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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

§ 24. Defoe’s last years

But, apparently, there was no limit, save death, to Defoe’s productiveness. Accordingly, we must pass over, with scarcely a word, the numerous pamphlets and volumes of the years 1725–31. The most important of the tracts are those of a sociological character, for example, the astonishingly suggestive Augusta Triumphans: or the Way to make London the Most Flourishing City in the Universe. The most interesting and important of the books is, most surely, The Complete English Tradesman, which, for variety of information, shrewd practical wisdom, engaging garrulousness and sheer carrying power of easy vernacular style, is nothing short of a masterpiece. Charles Lamb seems to have been rather fantastic in discovering in it a source of corruption for its author’s countrymen. The book has probably corrupted just as many promising young men as Roxana—see the exemplary pages of Lee’s biography of Defoe—has reclaimed wayward young women. Next to The Tradesman in interest, some would place the curious group of books dealing in a half sceptical, half credulous and altogether gossiping, fashion with occult subjects—The Political History of the Devil, A System of Magic and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions. Others, with quite as much reason, will prefer A Plan of the English Commerce, or that sound and well written treatise The Complete English Gentleman, which, ironically enough, was left incomplete and was not published until about twenty years ago. The wiser lover of quaint and homely books will read, or, at least, glance over, all the productions of Defoe’s last years on which he can lay his hands, will wish that the world might see a collected edition of them and will not allow the biographers to persuade him that there was any marked falling off in the old man’s productivity, save for a mysterious period which stretched from the autumn of 1729 to the midsummer of 1730.

What happened to Defoe during these months we do not know and probably shall not know unless new documents unexpectedly come to light. In the spring of 1729, he had married his favourite daughter Sophia to the naturalist Henry Baker; in the autumn, he had been taken ill, just as the opening pages of The Complete English Gentleman were going through the press. In August, 1730, he was writing from Kent to his son-in-law Baker a letter full of complaints about his own bad health, his sufferings at the hands of a wicked enemy and his betrayal by one of his sons. It seems likely that he had transferred some property to his eldest son, Daniel, on condition that the latter would provide for his mother and her unmarried daughters, but that the shifty son of a shifty father had not lived up to his obligations. It is certain that, for some reason or other, the home at Newington, a pleasant one according to Baker’s description, had been broken up after Defoe’s recovery from his illness in the autumn of 1729. It seems probable that he believed it necessary to separate from his family and to take refuge in London and, later, in Kent. Was he the victim of hallucinations—had he any real enemy whose malice he must avoid—was he trying, as he had tried before the marriage, to elude certain financial demands made by the canny Baker—had he reverted to the practices of his early manhood and engaged in hazardous speculations? Who can tell? All that we now seem to know definitely is that, during the autumn of 1730 and the early winter of 1731, he was writing pamphlets and revising books in a way that indicates little falling off of energy and absolutely no decay of mental powers, and that, on 26 April, 1731, he died of a lethargy at his lodgings in Ropemaker’s alley, Moorfields, not far from where he was born.