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Defoe’s Birth

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 45, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 225-230 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0023

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In 1937, James Sutherland began his fine biography of the author of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner by describing the “unsettled and eventful world into which Daniel Defoe was born” before going on to point out, perfectly correctly, that: “The exact date of his birth is unknown.” “From various sources, however, one can make a fairly good guess,” Sutherland continued: “it is almost certain that Defoe was born in the autumn of 1660.”1 In fact, the reasons adduced by Sutherland suggest that Defoe was born in the autumn of 1659 rather than in the autumn of 1660. First, Defoe’s age is given as “ab[ou]t 24” in the license dated 28 December 1683 (not 24 December, as Sutherland has it) which authorized his marriage to the twenty-year-old Mary Tuffley on 1 January 1684.2 Second, in the Preface to The Protestant Monastery—included in both Maximillian E. Novak’s list of Defoe’s works in The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature: Volume 2: 1660–1800 (1971) and P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens’s Critical Bibliography (1998)—”Andrew Moreton, Esq;” writes: “Alas I have but small Health and little Leisure to turn Author, being now in my 67th Year, almost worn out with Age and Sickness.” The Protestant Monastery was dated 1727 on the title-page but actually published in November 1726. And a year later, in Augusta Triumphans, Defoe returns to his physical condition when he insists that: “I have but a short Time to live, nor would I waste my remaining Thread of Life in Vain.”3

There is a complicating factor, however: according to the Parish Register of St Giles, Cripplegate, “Elizab’ daugt’ of James Foe tallowchand’ & of Ailce [i.e. Alice?] not Christe[ned]: [was] borne June 19” in 1659.4 If this were the case, then Defoe patently could not have been born to James and Alice Foe in the autumn of 1659, let alone on 30 September—the date on which Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked on his island, and which, according to some commentators, seems to have had some special significance for Defoe. Thus, in his study of Defoe’s Early Life, Frank Bastian acknowledges that, “[w]ith so many improbabilities, it would be rash to be dogmatic,” but nevertheless he goes on to explain that, “for the sake of convenience it will be assumed, when referring to Defoe’s age, that he was born on 30 September 1660.”5

Until recently, therefore, scholars have tended to assume, on the basis of the evidence of the Preface to The Protestant Monastery, that if Defoe had indeed entered his sixty-seventh year by November 1726, that he was probably born in the autumn of 1660. More recently, however, John Martin has asserted that the author, Daniel Defoe, who wrote The True-Born-Englishman, The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters, and Jure Divino, as well as the series of narratives which we now know as Defoe’s novels, was born not in London in 1660, but in Etton, Northamptonshire, in 1644. The basis of Martin’s assertion is an entry in the Parish Register of the Church of St. Stephen, Etton, which he has posted as a jpeg on the website of the discussion group of the Defoe Society (Defoe@lists). The relevant entry reads: “Daniel the sonne of Daniel Foe & Hellen his wife was baptized 3 December.1644.”

What Martin has yet to do, however, is demonstrate that the author of Robinson Crusoe is the subject of this entry in the Parish Register of St. Stephen, Etton. Instead, Martin argues that, in the absence of an entry in the Parish Register of St. Giles Cripplegate of the baptism of a son of James and Ailce Foe called Daniel, anyone who does not accept that the Daniel Foe baptized at Etton in 1644 is the Daniel Defoe known to posterity must demonstrate that the latter was indeed the son of James Foe, tallowchandler. This is a decidedly odd method of proceeding, particularly when the significant number of documentary references to Defoe that appear to indicate he was born around 1660 in London...

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