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Published I bought it several months ago and it seemed to be timely to read it now The parallels are chilling the Face of Things I say was much altered Sorrow and Sadness sat upon every face and tho some Part were not yet overwhelmed yet all looked deeply concerned and as we saw it apparently comi Because writing is an expression of human character what is true of one s character is true of one s writing as well A person s strengths and weaknesses are often two sides of the same coin the sympathetic character is often permissive the assertive unreasonable the ardent rash and the same thing can be said of an author s beauties and his faults A brief study of Daniel Defoe s book on the London plague of 1665 1666 illustrates this principlePerhaps the most impressive thing about A Journal of the Plague Year is that it is an extraordinarily convincing account narrated by the voice of a mature solid citizen thoroughly respectable and reliable who has personally witnessed the extraordinary and often horrific incidents he describes Defoe however although did he live in London at the time was born in 1660 and was therefore only five years old when the Hand of Death fell upon the city of LondonDefoe creates a convincing persona by making his narrator a stolid burgher who fears his God respects his fellow Londoners and admires his city an unimaginative man who above all reverences reliable testimony and verifiable facts Plague Year is crammed with rolls of the dead and other helpful lists as well as page upon page of city regulations governing the duties of citizens the conduct of the inspectors etc Although there are many vivid glimpses of life during plague crazed sufferers expiring in the streets healthy families shut up in their houses by decree diseased individuals defying city orders open pits waiting for wagons stacked high with the dead these scenes are often obscured by heaps of accumulated detail piles of haphazardly organized materials The book although impressive is inelegant its organizational principles unclear it appears to be the work of a literate layman not a professional writer Paradoxically it is precisely this impression of amateurishness that makes the voice and therefore the work itself so powerful and convincing a performanceAs with Robinson Crusoe so it is with A Journal of the Plague Year I can never decide whether Defoe is merely an unsophisticated novelist addicted to lists and repetitive details or whether like the poet satirists of his own 18th Century he is a master at constructing personae that convince the reader with their sincerity and authorityIs the hobbling inartful appearance of Plague Year a strength or is it a weakness I for one think it s a toss up Two sides of the same coin It was a very ill time to be sick in My pandemic reading continues with this classic work about one of the worst diseases in European history bubonic plague Daniel Defoe wrote this account when the boundaries between fiction and non fiction were looser He freely mixes invention hearsay anecdote and real statistics in pursuit of a gripping yarn Defoe himself was only a young boy when the Great Plague struck London in 1664 6 but he writes the story in the person of a well to do curious if somewhat unimaginative burgher with the initials HF The result is one of literature s most enduring portraits of a city besieged by diseaseThough this account purports to be a ournal it is not written as a series of dated entries but as one long scrawl What is Defoe s narrator is not the most orderly of writers and freuently repeats himself or gets sidetracked The book is thus rather slow and painful to read since it lacks any conspicuous structure to grasp onto but approaches a kind of bumbled stream of consciousness Even so there are so many memorable details and stories in this book that it is worth the time one spends with it The Great Plague carried off one fourth of London s population about 100000 souls and it was not even the worst outbreak of plague in the city The original wave of the Black Death in the middle ages was undoubtedly worse Still losing a uarter of a city s population is something that is difficult for most of us to even imagine And when you consider that the Great Fire of London was uick on the plague s heels you come to the conclusion that this was not the best time to be a LondonerWhat is most striking about reading this book now is how familiar it is The coronavirus is no bubonic plague but it seems our reactions to disease have not come a long way There are of course the scenes of desolation empty streets and mass graves The citizens anxiously read the statistics in the newspaper to see if the numbers are trending upwards or downwards And then there are the uacks and mountebanks selling sham remedies and magical elixirs to the desperate We also see the ways that disease affects the rich and the poor differently the rich could afford to flee the city while the poor faced disease and starvation And the economic conseuences were dreadful shutting up business leaving thousands unemployed and halting commerceMedical science was entirely useless against the disease Nowadays we can effectively treat the plague with antibiotics though the mortality rate is still 10% But at the time little could be done Infection with the bacillus causes swollen lymph nodes in the groin armpits and neck called buboes and it was believed that the swellings had to be punctured and drained This likely did harm than good and in practice the plague doctors only useful purpose was to keep records of the deaduite interesting to observe were the antiue forms of social distancing a term that of course did not exist that the Londoners practiced As now people tried to avoid going out of their homes as much as possible and if they did go out they tried to keep a distance from others and to avoid touching anything Defoe describes people picking up their own meat at the butcher s and dropping their money into a pan of vinegar to disinfect it There was also state mandated uarantining as any house with an infection got shut up meaning the inhabitants could not leave Ironically though these measures would have been wise had the disease been viral they made little sense for a disease communicated by rat fleas Defoe does mention by the way that the people put out rat poison which probably helped than all of the distancing One commonality is that the disease outlasted people s patience and prudence As soon as an abatement was observed in the weekly deaths citizens rushed out to embrace each other and resume normal life despite the warning of the town s physicians Not much has changed after all So while not exactly pleasant to read A Journal of the Plague Year is at least humbling for the contemporary reader as it reminds us that perhaps we have not come so far as we thought And it is also a timely reminder that far from a novel and unpredictable event the current crisis is one of many plagues that we have weathered in our time on this perilous globe The Danse Macabre from The Seventh Seal is no mystery to me today why it is that the name of an eighteenth century novelist Moll Flanders Robinson Crusoe is still known okay not to everyone but to readers of literature He s Defender for Hire (Heroes for Hire, just flat out a great writer This book which has been staring me in the face on my books to be read during the pandemic list for a few months isust exactly the kind of literary mountain I have historically liked to climb for reasons probably closer to masochism than anything else But as I said I liked Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe and have a bunch of pandemic books unread on my to read list And then I thought I might see how the Black Death was like or unlike Covid 19 We know so much now we are so advanced We respect science We know what to do to save ourselvesI Spots Fun with Friends j You will notice right away Defoe sournalistic approach rife with supporting statistics His powers as a writer and boldness of presentation are clearly beyond the pale As was the case with Robinson Crusoe he was not forthright with sources or veracity in the tale It is often impossible to tell where he obtained his facts and how much was mere inventionA Journal of the Plague year is a vast catalogue of deaths in all manners of protracted agonies distempers including plenty of murthering crazed wives fraught with frantic sualor He adds sen. Ery private Hence it was that this rumour died off again and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in and that we hoped was not true; till the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664 when two men said to be Frenchmen died of the plague in Long Acre or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane The family they were in endeavoured to conceal it as much as possible but as it had gotten some vent in the discourse of the neighbourhood the Secretaries of State got knowledge of it; and concerning themselves to inuire about it in order to be certain of the truth two physicians and a surgeon were ordered to go to the house and make inspection This they did; and finding evident tokens of the sickness upon both the bodies that were dead they gave their opinions publicly that they died of the plagu.
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In 1664 Borif De Pfeffel Jonffon was the Mayor of London He was widely popular with his flowing blonde wig and extravagant ruff Having invented the highly successful sport of peacock wiff waff where live cocks were thwacked across a bronze table with scimitars then skinned and served whole to the victors his electoral success was secured In spite of his various mistresses several of them chambermaids and lower ranking countesses his re election the following year seemed certain He promised the electorate new steam powered horse and carts a plumbing system that reduced pong by 34% a complete ban on orange erkins and a promise to invent peroxide by 1669 A year later Borif was re elected Everyone loved his extravagant lying ways He was such a character He was such a cad a bounder a cuddly fluffy bugger upper such a British bumbler Two weeks into his second term as Mayor the Plague erupted across the city Borif promised a million vaccines He promised a hundred tubes of Savlon per household By the end of the year 70000 people had perished from the plague In 1666 Borif claimed a rousing victory at having seen off the virus single handedly with hardly no assistance from his recently sacked adviser Dominick Cummingf A few weeks later the Great Fire broke out and Borif promised 100000 water cannons to arrive within the hour By the end of the year 436 acres of London was destroyed At the next election Boris was re elected with a landslide wherever there was land or people left History teaches us nothing One of the problems with reviewing the earliest authors of fiction is that they were writing at a time before the rules had been properly worked out Novels took on the form we know and love because of these writer s successes and because of their failures It was up to them to forge the templates and if a certain template didn t work then they could try a new one with the next book A Journal of the Plague year is a case in point Although Defoe was alive at the time of plague this is actually a fictional account written sixty years later but one which relies heavily on anecdotal reportage Defoe gives us a narrator to guide us through but this man is ust a cipher a pair of eyes and ears to relate what he sees and hears We know where he lives what he does how many servants he has and that he has a brother but not much else about him He is there to tell the tales Defoe heard to describe scenes that Defoe saw or at least had described to him by others But the fact he has little definable character means there s an odd vacuum at the centre a distance that stops the reader fully empathising It s a decision few authors of a later vintage would have taken if only because they d learnt from this book s mistake In addition as perhaps befits the first person account of a tradesman the tale is not separated into chapters and rambles constantly down odd little cul de sacs With the result that it can often be an irritating readThat s not to say that there aren t good things in this book the descriptions of the mass graves and a populous so caught in madness they will proclaim their own sins in the middle of the road will certainly stay with me But this is not the most accessible of fictional histories and is a book that really makes you work hard for the treasures it has Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography cclapcentercom I am the original author of this essay as well as the owner of CCLaP it is not being reprinted illegallyThe CCLaP 100 In which I read for the first time a hundred so called classics then write reports on whether or not they deserve the labelEssay 62 A Journal of the Plague Year 1722 by Daniel Defoe The story in a nutshellAlthough not actually written until sixty years later but on that in a bit Daniel Defoe s 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year is pretty much what it sounds like a purportedly true account of London s Great Plague of 1665 the last outbreak of the bubonic plague the city would ever see supposedly written by an average middle classer who decided to wait things out instead of fleeing to the countryside like so many others As such then the book doesn t really have a three act plot per se but is a rambling collection of observations anecdotes and actual hard data from an examination of the religious fervor that overtook the city during the worst months to a detailed look at how home uarantines actually worked to second hand accounts of the eual amount of trouble awaiting poor peasants who tried living illegally in the rural wilds of England that year to horror stories of people literally bursting into goo in the middle of public streets or of cemetery workers who would literally die while on their way to mass graves with a cart full of corpses leaving the city full of wandering teams of horses dragging dead bodies randomly to and fro Although almost 300 years old by now be warned that this is still not for the faint of heart The argument for it being a classicThe case for this being a classic is a pretty simple one it is arguably the very first historical novel in human history and in fact it was the centuries of passionate debate about whether this should be considered fact or fiction that even led to the term in the first place and to this genre eventually becoming as popular as it now is For example although not proven it s widely believed that our narrator HF is based on Defoe s relative Henry Foe who actually was a young adult craftsman in London during the 65 plague and who may or may not have left a detailed ournal where Defoe culled many of these stories and for another example Defoe even went to the trouble of including slang terms and intentional misspellings from the 1660s that had fallen out of favor by the 1720s On top of this though say its fans the book s simply one freaky nightmare of a read a surprisingly plain spoken and readable book befitting the Enlightenment times when it was actually written that has had an enormous impact on not only historical novels but the horror genre and post apocalyptic fiction and that has directly influenced everyone from Albert Camus to Cormac McCarthy to even Monty Python and the Holy Grail That movie s famous line Bring out yer dead was lifted directly from this book The argument againstThere seems to be two main arguments against The Plague Year being a classic although admittedly both of them weak ones first that as a mere prototype of a genre that didn t acuire its main tropes until a century later the book s digressive nature and outdated language is hard to read and follow and second that although this book may be good enough on its own it s Defoe s much famous and important Robinson Crusoe that should actually be considered the indisputable classic in that that s the book widely considered to be the very first three act novel in the history of the English language My verdictAs I ve said in this essay series before I think to truly enjoy books that are this old it s important to understand the context in which they were written and to know what kinds of things were influencing both the author himself and the original audience he was writing for and so in the case of The Plague Year understanding this context makes the book much fascinating than simply its writing uality may make it seem and is crucial for understanding why I found this such a surprisingly fantastic read Because you see Defoe was not only one of the first novelists in British history a format he came to know and love during his travels in southern Europe as a businessman in the late 1600s but he chose to use this format specifically to comment on the hottest trendiest issues of the day making him essentially the Michael Crichton of the Enlightenment and it ust so happens that ust a year before this was written the French city of Marseilles went through a major new outbreak of the bubonic plague which inspired the British public and its newfound ournalism industry to obsessively look back at their own plague of 56 years previous and to examine all the ways that their society had profoundly changed since thenNow combine this with the Great London Fire Neimhaim (Neimhaim, just one year after this 1665 plague a one two knockout to the city that left it largely empty of people and burned to the ground and was the very thing that transformed it in those years into the post Medieval modern infrastructure we. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe This novel is an account of one man's experiences of the year 1665 in which the Great Plague or the bubonic plague struck the city of London The book is told somewhat chronologically though without sections or chapter headings Presented as an eyewitness account of the events at the time it was written in the yearsust prior to the book's first publication in March 1722 Defoe was only five years old in 1665 and the book itself was published under the initials H F and is probably based on the ournals of Defoe's uncle Henry Foe It was about the beginning of September 1664 that I among the rest of my neighbours heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the year 1663 whith.
Now know when you take all these things into consideration then The Plague Year suddenly becomes not ust a horror story and important precedent in the development of historical fiction but indeed serves as no less than a grand epic look at the transformation of Britain in this 60 year period from the last vestiges of the Middle Ages to the Age of Science of Defoe s own times I mean certainly a lot of this book suddenly starts making a lot sense when you assume that this was Defoe s actual goal he goes on and on in it for example about the shamefully superstitious way that 1600s Londoners actually react In the crowded unhealthy unclean foul pest dominated filthy city of London the Black Plague breaks out in 1665 no surprise it had occurred before in fact Carrying the Greeks Heir just a few years previously but this escalates felling some say 100000 people who never rise again Daniel Defoe the inventor of the English language novel Robinson Crusoe 1719 yet because of his earlier employment was aournalist than a novelist writes a memoir of this catastrophe almost sixty years later The author was only five years old at the time but his Uncle Henry Foe Defoe added De to make himself seem a gentleman his father was a butcher takes this eyewitness account from this relative s ournal the narrator is only described as HF The alarmed inhabitants of the city mostly flee for their lives the rich first King Charles the Second to Oxford others to the nearby countryside the poor survive in the woods old ruined shacks or in tents even outside the locals don t help at first afraid to get sick too Many refugees starve to death some succumb to the unmerciful disease the very brave stay in London those that work for the city government the least well off remain also nowhere to go the hardest hit and die freuently in the streets their minds inflamed by illness babbling words incomprehensible before dropping to the ground The Dead Carts pick up the victims and bury them in deep holes mass graves are uickly covered and another one dug for the next batch The narrator s brother had urged him to get out of town like him but HF had a store to run a house to take care of with servants and warehouses full of his goods how could he Still his sister would welcome him she lived faraway in a different city The curious yet frightened man roams the streets seeing the dead scattered everywhere hearing unearthly screams from ill women in their homes windows opened moans flowing from above dazed men in nightshirts cursing groaning people asking God to save them why did he not leave Whole families dying inside a house fathers mothers children servants the stench of the bodies spreading to passersby they keep walking Londoners afraid to come near strangers they believe are infected by their polluted air not knowing the diseased rats and flees that bite them and the many citizens of the city are the real killers Pitiful beggars abound asking for help houses are shut with the owners inside either by the government with the sick there or healthy ones trying to avoid the deadly plague by hiding Vicious thieves break into the empty homes stealing all not afraid of the danger so desperate the situation nothing to lose thinking everybody is doomed And the Dead Carts continue to roll down the pestilent streets the drivers throwing the deceased in filling it to the top until no living humans are left A splendid glance back to a depressing time with little medicine ignorance and superstitions that dominated the scene a mirror into yesteryear The year is 1665 and the plague has come to London It has come like a thief in the night stealing into town one or two fatalities at a time and then growing to a level that is uncontrollable and unimaginable The account is fiction since Devoe was too young to have remembered most of the events he covers but it is so obviously based on the first hand memories of those who did survive and the records of the time that it reads like non fiction The voice of the narrator reinforces the feeling of reality by inserting from time to time his assertions that this is his own recollection not necessarily the only truth or full truth but the truth as he can tell it as it seemed to him at the timeWhat I found the most interesting about this account was the correlations I could draw to the attitudes and reactions to the disease as it pertains to our own situation with the COVID 19 pandemic If anything would make you feel better about the current situation it would be hearing the details of what people endured during this one We think social distancing and sheltering in place is difficult but imagine being locked into your house and having your children confined with you because one person in the household has the disease Instead of removing the sick person and caring for the well the sound were penned inside with the ill and in almost every house that experienced this scenario every person inside diedThere were looters sadly this has not changed who took advantage of the emptied houses and businesses that were unable to function What a sad commentary on mankind that these people would be willing to steal even at the risk of contracting this horrid disease The power of avarice was so strong in some that they would run any hazard to steal and to plunder and particularly in houses where all the families or inhabitants have been dead and carried out they would break in at all hazards and without regard to the danger of infection take even the clothes off the dead bodies and the bed clothes from others where they lay deadThere were charlatans who preyed upon the desire of people to get well or avoid getting sick There were happily also those who risked their own lives in caring for the sick in feeding those who fled in hopes of outrunning the plague in carrying away the dead bodies so that they did not rot in the houses and streets and endanger even of the population This kind of courage we also see today I think it ought to be recorded to the honour of such men as well clergy as physicians surgeons apothecaries magistrates and officers of every kind as also all useful people who ventured their lives in discharge of their duty as most certainly all such as stayed did to the last degree and several of all these kinds did not only venture but lose their lives on that sad occasionPeople were asked to distance themselves from one another but many defied the warnings and mingled at will some had no choice but to go abroad to obtain necessities some had obs nursing carrying off the dead supplying the houses that were locked down ministering to the people that prevented them from distancing Many fled the city into the country and as a result were either prohibited from passing through towns and died of want or inadvertently spread the disease to areas that might have otherwise escaped the blight More than a few paid with their lives I enjoyed reading most of this account There was a tendency toward repetition and there was no attempt to make the narrator anything other than an observer so there was no central figure on which to hang one s hopes or emotions It was a recounting of the most horrible things that could have and did happen during this tormenting event I confess to being brought to a gasp by the killing of all the animals dogs cats and ponies in an effort to stop the spread of the disease This without any understanding that a flea was most likely responsible for the disease in the beginning This was simply a measure I had not considered when imagining what had happened during the battle against the plague and one that took me off guard than all the human suffering which I was entirely braced for If you ever think there is something going on in this world that has never been experienced before it is good to turn to history and realize you are wrong Others have endured all this and It is good to be grateful for what has changed it is odd to realize how little has changed It is the story of your life but perhaps it is ust the story of life Daniel Defoe wrote this fictionalised account by an author known only as HF of the 1664 bubonic plague outbreak in London otherwise known as the Black Death He wrote it some 50 years after the events Defoe was fascinated by plagues and did a huge amount of research producing a work that was believed to be a true account for some decades after it was. Er they say it was brought some said from Italy others from the Levant among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things and to improve them by the invention of men as I have lived to see practised since But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation as they do now But it seems that the Government had a true account of it and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept
Daniel Defoe 16591661 1731 was an English writer journalist and spy who gained enduring fame for his novel Robinson Crusoe Defoe is notable for being one of the earliest practitioners of the novel and helped popularize the genre in Britain In some texts he is even referred to as one of the founders if not the founder of the English novel A prolific and versatile writer he wrote m