DANIEL DEFOE by Richard West


The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures
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Charming urbanity and a keen historical imagination characterize this biography of the writer who not only helped invent the novel, but did much to shape the modern newspaper and the modern political campaign. West (Tito, 1995), a well-traveled veteran British journalist, begins his life of Defoe by describing how he became fascinated, 30-odd years ago, by that author’s travelogue A Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain. What West offers here is a tour through British history during Defoe’s lifetime, a journey that extends from the Great Fire of 1666 through the Glorious Revolution and Hanoverian Succession and thence into the 1720s, when the elderly Defoe, having published Robinson Crusoe in 1719, continued to produce fiction masterpieces. What makes this tour possible is the fact that Defoe was intimately involved in the crucial events of his day. He served Robert Harley and other key ministers as a secret agent, publicist, and all-around factotum, while publishing, in a series of newspapers and tracts, crucial articles on issues of trade, religious rights, foreign affairs, and Anglo-Scots unity. West freely acknowledges that he relies on a few outdated monumental histories of the period (Macaulay, Trevelyan, Churchill) and on Paula Backsheider’s recent academic biography of Defoe. More seriously, he does not display an awareness of recent controversies over just how many of the works attributed to him Defoe actually wrote. Yet West is clearly an aficionado of English history, and whatever he lacks in scholarly expertise he makes up for with the empathy that he evinces for his fellow journalist’s travails, which included several jailings for bankruptcy and a famous spell in the pillory. West’s closing chapters on the novels and the Tour tend towards summary, but contain quite moving passages of imaginative sympathy with the author. Not a definitive biography, but rather an endearingly personal one that opens up a window on the soul of a writer who experienced firsthand much of what was vital in his time. (8 pages illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-7867-0557-4
Page count: 446pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1998


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