Professor dedicates 12 years to Defoe’s ‘treasure trove’

Prof John McVeagh

Prof John McVeagh

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Was Daniel Defoe the blogger of his time? Sheena Hastings asks Defoe expert Prof John McVeagh.

HE was a man whose political leanings could waver depending on the complexion of government, but his views on everything from war, riots, despots, debt and financial speculation to the corrupting influence of both money and power were compellingly and entertainingly forthright. His witty thrice-weekly bulletins were must-read material for those who wanted to be considered in-the-know. Daniel Defoe was, to all intents and purposes, the political and social blogger of his day.

Long before he turned his sharp imagination to fiction with novels including Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, Defoe – born in 1659, the son of London tallow chandler – was a journalist and pamphleteer seeking to open readers’ eyes and minds to the modern world by publishing Review, a kind of extended essay or leader column on affairs of the day. Review was published at first twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then on Saturday too, for nine years. It sold between 400 and 500 copies a time, and each copy was thought to have been read by 20-25 people.

Defoe would usually write in the guise of some fictitious character, and his bulletins were characterised by a talent for being able to argue wittily for absolutely anything, says John McVeagh, a retired English Literature professor from Wakefield, who has dedicated the last 12 years to preparing for publication a completely reset and annotated edition of Review, now available for the first time as an expensive 18-volume set or to be enjoyed on the website of the British Academy, the national body that champions and supports humanities and social sciences.

Like an Alistair Campbell of his day, Defoe would place government policy in the best light, but unlike Campbell he favoured both Whig and Tory policies. Defoe’s became a powerful voice of political and social commentary, despite being mocked by many politicians for having never studied Latin and Greek.

“He was in his early 40s when he started Review in 1704,” says the professor. “He’d failed in various business and was a protestant dissenter, a restless spirit. He was well educated, but in modern subjects like geography and history. He was arrested several times for his views, including a satirical attack on the High Church wanting to jail people for dissent.”

On that occasion, leading politician Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, brokered Defoe’s release from jail in exchange for Defoe’s co-operation as an intelligence agent for the Tories. “Harley, who went on to lead the Tory government for a number of years, became Defoe’s patron and set up the publication of Review, partly because he felt an affinity with dissenters. No-one knew for sure that Defoe was being funded by Harley but it was later found that he had been paid out of secret service funds.

“When Harley fell from power and the Whigs took over, Defoe continued to write Review, but became pro-Whig. It’s been said by some that he was merely a hireling, a mercenary, but he would have described himself as middle-of-the road politically – both mid-Whig and mid-Tory.”

Prof McVeagh’s fascination with Defoe’s fiction started early in his career as a specialist in 17th and 18th century English literature, spending 34 years at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. Research into Defoe’s life and works revealed the amazing treasure trove contained within Review, last published as a collection in 1938. Prof McVeagh promised himself that he would try to get published a new annotated edition of Review, but did not find the time to start the project until he was nearing retirement. Leaving academe and returning to Yorkshire in 2005 meant he could devote himself full-time to Review.

Back in the 1730s Defoe published using the latest technology, and today the professor’s project has used the wonders of 21st century IT. He has provided the publishers with camera-ready copies of the original words, punctuation and layout, but with obvious errors corrected and annotations added.

“You might call me a bit of a nutcase for spending eight hours a day at this for 12 years, but it’s nice to keep a promise to myself. Review is just too good to be ignored. I love the writing. On every other page there is something surprising and poetic. You can also see the novelist he was to become.”

The18-volumes of Daniel Defoe’s Review are published by Pickering and Chatto. Available online at www.britac.ac.uk

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