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Sat 17 August 2019
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John Mitchinson recounts the life of Daniel Defoe, the Patron Saint of Freelancers and Master of Aliases, who hustled journalism into existence three hundred years ago.

When did journalism begin? The first recorded use of the word isn’t until 1821 but most social historians agree that what we call ‘journalism’ started with Daniel Defoe’s The Review, the periodical he produced between 1704 and 1713.

The Review didn’t just report the news, it carried commentary and interpretation, placing the political and economic events of the day in historical context, taking the government to task and leavening the analysis with satire and scandal.

The greatest part of the people … cannot read at all, but they will gather about one that can read, and listen to the Review in the streets.

Its success was immediate and unprecedented; as one rival noted: “the greatest part of the people … cannot read at all, but they will gather about one that can read, and listen to the Review in the streets”. Defoe’s Review laid down the template for the Tatler and the Spectator which followed and he produced three issues a week, almost entirely on his own. That would be enough for most writers. Defoe wasn’t most writers.


Jack of All Trades

Daniel Defoe

He had originally been earmarked for the non-conformist ministry but young Daniel decided to follow his father into trade. No one could fault his entrepreneurial spirit. He traded in hosiery, wine, tobacco, timber. He set up a breeding farm for civet cats in Stoke Newington, to provide musk for perfume. He opened a brick and tile factory near Tilbury. He developed a deep understanding of banking, finance and credit. He just wasn’t very good at the actual business.

There are 318 works officially attributed to Defoe and it was probably closer to 400.

By 1692 his restless speculation had left him bankrupt, with debts of £17,000 (£680,000 in today’s money). He was never to fully clear them, and the pressure of money is what drove his astonishing profligacy.

There are 318 works officially attributed to Defoe and it was probably closer to 400. As well as inventing journalism, he is the patron saint of freelancers: he wrote for anyone who paid, Tory or Whig, and had over 198 recorded pen names, including Frank Faithfull, Jack Indifferent, Miranda Meanwell, Mr Eminent, Tom Manywife and The Father of Modern Prose Fiction.

This last isn’t even a boast. Defoe might have failed at trade but he won at fame, adding the invention of the English novel to his list of achievements with the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719, when he was sixty. He created Moll Flanders and Roxana, two of the most liberated and powerful female protagonists in all literature. His A Journal of the Plague Year reads like the first zombie novel. And in the character of Crusoe he creates what James Joyce called ‘the true prototype of the British colonist’, foreshadowing the imminent rise of empire.

Defoe’s political writings can and have been claimed by both Left and Right. But he was a tireless defender of religious and press freedoms and his patriotism was as nuanced as that of his most obvious modern heir, George Orwell. His response to the Farages of his day is particularly magnificent:

“I only infer that an Englishman, of all men, ought not to despise foreigners as such, and I think the inference is just, since what they are to-day, we were yesterday, and to-morrow they will be like us.”

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