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Michigan State University

Defoe and the Plague in London 1664-1665: Daniel Defoe

Guide accompanies a small book exhibit in the Lobby of the Main Library.

Daniel Defoe

The digital version of this MSU  Library rare book exhibit is here.  The virtual exhibit contains visuals not in this library research guide.

Daniel Defoe in Brief. His Writings. And Plague

Daniel Defoe, 1660?-1731 was a London area based businessman, journalist, political pamphleteer, spy, and one of the early proponents of the novel as a genre of literature.  Students still read his novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.  His Review was one of the earliest periodicals.  He was the youngest of three children of James and Alice Foe.  His father was a prosperous London tallow chandler, a maker of candles from animal fat, used for home lighting.  With his devoted wife, Mary Tuffley, he had six daughters and two sons, all but two of whom lived into adulthood.  The family were Dissenters, Nonconformists,  Protestants not affiliated with the State Church, the Church of  England.  Initially engaged in the wholesale hosiery business, he invested unwisely in various business ventures, went bankrupt, and went to debtors' prison.  He also went to prison for some of his religious writings and for libel.

He was Whiggish politically, but like many in his era Defoe did not want to be identified with any one political party and wrote in support of more than one side on many issues.  He supported freedom of religion and freedom of the press.  Fewer than one quarter of his works, conservatively estimated at  518 titles, are in print today.  In the EEBO and ECCO databases of full texts of early English books to 1800 there are 1144 entries for him as an author!  

From the early 1700s, Defoe turned to writing to make a living.  He authored nonfiction books, pamphlets, and journals on politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology, and the supernatural; he went on to pen novels.  He was a pioneer of  business and economic journalism, fields he grew and shaped to provide opinion on topics, as well as information.   He served as an unofficial intelligence gatherer and “spy” for Robert Harley, Queen Anne’s Lord High Treasurer, who was her chief advisor.  While Defoe was not an official civil servant, Harley paid him to travel around England and Scotland seeking out information.  He listened to people conversing in private and public places, tried to influence their thinking, and conveyed their opinions and thoughts to government personnel.  He published many pamphlets and periodical articles addressing what concerned people, informing and shaping public opinion.

He had a great interest in the both the practical and spiritual experiences of Londoners during the plague of 1664-1665.  The approach of plague in his own time, the early 1720s, also motivated him to write about it.  The 1664-65 plague happened when he was about six years old and his own family fled London to live more safely.  His books Journal of the Plague Year and Due Preparations for the Plague, on display here, came out nearly simultaneously, but he meant them for different audiences.  


Michigan State University