FOR ONE who has been called “the father of the English novel”, a leading pioneer of political journalism and the principal primary source of our understanding of Britain as it was 300 years ago, it is surprising how much of the life of Daniel Defoe remains obscure and mysterious.
Of his earliest years we know only that he was born in London about 1660, the son of a prosperous tallow chandler; that he later changed his name from Foe to Defoe; that he started out as a wholesale hosier; that he married young for a dowry of £3,700; and that eventually he fathered seven daughters and two sons.
Yet he never seems to have been out of trouble for long or free of debt and the threat of imprisonment. Often he lived on the edge of disaster. In 1685 he joined the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against James II and was lucky to escape from the battlefield of Sedgemoor unscathed. Two years later he was even more fortunate to be pardoned for his past treason.
With his dowry money he set up a brick and tile factory at Tilbury but by 1692 he was bankrupt and as a result spent some uncomfortable time in the Fleet prison.
To those who attacked King William because he was a Dutch foreign usurper, in a vitriolic outburst he reminded these self-styled “true-born Englishmen” that they belonged to the most mongrel nation in Europe. For a brilliant ironic pamphlet against the intolerance of the hierarchy of the Anglican church he was sent to Newgate gaol and forced to endure the public pillory. Hypocrisy and bigotry were his main targets.
In 1704 he founded and edited a twice- or thrice-weekly periodical called The Review and for the next nine years in it he teased and lectured his readers with satirical sketches on politics, trade and manners. During the time he was also employed as a secret government spy and made extensive fact-finding tours of England and Scotland.
Following another bleak period of poverty and persecution, he began to express his robust views in a series of entirely original novels. Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, Journal of the Plague Year and Roxana appeared in rapid succession.
Most profitable was Robinson Crusoe which since 1719 has never been out of print. Only the Bible has been printed in more languages.
Finally, between 1724 and 1726, in three volumes, came A Tour Through The Whole Island of Britain, the fruit of his travels and in essence a paean of patriotic praise of British industry, commerce and prosperity.
Nevertheless, when Defoe died in 1731 he was alone, in hiding from his creditors and estranged from his family. It was a sad end to a wonderfully creative career.
Exactly when (or when if) Defoe visited Scarborough it is impossible to say and scarcely matters. Passing into Yorkshire out of Nottinghamshire, he wrote that he journeyed north to Tadcaster, lingered a while in York, looked at Beverley, admired the bustle of Hull and then found nothing of interest all the way up the coast until he reached Scarborough.
For a tourist interested mainly in industrial and commercial centres, he encountered little in Scarborough to keep him there for long. Indeed there is some doubt whether he ever set foot in the town at all. Conspicuously absent from his alleged observations were references either to sea-bathing, invented at Scarborough, or ship-building, for which the harbour front was already deservedly famous.
Though it was true, as he wrote, that “the strong castle, situate on a rock” had been “ruined in the last (civil) wars,” it was certainly not the case that it had been “demolish’d.” On the contrary, since the sieges of the 1640s the castle had been repaired and permanently garrisoned. Apart from the damage to the keep, which still stood proudly to its former height, gateway, barbican, drawbridges and the full length of the curtain wall with its towers remained more or less intact. Even Charles’ tower, overlooking South Steel, had not yet fallen down the cliff.
Briefly, he recorded only three features of Scarborough “the good company ... from all the north of England and even from Scotland” there to drink the waters; the spa waters “ting’d with a collection of mineral salts”; and the rich variety of tasty fish available in the town. Yet all of these could have been discovered from reading any one of the travel and guide books of the time, such as John Macky’s A Journey Through England, published first in 1714. We know that Defoe certainly read Macky’s work since he made only spiteful remarks about it!
Suspicion about Defoe’s honesty deepens when we read on to his next place of call, Whitby. It did not require a visit there to know that Whitby had an “excellent harbour” or that the town had grown rich building ships for the coal trade, but Defoe gave himself away by saying that it was at “the entrance of a little nameless river”!
To describe the mouth of the river Esk as “little” and “nameless” and to make not even a cursory reference to the great mansion house of the Cholmleys on the East Cliff or even to the alum industry which had brought prosperity to the whole neighbourhood confirm Defoe’s dishonesty as well as his ignorance.
Still, perhaps the author of Robinson Crusoe can be pardoned for at least this one literary deceit.