A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

Well, we seem to be spending time in slightly dark territory on the Ramblings at the moment: from the impulse to self-destruct we move on to plague… I blame external forces of course (lovely Fitzcarraldo volumes and flash sales, the Backlisted Podcast); nevertheless, I don’t always want to be reading lighter works, although after these two I think I might need some contrast… ๐Ÿ˜‰

Daniel Defoe is, of course, best known as the author of “Robinson Crusoe”; it’s a book I read some time ago, pre-blog, and of course everyone probably knows the plot. I’ve heard him called the inventor of the novel as we know it, and certainly his characters and works have entered into the collective consciousness. “A Journal of the Plague Year” is a more unusual beast; it’s purportedly just that, a record of the year the Great Plague took hold of London, killing hundreds of thousands of its population, as well as spreading to some other parts of England. Our narrator is only identified at the very end of the book by a pair of initials, H.F., and he stays in London during the plague as our witness.

So we follow H.F. as he watches the Bills of Mortality announcing the number of deaths; as he ranges the oddly deserted streets, noting the marks on the doors of people’s houses indicating infection, with a Watchman stationed outside to let nobody in or out; and as he visits the plague pits, dug to bury the dead as there are so many of them that the traditional methods have gone out of the window. H.F. relates tales tragic and hopeful; of families dying out completely, of the charity of human beings, of the watermen down on the river going into hiding on their vessels, of a group escaping into the country and setting up camp. And over all of this the spectre of the plague looms and rages, killing seemingly indiscriminately, coming and going in ferocity, until the people of London wonder, at the height of its power, if anyone will actually survive.

But alas! This was a Time when every oneโ€™s private Safety lay so near them, that they had no Room to pity the Distresses of others; for every one had Death, as it were, at his Door, and many even in their Families, and knew not what to do, or whither to fly.

“Plague” is not a book that’s a quick or easy read, but it *is* incredibly vivid and compelling; Defoe captures the landscape of Mediaeval London and its people quite wonderfully, and it’s obvious that he knew both well. The City comes alive, with its narrow winding streets, dirt and grime, bustling population and wooden buildings. Really, the city itself is the main player in the story; HF, although he reveals a little about himself, is an observer and chronicler, there to be our eyes and ears, giving us a terrifying glimpse into the past.

…there was more of a Tale than of Truth in those Things.

You might wonder whether a book like this is relevant to us in our modern world, but it most certainly is. So many of the elements of life Defoe writes about are incredlby modern: from the quack doctors and those peddling scam cures, to the nascent mass media to the folk devils created by the popular imagination, this is a world very recognisably ours. So many things resonated with me; truly, humans and their quirks and their world might change superficially but underneath we’re still pretty much the same and driven by the same desires and fears.

We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv’d to see practis’d since.

The writing and the narrative structure are fascinating as well. The book is incredibly atmospheric, with Defoe/H.F. capturing the sense of impending doom that spreads over the city, that feeling of being trapped and unable to escape the coming doom. The concept of the streets of London being empty and deserted is one that nowadays we would always connect with some kind of disaster taking place, and it was no different back in Defoe’s day. In many ways the book set the template for plague literature to come; for example, Camus draws heavily on it, although his book is an allegory. The book is very discursive, too, contrasting H.F. going back and forward between events with laws and regulations, statistics from the Bills and stories of individuals or groups trying to escape the plague. That structure echoes the ebb and flow of the plague as it moves from west to east across London, its virulence rising and falling, until finally the tide turns and its strength diminishes before finally dying away. Interestingly, the forthcoming Great Fire of London is referred to, although oddly H.F.’s narrative implies the plague was gone before the scourging flames of the Great Fire arrived to finish it off. Strangely, I believe modern thinking is that H.F. might be right…

Penguin Classic and Norton Critical Edition – both have a lot going for them!

I found “Plague” an utterly absorbing read, one which opened a window onto an area of the past as well as convincing me that the underlying nature of human beings really doesn’t change. Certain sections were quite chilling, particularly the part when H.F. visited the Plague Pits where people were being flung nightly in an attempt to keep everyone properly buried. These pits are still there under the modern city of London we know, and have been excavated in recent years when works are done in the metropolis; it’s a little scary how the past reaches out into our lives. I was also struck by the fact that, despite the city having been razed by the later fire, so many of the place names H.F. mentions are familiar ones which still exist now. Apparently, the city was rebuilt over the original street plan, but with brick instead of wood and no open sewers – all of which must have been a vast improvement on the narrow, filthy and teeming streets of plague time…

So – is this history masquerading as novel or the novel as history? I don’t actually think that matters for a book as special as this. Defoe himself was five when the plague broke out, so may well have had some memories of the tumult. Additionally, he had an uncle called Henry Foe (H.F.!) who stayed in London during the plague, and it’s probable that he drew on his uncle’s memories or journals. However, he’s known to have consulted any number of reference works on the period, and knowing enough about what had happened coupled with his talents as a writer combines to make the narrative a most convincing one – and as has been said elsewhere, the nearest thing to a gripping contemporary account.

You might wonder why should you read this book nowadays? Any number of reasons, really. To get a glimpse of human beings under extreme situations, and a look at old London before it was lost in the fire; to see that there really isn’t much in our modern world that hasn’t happened before; and to enjoy the writing of an early master of the novel. “Plague” is dark reading in places, but there are also uplifting moments and an underlying faith in the fact that whatever gets thrown at it, humanity will survive. I don’t know that I would have picked this up if the Backlisted Podcast hadn’t sung its praises so highly; but I’m really glad I did!

*****

As you can see from the image, I have two different editions of “A Journal of the Plague Year” – I suffered raging indecision when trying to decide which edition to buy and ended up with the Penguin Classic (you can’t go wrong with a Penguin Classic) and the Norton Critical Edition. Both are excellent versions to have, being based on the original 1722 edition, but the supporting material is different in each. The Penguin comes with useful notes and chronology, Anthony Burgess’s introduction to the 1966 Penguin English Library edition, as well as glossary and map. The Norton Critical version perhaps looks a little more widely, with excerpts from other plague literature which come up to the contemporary, as well as other material from the time. I read the Penguin because the type was bigger(!), the book easier to hold (Penguins tend to flop open nicely and stay in place), and the extras were just enough for me at the time. However, I’ve been dipping into the Norton supporting material too, and it *is* good. So maybe if you can find both of these versions at a reasonable price, you should consider investing in them both… ๐Ÿ™‚