Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year

Written and published half a century after the events it describes – namely the plague decimating London in 1665, one year before the Great Fire – much has been made about just how fictional the book is. As far as I can tell, it is a judicious mix of facts and figures (Defoe is quite scrupulous about sharing statistics), but the author livens them up with the rumours and personal stories of the times. Like some of the best journalists of today, he gives us both the overall picture, noting patterns and tendencies, but also allows us to hear individual voices and compelling anecdotes.

It is also remarkably easy and quick to read – much closer to the language of our time than Chaucer or Shakespeare, although the meanings of some words and expressions have changed or got lost. A good husband, for example, is someone who is thrifty, careful about handling money. And you may not have heard of ‘higlers’ – travelling salesmen. On the whole, however, it is amazingly, almost frighteningly modern.

If I’d read this at any other time before this year, I’d have enjoyed it as a good piece of ‘reportage’. Reading it in 2020 is almost too close to present-day reality. What he says about the start of the plague, the growing number of cases, the dodgy accounting of causes of death so as not to panic the public, the spats and quarrels breaking out in the streets and markets, individuals resisting public orders etc. mirror so much what we are going through currently. Perhaps it demonstrates that neither human society nor human nature have evolved as much as we’d like to think, that our progress has been but a thin veneer that is liable to get dented at the first sign of hardship.

Here’s Defoe on social media (or so it seems):

I could fill this account with the strange relations such people gave every day of what they had seen; and everyone was so positive of their having seen what they pretended to see, that there was no contradicting them without breach of friendship, or being accounted rude and unmannerly…

On breaking self-isolation while waiting for test results:

In this interval, between their being taken sick and the examiners coming, the master of the house had leisure and liberty to remove himself or all his family, if he knew whither to go, and many did so. But the great disaster was that many did thus after they were really infected themselves, and so carried the disease into the houses of those who were so hospitable as to receive them; which, it must be confessed, was very cruel and ungrateful.

Defoe on frontline workers and the social categories hardest hit by the plague:

It must be confessed that though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage…

And here he waxes ‘lyrically’ about how well-prepared those ruling London were for the pandemic, how confused their messaging was, and where their priorities lay:

Surely never city, at least of this bulk and magnitude, was taken in a condition so perfectly unprepared for such a dreadful visitation, whether I am to speak of the civil preparations or religious. They were, indeed, as if they had had no warning, no expectation, no apprehensions, and consequently the least provision imaginable was made for it in a public way. For example, the Lord Mayor and sheriffs had made no provisions as magistrates for the regulations which were to be observed. They had gone into no measures for the relief of the poor. The citizens had no public magazines or store-houses for corn or meal for the subsistence of the poor… The Chamber of London was said to be exceedingly rich, and it may be concluded that they were so, by the vast sums of money issued from thence in the public rebuilding of the public edifices after the fire of London… But possibly the managers of the city’s credit at that time made more conscience of breaking in upon the orhpan’s money to show charity to the distressed citizens than the managers in the following years did to beautify the city and re-edify the buildings…

I wonder what Defoe would have written about the present time, but he was certainly sharp-tongued back then (and at a distance sufficiently removed from events that he could criticise freely):

I often reflected… how it was for want of timely entering into measures and managements, as well public as private, that all the confusions that followed were brought upon us, and that such a prodigious number of people sank in that disaster, which, if proper steps had been taken, might, Providence concurring, have been avoided, and which, if posterity think fit, they may take a caution and warning from.

Clearly, we humans are not great at learning the lessons from history – or else we are highly selective with the history we choose to teach and glorify. As we head into another uncertain and dangerous period here in the UK, without even the comfort of sunshine, long days and the outdoors to sustain us, Defoe’s Journal can provide you with much despair if you allow it to, but also some comfort. Big cities have always been prone to destruction, epidemics, sieges, occupation… but they (and their people) have usually survived and even learnt new ways in which to flourish.

16 thoughts on “Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year”

  1. That’s a very encouraging final paragraph! After reading Rose Macaulay’s one-hundred-year-old satire of the British press, which rang very loud bells, recently now your review of Defoe, I’m in need of a little cheer.

  2. I’ve been putting off reading this since the lockdown, but reading your post encourages me to read it! I had an inkling it would be relevant, but no idea that it would be so close to our present situation. Great review.

  3. How eerily close to our own experience, Marina Sofia! It’s unsettling (even though the story is lively and well-written) how closely this mirrors current events. I wonder what he’d make of what’s happening now…

    1. I wonder that all the time: him, George Orwell, Joseph Roth and other such brilliant writers/journalists. I think they’d be disappointed that we haven’t learnt much from past mistakes.

  4. These quotes are unbelievable.
    That’s why literature is always relevant: it strips off advancements in technology and changes in mores and shows you the unchangeable part of humans.

    I too wonder what Orwell would wrote about today. And Camus.

  5. I should re-read this. I first did so in comfortably unplagued times. And so it was just a piece of history. You show just how contemporary it was. Unfortunately.

  6. That last paragraph is encouraging. I haven’t read this but I have been wondering about it – I normally read a lot about plagues and epidemics because I’m very interested in medical history, but I haven’t touched a pandemic book since before lockdown. This does sound like it’s worth getting to though. I wonder what novels and nonfiction will eventually become the ones that future readers will pick up to tell about this time.

  7. I have this in the TBR and I’d completely forgotten about it! You’ve inspired me to dig it out Marina, I’ve enjoyed other Defoe that I’ve read and this does sound worryingly relevant.

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