A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe

This is a super-weird cover, but this is the edition that I read, so here’s a Martian in a plague burka for you.

First published: 1722.

Edition: Signet Classics ed. 1960, J.H. Plumb.

Provenance: found on my mother’s bookshelves and “borrowed” about 2 years ago, never to be returned.

Read: August 2014, on a rainy holiday week in Cumbria.

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A Journal of the Plague Year occupies a curious position, chronologically, in the history of literature. It comes at a point in the development of fiction where “the novel” doesn’t yet exist, as such, but where technically made-up pieces of writing are frequently garlanded with such strong elements of reality that they read more like reportage. It’s an extreme way of trying to assure verisimilitude, and it’s not really surprising that writers dropped it, because it’s time-consuming and distracting to constantly provide the reader with evidentiary back-up. Nevertheless, this is how Defoe presents his account of the great plague that swept London in the year 1665-1666.

One of the first things you notice with Defoe–it doesn’t matter which one of his works you’re reading–is his narrators’ passionate dedication to the reporting of material minutiae. In Robinson Crusoe it’s how many guns he gets off the ship, or what his crop yield in any given year happens to be; in Roxana it’s the obsessive cataloguing of her possessions and fluctuating finances; in A Journal of the Plague Year, of course, it is the death toll. Crusoe was written before Journal, and Roxana was written after it, but both of them use that obsessive tracking as a method of characterization. In Journal, the data is used only to give you a sense of immediacy, which is one good reason, I think, for not categorizing it as a novel.

On the other hand, there are some clever touches in Journal which are characteristic of fiction. Our unnamed narrator decides to stay in London during the plague as a result of Biblical divination. This is a rather dubious form of fortune telling which involves flipping to a random page in the Bible, then pointing to a random sentence thereon, and making your decision according to what it says. It was widely used in the eighteenth century, and represented a kind of capitulation to Providence, which was seen to order all of human history. (There are obvious parallels to be drawn between the concept of Divine Providence and the role of the omnipotent author, who orders the plots and characters of all his works.) But Defoe uses it as a plot device: his narrator must stay in London in order to observe the effects of plague, since that is what the whole book is about, but the narrator can’t just stay in an infection zone for no reason. His belief in divination makes the decision to stay in London more explicable.

And what a hellish London it is. Journal is perhaps most famous for its descriptions of an infected, deserted metropolis, and the more you read it, the more you realize that it is an uncanny precursor of the post-apocalyptic tales that are riding the zeitgeist at the moment. Civil and individual liberties are curtailed in the name of containing the disease: houses in which even one inhabitant is infected are “shut up”–forcibly quarantined–and a system of watchmen is established to prevent any possibly-infected people from leaving. Religious feeling, except for a vocal minority of “atheists and mockers”, is increased: much of the populace believes that the plague is a symptom of divine vengeance. Normal behaviour breaks down: insanity, robbery, and suicide all increase. Rumour runs wild: tales circulate of nurses to the sick who, instead of healing their charges, deliberately smother them. The narrator decides that these reports must be made up, partly because they are too repetitive and similar to one another, and partly because they are too hard to corroborate. Cleverly, his focus on how to determine truth also pulls a reader’s awareness back to the half-and-half nature of Journal.

Defoe is not just interested in compiling the death lists of each parish, although he does that too; the effect of the disease on the city causes him to ponder some very serious ethical questions. On the forced quarantining, which became a source of major public unrest, he writes,

The shutting up of houses…had very great inconveniences in it, and some that were very tragical…But it was authorized by a law, it had the publick good in view…and all the private injuries that were done…must be put to the account of the publick benefit.

Journal was written in an England that had experienced the traumas of the Civil Wars not terribly long before–Defoe didn’t live through the wars himself, but they would have been within living memory for a person slightly older than he–as well as the extraordinary strictness of the Commonwealth. Governmental action that was “authorized by a law” was, in some of these contexts, generally seen as positive (e.g. Parliament’s ability to refuse to grant the king’s request for additional taxes); in others, it proved deeply destructive (e.g. the Rump Parliament’s crackdown on public leisure activities such as theatre). Defoe notes the policy’s legality, but that does not make it less ambiguous. The reader is left uncomfortably aware that many deaths might have been averted by taking a different approach, but also that the quarantine policy clearly seemed to be the best solution at the time.

The authority of personal experience is a particularly prominent bridge of the gap between non-fiction and fiction in this period, and here Defoe’s narrator does not disappoint. He claims believability for his account in part because he works as one of the quarantine watchmen; the job is a duty for the men of a parish much as being an air raid warden might have been during WWII. His meticulousness about recording details,  strengthens his claim to authority by virtue of having been present. When, eventually, he decides to move away from central London with a group of merchants (they stop in the small village of Hackney; one of the uniquely contemporary delights of reading this book is discovering how tiny the city of London was in 1665, and how comprehensively the growth of the modern city has swallowed all of the smaller communities for nearly forty miles around), they camp in a forest, and must answer the challenge of the townspeople. Our narrator is careful to note the particularities of this first meeting: “It seems that John [their leader] was in the tent, but hearing them call he steps out…” It’s the sort of detail that is often cited in arguments about the historical veracity of the Gospels: a circumstance unusual enough to complicate the subsequent action, but which a straightforwardly fictional account would, one imagines, have excised in favor of simplicity. That Defoe chooses to include it in his narrator’s story suggests, again, the balance between reportage and deliberate shaping of the story that characterizes Journal.

There is suspicion, cruelty and brigandry in the book, but there is also extraordinary kindness: the bargeman who continues working to support his children, the country folk who leave bread and meat on a stone for the London refugees. I came away from the book full of admiration and pity for the people who survived such apocalyptic events and continued their daily lives with what Defoe calls “a sort of brutal courage.” Such brutal courage has formed part of the English self-image for centuries; its value as a survival tactic is nowhere more obvious than in A Journal of the Plague Year.

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For more by Defoe, see:

Robinson Crusoe, ed. Michael Shinagel (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994)

Roxana, ed. John Mullan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Moll Flanders, ed. G.A. Starr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971)

Captain Singleton (This appears not to be in print by any reputable house at present, but there are a few non-academic versions online. Try the one by Hardpress Publishing, 2012.)

For more on Defoe’s work and context, see:

The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt (London: The Hogarth Press, 1987)

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe, Richard West (London: Harper Collins, 1997)

Nicholson Baker on “Daniel Defoe and A Journal of the Plague Year” in Second Read, ed. Marcus James (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012)

Dislocating the End: Climax, Closure and the Invention of Genre, Alan Rosen (New York: Peter Lang, 2001)

For more on the Great Plague, see:

Year of Wonders, GeraldineBrooks (London: Viking Press, 2001)

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