A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

I get a tremendous thrill out of reading works written in English that are more than 200 years old. When I read them, I think, “This came from a time and place unimaginably distant from today, and yet I am as close to him (or her) as if he was sitting in the same room and speaking to me.”*

However,  the pleasure I get from such works is more intellectual. I am rarely engrossed by such works. I don’t get lost in them, generally getting through them is work, albeit generally rewarding work. Most of them are in verse, and I am no great lover of verse. Even the prose works are written in strange forms that have no modern analogues: the dialogue, or the discourse, or the chronicle, or the narrative (although this last is not as bad). The writing is formal, and the conventions are unfamiliar to me. I read them, and am interested, but I rarely become thoroughly engrossed in them the way that I can become engrossed in much older, but more comprehensible, works from other cultures (like the Arabian Nights or Roman histories).

But that was not the case this time. A Journal Of The Plague Year is nearly 290 years old. It was published in 1722. But I found it intensely gripping.

Perhaps that’s not surprising. This book was published during the very early heydays of the novel, which is certainly the prose long-form that I am most familiar and comfortable with. The Wikipedia entry for A Journal of the Plague Year even calls it a novel. However, I find that classification to be somewhat dubious.

I’m not going to get all English-professory on you, because I can’t. I don’t know what the formal definition of “novel” is (and Wikipedia is no help on this), but I think that, whatever it is, novels are fictional narratives.** Around the time that the novel was developed, the structural differences between fiction and non-fiction started to become more clear.

Nowadays, we don’t have any such thing as Plato’s Dialogues or Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning Two World Systems: works of philosophy or science structured as fictional dialogues between two people. It just doesn’t make sense to people.

Nor do we have the historical romance: the presumably historical account of great people doing great events that is structured like a tale (and sometimes there’s even magic in there).

(I mean, of course that’s a simplification, since we do still have both things, like Richard Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach or Valerio Manfredi’s novels about Alexander the Great, but the former is notable exactly because it is strange, and the latter is based on primary and secondary sources, it does not purport to be and is not taken as a primary source in itself in the same that, say,  Le Morte d’Arthur did).

Based on that criteria, A Journal Of The Plague Year is really not quite there yet. Oh wait, here is where I should probably explain what it’s about. Basically, it purports to be the journal of a person who stayed in London during the outbreak of bubonic plague (The Great Plague) in 1665 (yes, right before the fire, to which the author makes numerous references as well). It’s not really clear how fictionalized the work is. Of course it’s not Daniel Defoe’s journal, since he was five when the plague happened. And he very clearly wrote it, in his own words, sometime around 1720. But the degree to which it’s based on his uncle Henry Foe’s journals (it came out under the name H.F.) was unclear to me, at least after the five minutes of Googling I was willing to devote to this topic.

However, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this account is way too much like a real journal to come off like a fictional journal. Nowadays, a fictional journal would still be written in scenes, it would have named characters, dialogue, it would describe actions as they happen. But this account is the way real journals have usually been: it’s an account of thoughts, anecdotes, impressions, arguments. There are long sections where he argues about the government’s policy with regards to dealing with the plague (particularly shutting up health people in houses with their infected family members). There are all kinds of colorful anecdotes (usually about infected people running down the street bare-ass naked). There are many images, but few real scenes. It comes across far more like a history than like a novel, and that kind of fuzziness ought to have really put me off it.

But it didn’t, because, really, who wants to read a novel about the plague? You’d just end up with something gross, like Camus’ The Plague, where dozens of pages are expended on the pangs of being parted from far-off lovers while thousands of people die between paragraphs. I’d rather have a gory first-person journal, anyway day. Because, you know what? There’s never going to be another Plague Year.

I know, astonishing. I mean, there are far more diseases nowadays than there were in 1665, but there are no plagues (diseases that quite literally decimate a city’s population within one year and then disappear). And while that makes me happy, it also means that without works like this, we lose some vital information about the human spirit.

What do people act like when there’s a plague? What do they think about? What precautions do they take? How do those precautions work? Without a book like this, we’d never know.

As I said, the book is extremely readable, that’s because (aside from the little problem of its fictionality), it fits quite neatly into one modern nonfiction genre: the first-person explication. In these works (Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions Of An English Opium Eater are good examples that I’ve read recently), the author spices up what is partly a stately explanation of facts with a sort of shadowy frame story that periodically inserts itself into the foreground to deliver anecdotes to support said facts. It’s not the best vehicle for delivering facts, or making arguments as to causes or results, but it is an amazing vehicle for carrying impressions, and when you’re talking about something that is never, ever going to happen again, impressions are just as important as facts.

Also, just as an aside, this novel is interesting in that it doesn’t venture into the drawing room at all. All the gentry of Austen novels are absent from the account, they left the city at the first sign of trouble. The Royal Court is off at Oxford acting out their own version of the Decameron. The hero of the novel is a saddler (someone who makes saddles?). And the people in it are servants, workmen, tradesmen, artisans, maids, bailiffs, etc. I always find that to be particularly exciting, particularly in an older work.

Here’s a link to the Project Gutenberg version that I read, in case anyone wanted it.

*Although the versions of their works that I read have probably modernized the spelling. Maybe the pronunciation was a bit different back then, too, but, given the comprehensibility of their written English, I imagine that I’d still be able to understand their spoken English.

**Yes, there are things commonly called novels that totally violate this rule, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood…but…whatever, defining shit is hard, yo.

6 Comments on “A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

  1. This book sounds fascinating, but I also feel that I need to express how unnerved I am that you are blithely disclaiming the possibility of a city-disintegrating plague ever happening again. Don’t jinx us!

    • I feel pretty confident in saying that. I mean, on the one hand it’s a very limited claim. At least in the gay community, AIDS was as devastating as the bubonic plague, but it didn’t result in a “Plague Year”…panic in the streets….a quarter of a city’s population dying, etc. And Malaria and TB carry off tons of people each year, but these are also lower-mortality, slower, chronic diseases that don’t result in pandemics.

      But given modern social organization, I doubt the ability of a relatively high-mortality illness to carry off a significant fraction of the urban population of even a very poor nation within one year. Even given drug-resistant strains of the illness, our ability to attack the vectors of disease is so much greater than it was in 1665. I mean, they had a pretty good empirically-based notion of what kinds of situations transmitted the plague (which is why they didn’t let people enter plague houses or touch goods, particularly textiles, that had been around the plague, etc.) but in modern times we could just drop a losd of DDT on a city and kill every rat flea for a hundred miles around. Or we could kill every rat. With regards to diseases transmitted by person-to-person contact, there just isn’t as much person to person contact nowadays as there was then…

      I dunno, probably some epidemiologist would disagree with me, but I would tend to think that epidemiologists have a certain vested interest in not decrying the possibility of pandemics, just the same way that meteorologists are secretly in love with blizzards and hurricanes.

  2. I was initially tempted to jump in to defend Camus’s The Plague, which I read last year. After reading your entire post, though, I think any defense would be as irrelevant as comparing apples to oranges. Sure, The Plague is an interesting philosophical thought experiment, but a (somewhat) first-hand account of a plagued city is an entirely different animal. I’m intrigued. Maybe I’ll check it out on Project Gutenberg. I also wonder if A Journal of the Plague Year inspired Camus to write his novel.

    • No need to defend it. The Plague is really good….and kind of an uplifting novel too. I liked it alot. But it can descend into silliness at times, when the nature of its concerns are compared to what would be the actual concerns of plagued city.

  3. Pingback: I would like to read a dull plotless novel, because all the plotless novels I’ve read have been too awesome « Blotter Paper

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