Friday, March 08, 2013

Did you mean to attach a document?

As part of my continual trawl through various letters collections, I wandered into those of Daniel Defoe recently. There are almost no extant letters of a personal nature--as George Harris Healey wrote in his introduction to the 1955 collection he edited, "One searches in vain for a single letter written to his parents, or to Mary Defoe, patient helpmeet of a half-century of small triumphs and great calamities."

Which leaves business and politics, in both of which Defoe was up to his ears. Many of the letters are written to patrons, and thus are almost unreadable today for all their florid praise and nonsense. The occasional letter, however, jumps out for its immediacy: when, as a journalist (and spy) in Scotland promoting the cause of union, Defoe scribbles the news and hurries it on its way, the power and immediacy of political machinations come to life, feeling almost news-like, even familiar and contemporary.

My favorite letter, however, is the following, sent on April 17, 1712 to Defoe's patron and spymaster, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford. In the introduction, Healey acknowledges his gratitude to Harley for preserving so many of Defoe's letters . . . though he could have done a slightly better job:
The cautious Harley was a collector, and it is to his instinct for keeping things that we owe the happy preservation of most of the letters in this book. One may wince at his occasional practice of tearing off the now-prized signature of his secret agent, but he did not destroy the letter itself, and for that the student of Defoe must always be the debtor of Harley.
The letter itself I think you'll find amusing:
I am to ask Pardon for a Mistake I thought my Self Uncapable of (Viz.:) That having written to your Ldpp last Night for Cover of The Enclosed, and Given The letter to a Servt to Carry, I Found The Receipt on My Table left Out. I have left it without Date because your Ldpp So Ordred before. I Humbly Ask your Ldpps pardon for the Mistake And am

May it Please your Ldpp

Your Most Humble and Obedt Srvt—

Daniel Defoe
That's right: even three hundred years ago people were forgetting to attach the document before hitting Send.


  1. I have read a lot of novels and short stories by Daniel Defoe, but 've never wondered about his life out of literary work. You have really alerted my attention with all these Scottish spy thing and engagement in politics. Thanks!

  2. Glad to hear it. He had a strange and fascinating life--with lots of gaps that are difficult to document these days and lead people to all sorts of speculations.