Daniel Defoe was born in 1660, in London, and was originally christened Daniel Foe, changing his name around the age of thirty-five to sound more aristocratic. Like his character Robinson Crusoe, Defoe was a third child. His mother and father, James and Mary Foe, were Presbyterian dissenters. James Foe was a middle-class wax and candle merchant. As a boy, Daniel witnessed two of the greatest disasters of the 17th century: a recurrence of the plague and the Great Fire of London in 1666. These events may have shaped his fascination with catastrophes and survival in his writing. Defoe attended a respected school in Dorking, where he was an excellent student, but as a Presbyterian, he was forbidden to attend Oxford or Cambridge. He entered a dissenting institution called Morton’s Academy and considered becoming a Presbyterian minister. Though he abandoned this plan, his Protestant values endured throughout his life despite discrimination and persecution, and these values are expressed in Robinson Crusoe. In 1683, Defoe became a traveling hosiery salesman. Visiting Holland, France, and Spain on business, Defoe developed a taste for travel that lasted throughout his life. His fiction reflects this interest; his characters Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe both change their lives by voyaging far from their native England.

Defoe became successful as a merchant, establishing his headquarters in a high-class neighborhood of London. A year after starting up his business, he married an heiress named Mary Tuffley, who brought him the sizeable fortune of 3,700 pounds as dowry. A fervent critic of King James II, Defoe became affiliated with the supporters of the duke of Monmouth, who led a rebellion against the king in 1685. When the rebellion failed, Defoe was essentially forced out of England, and he spent three years in Europe writing tracts against James II. When the king was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and replaced by William of Orange, Defoe was able to return to England and to his business. Unfortunately, Defoe did not have the same financial success as previously, and by 1692 he was bankrupt, having accumulated the huge sum of 17,000 pounds in debts. Though he eventually paid off most of the total, he was never again entirely free from debt, and the theme of financial vicissitudes—the wild ups and downs in one’s pocketbook—became a prominent theme in his later novels. Robinson Crusoe contains many reflections about the value of money.

Around this time, Defoe began to write, partly as a moneymaking venture. One of his first creations was a poem written in 1701, entitled “The True-Born Englishman,” which became popular and earned Defoe some celebrity. He also wrote political pamphlets. One of these, The Shortest Way with Dissenters, was a satire on persecutors of dissenters and sold well among the ruling Anglican elite until they realized that it was mocking their own practices. As a result, Defoe was publicly pilloried—his hands and wrists locked in a wooden device—in 1703, and jailed in Newgate Prison. During this time his business failed. Released through the intervention of Robert Harley, a Tory minister and Speaker of Parliament, Defoe worked as a publicist, political journalist, and pamphleteer for Harley and other politicians. He also worked as a spy, reveling in aliases and disguises, reflecting his own variable identity as merchant, poet, journalist, and prisoner. This theme of changeable identity would later be expressed in the life of Robinson Crusoe, who becomes merchant, slave, plantation owner, and even unofficial king. In his writing, Defoe often used a pseudonym simply because he enjoyed the effect. He was incredibly wide-ranging and productive as a writer, turning out over 500 books and pamphlets during his life.

Defoe began writing fiction late in life, around the age of sixty. He published his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, in 1719, attracting a large middle-class readership. He followed in 1722 with Moll Flanders, the story of a tough, streetwise heroine whose fortunes rise and fall dramatically. Both works straddle the border between journalism and fiction. Robinson Crusoe was based on the true story of a shipwrecked seaman named Alexander Selkirk and was passed off as history, while Moll Flanders included dark prison scenes drawn from Defoe’s own experiences in Newgate and interviews with prisoners. His focus on the actual conditions of everyday life and avoidance of the courtly and the heroic made Defoe a revolutionary in English literature and helped define the new genre of the novel. Stylistically, Defoe was a great innovator. Dispensing with the ornate style associated with the upper classes, Defoe used the simple, direct, fact-based style of the middle classes, which became the new standard for the English novel. With Robinson Crusoe’s theme of solitary human existence, Defoe paved the way for the central modern theme of alienation and isolation. Defoe died in London on April 24, 1731, of a fatal “lethargy”—an unclear diagnosis that may refer to a stroke.

Read more about Defoe’s Moll Flanders.