at home. Within four years, he was doing well as secretary and manager of a tile factory near Tilbury. He also served as accountant to the commissioners of the glass duty, and there is no good reason to dispute his claim that he remained in fairly prosperous circumstances until he was ruined, in 1703, by his imprisonment for writing The Shortest Way with the Dissenters.