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Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)

Novelist, pamphleteer and journalist, Daniel Defoe is considered, along with Richardson, the founder of the English novel. He was born in London in 1660 to a family of Noncomformists, also called “Dissenters” – Protestant groups separated from the church of England. His father was the typical lower class man, practical minded, with a sound Protestant religious spirit and deep sense of duty and responsibility.
Although Defoe did not attend university, he received a good education, and in his early twenties set up as a merchant. This allowed him to travel largely and to become an excellent economic theorist. In 1692 Defoe went bankrupt, and this marked the beginning of a lifelong struggle with debts and fear of prison. This experience, however, gave him a deep understanding of the outcasts of society, like thieves and adventurers, who may be led to crime by fear of starvation and by circumstances. He expressed his views – particularly on politics – in numerous pamphlets, the most famous being The Shortest way with the Dissenters (1702), which he ironically pretended to advocate harsher persecution against this Puritan sect, thus showing the absurdity of intollerance. Defoe was arrested, fined and condemned to the pillory. Because he was unable to pay the fine he was imprisoned, but he was soon released.

From this moment on Defoe worked for the government as a secret agent; he wrote reports, pamphlets, and travelled widely; he also worked for actively as a journalist. From 1704 to 1713 he wrote the periodical The Review, the main government organ. As a dissenter and a representative of the middle class, Defoe could not but support the Hanoverians succession, which he did with various pamphlets. But he was not exclusively concerned with politics; he also wrote on current affairs, religion, and various subjects, and his prose was so effective that he is considered the father of modern journalism. It was only in 1719 that he wrote Robin Crusoe. This book became immensely popular, and was widely translated and limitaed. It particularly appealed to the middle and lower classes, who identified themselves with the hero.
1722 saw the publication of three masterpieces: Moll Flanders, A Journal of the plague Year, Colonel Jack. Moll Flanders is perhaps the most interesting of his novels, after Robin Crusoe: it reads like the autobiography of a prostitute, in fact a lively, sympathetic and generous woman who uses her beauty as a commodity to exchange for money – money being the only value she recognise in life. A Journal of the plague Year is a pseudo-historical account of terrible plague which struck London in 1665. The wealth of vivid details fully convey the horror of the plague, and makes this work very convincing. In spite of declining health Defoe continued his incessant activities and his last novel, Roxana, appeared in 1724, followed by other prose works. Daniel Defoe died in 1731.

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