Defoe on Sheppard and Wild

Daniel Defoe and Prof. Richard Holmes, O.B.E.

In this pioneering series, Richard Holmes, the world’s leading Romantic biographer, sets out to recover the great forgotten tradition of English biographical writing. ‘I have had no time for dusty tomes,’ writes Holmes, ‘I have looked for brevity, intelligence and style. Above all, I have sought out great biographical writers: biographers with passion, biographers who have found a way to the heart and soul of a memorable subject.’ Jack Sheppard was an 18th-century Houdini – a handsome young escape artist who broke out of his cell on Newgate’s grim Death Row three times. Jonathan Wild was the infamous Thief-Taker General who helped to recapture him and many other criminals, only to be tried and executed himself for racketeering, among scenes of mayhem at Tyburn. Daniel Defoe, the master of adventure fiction, was fascinated by ‘True Confessions’ and the workings of the criminal personality (including its daring, its stoicism and its humour). He was the first to retell these stories, based on personal interviews in Newgate, which also include a thrilling (sometimes hour by hour) reconstruction of events.