« ПредишнаНапред »
DEFOE'S YOUTH AND EARLY PURSUITS.
THE life of a man of letters is not as a rule eventful. It may be rich in spiritual experiences, but it seldom is rich in active adventure. We ask his biographer to tell us what were his habits of composition, how he talked, how he bore himself in the discharge of his duties to his family, his neighbours and himself; what were his beliefs on the great questions that concern humanity. We desire to know what he said and wrote, not what he did beyond the study and the domestic or the social circle. The chief external facts in his career are the dates of the publication of his successive books.
Daniel Defoe is an exception to this rule. He was a man of action as well as a man of letters. The writing of the books which have given him immortality was little more than an accident in his career, a coin paratirely trifling and casual item in the total expenditure of his many-sided energy. He was nearly sixty when he wrote Robinson Crusoe. Before that event he had been a rebel, a merchant, a manufacturer, a writer of popular satires in verse, a bankrupt ; had acted as secretary to a public commission, been employe l in secret services by five successive administrations, written innumerable pamphlets, and edited more than one newspaper. He had led, in fact, as adventurous a life as any of his own heroes, and had met quickly succeed. ing difficulties with equally ready and fertile ingenuity:
For many of the incidents in Defoe's life we are indebted to himself. He had all the vaingloriousness of exuberant vitality, and was animated in the recital of his own adventures. Scattered throughout his various works are the materials for a tolerably complete autobiography. This is in one respect an advantage for any one who attempts to give an account of his life. But it has a counterbalancing disadvantage in the circumstance that there is grave re son to doubt his veracity. Defoe was a great story-teller in more senses than one. We can hardly believe a word that he says about himself without in. dependent confirmation.
Defoe was born in London, in 1661. It is a characteristic circum. stance that his name is not his own, except in the sense that it was assumed by himself. The name of his father, who was a butcher in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, was Foe. His grandfather was a Northamptonshire yeoman. In his True Born Englishman, Defoe spoke very contemptuously of fam.lies that professed to have come over with
" the Norman bastard,” defying them to prove whether their ancestors were drummers or colonels ; but apparently he was not above the vanity of making the world believe that he himself was of Norman-French origin. Yet such was the restless energy of the man that he could not leave even his adopted naine alone ; he seems to have been about forty when he first changed his signature “D. Foe” into the surname of "Defoe ; ” but his patient biographer, Mr. Lee, has found several later instances of his subscribing himself“ D. Foe,' “D. F.,” and “ De Foe,” in alternation with the " Daniel De Foe," or “ Daniel Defoe,” which has become his accepted name in literature.
In middle age, when Defoe was taunted with his want of learning, he retorted that if he was a blockhead it was not the fault of his father, who had "spared nothing in his education that might qualify him to match the accurate Dr. Browne, or the learned Observator.” His father was a Nonconformist, a member of the congregation of Dr. Annesley, and the son was originally intended for the Dissenting ministry. “ It was his disaster,” he said afterwards, first to be set apart for, and then to be set apart from, that sacred (mploy." He was placed at an academy for the training of ministers at the age, it is supposed, of about fourteen, and probably remained there for the full course of five years. He has himself explained why, when his training was completed, he did not proceed to the office of the pulpit, but changed his views and resolved to engage in business as a hoscmerchant. The sum of the explanation is that the ministry seemed to him at that time to be neither honourable, agreeable, nor profitable. It was degraded, he thought, by the entrance of men who had neither physical nor intellectual qualification for it, who had received out of a denominational fund only such an education as made them pedants rather than Christian gentlemen of high learning, and who had consequently to submit to shameful and degrading practices in their efforts to obtain congregations and subsistence. Besides, the behaviour of congregations to their ministers, who were dependent, was often objectionable and un-Christian. And finally, far-flown birds having fine feathers, the prizes of the ministry in London were generally given to strangers, “ eminent ministers called from all parts of England," some even from Scotland, finding acceptance in the metropolis before having received any formal ordination.
T'hough the education of his “fund-bred” companions, as he calls them, at Mr. Morton's Academy in Newington Green, was such as to excite Defoe's contempt, he bears testimony to Mr. Morton's excellence as a teacher, and instances the names of several pupils who did credit to his labours. In one respect Mr. Morton's system was better than that which then prevailed at the Universities; al dissertations were written and all disputations held in English ; and hence it resulted, Defoe says, that his pupils, though t ey were “not destituto in the languages,” were “made masters of the English tongue, and more of them excelled in that particular than of any school at that time." Whetl:er Defoe obtained at Newington the rudiments of all the learning which he afterwards claimed to be possessed of, we do not know; but the taunt frequen:ly levelled at him ly University men of being an “illiterate fellow" and no scholar, was one that he bitterly resented, and that drew from him many protestations and retorts. In 1705, he angrily challenged John Tutchin “to translate with him any Latin, French, or Italian author, and after that to retranslate them crosswise for twenty pounds each book ;” and he replied to Swift, who had spoken of him scornfully as an illiterate fellow, whose name I forget,” that “ he had been in his time pretty well master of fivelanguages, and had not lost them yet, though he wrote no bill at his door, nor set Latin quotations on the front of the Reriew." To the end of his days Defoe could vot forget this taunt of want of learning. In one of the papers in Applebee's Journal, identified by Mr. Lee low Chapter VIII.), he ciscussed what to be understood by “learning,” and drew the following sketch of his own attainmients
"I remember an Anthor in the World some years ago, who was generally upbraided with ignorance, and called an 'Illiterate Fellow,' by some of the Beaudiende of the last age.
“I happened to come into this person's Study once, and I found him busy translating a Description of the Course of the River Boristhenes, out of Bleau's Geography, w itten in Spanish. Another Time I found him translating some Latin Paragraphs out of Leubinitz Thea ri Comeiici, being a leained Discourse upon Comets; and that I might see whethur it was genuine, I looked on some part of it that he had finished, and found by it that be understocd the Latin very well, and had perfectly taken the sense of that dificult Author. In short, I found he under. stood the Latin, ihe Spanish, the Itulion, and could read the Greek, and I knew before that he spoke French fuently, l'et'th is dían was no Scnclar.
“As to Science, on another Cccasion, I heard h m dispute (in such a manner as surprised me) upon the en otions of the Heavenly Fodies, the Distance, Magnitude, Revolutions, and especially the influences of the Flanets, the Nature and probatle Revolutions of Comets, tre excellency of the New Fhilosophy, ard the like; but thi Man was no Scholar.
In Geography and History be had all the World at_his Finger's ends. He talked of the most distant Countries with an inimitable Exactness; and changing from one place to another, the Company thought, of every Place or Country he named, that certainly he must have been born there. He knew not only where every Thing was. bat wbat everybody did in every part of the World; I mean, WŁat Businesses, what Trade, what Manuiacture, was carrying on in every part of the world,
and had the History of almost all the Nations of the World in his Head--yet thuis Man was no Scholar.
This put me upon wondering, ever so long ago, what this strange Thing called a Man of Learning was, and what is it that constitutes a Scholar? For, said I, here's a man speaks five Languages and reads the S.xth, is a master of Astronomy, Geography, History, and abundance of other useful Knowledge (which I do not mention, that you may not guess at the Man, who is too Modest to desire it), and yet, they say this Man is no Scholar."
How much of this learning Defoe acquired at school, and how much he picked up afterwards under the pressure of the necessities of his business, it is impossible to determine, but at any rate it was at least as good a qualification for writing on public affairs as the
limited and accurate scholarship of his academic rivals. Whatever may have been the extent of his knowledge when he passed from Mr. Morton's tuition, qualified but no longer willing to become a Dissenting preacher, he did not allow it to rust unused; he at once mobilised his forces for active service. They were keen politicians, naturally, at the Newington Academy, and the times furnished ample materials for their discussions. As Nonconformists they were very closely affected by the struggle between Charles II. and the defenders of Protestantism and popular liberties. What part Defoe took in the excitement of the closing years of the reign of Charles must be matter of conjecture, but there can be little doubt that he was active on the popular side. He had but one difference then, he afterwards said in one of his tracts, with his party. He would not join them in wishing for the success of the Turks in besieging Vienna, because, though the Austrians were Papists, and though the Turks were ostensibly on the side of the Hungarian reformers whom the Austrian Government had persecuted, he had read the history of the Turks and could not pray for their victory over Christians of any denomination. “Though then but a young man, and a younger author" (this was in 1683), “he opposed_it and wrote against it, which was taken very unkindly indeed.” From these words it would seem that Defoe had thus early begun to write pamphlets on questions of the hour. As he was on the weaker side, and any writing might have cost him his life, it is probable that he did not put his name to any of these tracts; none of them have been identified ; but his youth was strangely unlike his mature manhood if he was not justified in speaking of himself as having been then an "author.” Nor was he content merely with writing. It would have been little short of a miracle if his restless energy had allowed him to lie quiet while the air was thick with political intrigue. We may be sure that he had a voice in some of the secret associations in which plans were discu:sed of armed resistance to tlie tyranny of tho King. We have his own word for it that he took part in the Duke of Monmouth's rising, when the whips of Charles were exchanged for the scorpions of James. Ho boasted of t::is when it became safe to do so, and the truth of the boast derives incidental confirmation from the fact that to namcs cf three of his fellow-students at Nowington appear in the list of the victims of Jeffreys and Kirke,
Escaping the keen hunt that was made for all participators in the rebellion, Defoe, towards the close of 1685, began business as a hosier or hose-factor in Freeman's Court, Cornhill. The precise nature of his trade has been disputed ; and it does not particularly concern us here.
When taunted afterwards with having been apprentice to a hosier, he indignantly denied the fact, and explained that though he had been a trader in hosiery he had never been a shopkeeper. A passing illustration in his Essay on Projects, drawn from his own experience, shows that he imported goods in the course of his business from abroad ; he speaks of sometimes having paid more in insurance premios than he had cleared by a voyage. From a story which he tells in his Complete English Tradesman, recalling the cleverness with which he defeated an attempt to outwit him about a consignment of brandy, we learn that his business sometimes took him to Spain. This is nearly all that we know about his first adventure in trade, except that after seven years, in 1692, he had to flee from his creditors. He hints in one of his Reviews that this misfortune was brought about by the frauds of swindlers, and it deserves to be recorded that he made the honourable boast that he afterwards paid off his obligations. The truth of the boast is independently confirmed by the admission of a controversial enemy, that very Tutchin whom he challenged to translate Latin with him. That Defoe should have referred so little to his own experience in the Complete English Tradesman, a series of Familiar Letters which he published late in life" for the instruction of our Inland Trades. men, and especially of Young Beginners," is accounted for when we observe the class of persons to whom the letters were addressed. He distinguishes with his usual clearness between the different ranks of those employed in the production and exchange of goods, and intimates that his advice is not intended for the highest grade of traders, the merchants, whom he defines by what he calls the vulgar expression, as being “such as trade beyond sea. Although he was eloquent in many books and pamphlets in upholding the dignity of trade, and lost no opportunity of scoffing at pretentious gentility, he never allows us to forget that this was the grade to which ho himself belonged, and addresses the petty trader from a certain altitude. He speaks in the preface to the Complete Tradesman of unfor. tunate creatures who have blown themselves up in trade, whether "fór want of wit or from too much wit ;” but lest he should be supposed to allude to his own misfortunes, he does not say that lo miscarried himself, but that he “had seen in a few years' exper. ience many young tradesmen miscarry.” At the same time it is fair. to. conjecture that when Defoe warns the young tradesman against fancying
himself a politician or a man of letters, ranning off to the coffee-house when he ought to be behind the counter, and reading Virgil and Horace when he should be busy over his journal