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

§ 17. Defoe and Harley

Not even the briefest description can be given of Defoe’s horseback rides through England in 1704 and 1705 as an election agent for Harley. Highhanded tories and creditors set on by his enemies tried to stop him; but he eluded them and continued both to send Harley reports which prove him to have been a journalist of the first order, and to make observations which stood him in good stead in his later sociological and economic writings. He also found time to compose and publish his dull political allegory The Consolidator and to labour on his still more ponderous satire in verse Jure Divino, which appeared the next year, 1706, in folio, adorned with a full-wigged portrait of the self-complacent author. These, as well as his impudent satire The Dyet of Poland, his excellent pamphlets against religious intolerance in South Carolina, his indiscreet support, in a tract called The Experiment, of the clerical impostor Abraham Gill, his spirited answers to Lord Haversham, who had taunted him with poverty and writing for hire, are all, more or less; forgotten; but, so long as the literature of the supernatural finds favour, there will be interested readers of the one classic production of this stage of his career, A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next Day after her Death, to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, the 8th of September, 1705. Even this convincingly realistic narrative is, thanks to the researches of George A. Aitken, no longer to be credited, as Sir Walter Scott and many others have thought, to Defoe the master of verisimilitude in fiction. It is now seen to be the circumstantial account of a ghost story current at the time, a product of Defoe’s genius for reporting, not a clever hoax designed to sell Drelincourt’s pious manual.

From the autumn of 1706 to the spring of 1710, Scotland is the main scene of Defoe’s activity, and Scottish affairs are the main subject of his pen. His movements and whereabouts are not always certain; but it is evident that none of his biographers has realised how large a portion of his time he spent out of London as the agent, first of Harley, then of Godolphin. He was in Scotland from October, 1706, to December, 1707, forwarding the union in every way in his power and, after that was secured, labouring to allay popular discontent. He kept the press busy with pamphlets, the full tale of which will doubtless never be known. He wrote Harley long and interesting letters; he attended parliamentary commitees; he furnished statistics on matters of trade; he wormed himself into the confidence of men in all positions—in short, to use his own phrase, he played the part of a perfect spy, developing his powers of duplicity at every turn. Few agents have ever more thoroughly earned their hire, or have served more niggardly masters than was Harley. When, at last, Defoe, almost reduced to penury, was allowed to return without the place in the customs for which he hoped, he found his patron tottering to his fall. He was graciously permitted to transfer his services to Godolphin and, early in 1708, was sent back to Scotland. Of his labours for his new chief, we have no full account; but there was probably no decline in his faithfulness and efficiency. There was some decline in his literary activity, for the main work of 1708—9 is his huge, dull, but apparently accurate History of the Union, a volume which shows that Defoe had not a little of the methodical patience characteristic of latter-day historians, but, as yet, little of the skill in book-making which he was afterwards conspicuously to display.

In the early months of 1710, Defoe, although he saw clearly the folly of impeaching Sacheverell, made that noisy clergyman the subject of several tracts. Later, he transferred his services to Harley, not, however, without allowing himself free criticism of the extreme tories. In the autumn, he was sent to Scotland to watch the Jacobites, and it is a letter written to Harley at this time which first causes us to suspect that he was betraying his employer. Some years ago, William Lee attributed to Defoe, on strong internal evidence, a satirical pamphlet of 1711, entitled Atalantis Major; but no one would suspect, from the way in which Defoe refers to his efforts to suppress this tract, that he was its unblushing author. There is no absolute proof that he was; but, when, a little later, we find him charged with writing against Harley in The Protestant Post Boy, and, later still, encounter attacks upon that minister in pamphlets full of the characteristics of Defoe’s style, our faith in the journalist’s fidelity is greatly shaken.

Whether the inscrutable Harley, now earl of Oxford, had entire faith in his agent does not appear. Certain it is, however, that, for the next two or three years, Defoe was continually making surreptitious visits to the prime minister and sending him letters, which not infrequently contained requests for money. That he was as well paid by Oxford as enemies asserted may be doubted; but there is no doubt that his advice was sought on many matters and that he was employed by outsiders to secure the minister’s countenance for various schemes. Meanwhile, the stream of pamphlets flowed unabated, and the tone of The Review was adroitly changed in favour of peace with France. As a result, Defoe was despised and distrusted by whigs and tories alike. The modern student, making allowance for the factiousness of the times, for the undeveloped state of party government, for Defoe’s pecuniary embarrassments and his social ostracism after the pillorying, finds it possible to extenuate his conduct and is impelled to admire his dexterity and his resourcefulness. There is ground, too, for maintaining that, in some important respects, he was consistent, and a better counsellor than Oxford deserved. He opposed the passage of the obnoxious schism bill, and he seems never to have wavered in his support of the Hanoverian succession.