Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year

March 19, 2020

41kh7MYOOaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Defoe was born in 1660; the Plague Year was 1665, so this purported account is clearly a very clever fabrication by a master journalist who has some claim to being the first real English novelist.

From the outset his account is presented as a ‘journal’ – so a truthful account by someone who was there and observed and lived though those times; verisimilitude is assumed, and a wealth of local details and knowledge of London establishes the tone of a historical account. There are dates, street-names, figures from the contemporary Bills of Mortality, and stories presented as truthful because acquired from others who were also there at the time.

The scene is established with general historical details in the opening section, after which the narrator introduces himself and his work, and insinuates himself into the historical narrative. It’s clear that Defoe’s is a clever construction, as there is much here that would be commonly available and accurate information, into which he can weave various ‘fictional’ elements that obviously may have some basis in truth… “as I was informed” is a frequently used tag in this narrative.

There are tales of horror and shocking behaviour as well as tales of selflessness and even heroism on the part of some: here is Defoe the journalist with an eighteenth-century eye for good copy.

There are a number of lengthy digressions from the factual narrative, which give more depth and colour but must either be completely fictional, or elaborations based on tales which circulated at the time. It’s interesting to see the early attempts at presentation of dialogue in these early days of the novel: it’s actually set out as if it were a drama script.

Re-reading (after over 30 years) at this particular moment, I was obviously going to notice comparisons with our own day, and these leapt off the page from the beginning: the fake news and concealment of the situation when it began – as seems initially to have been what happened in Wuhan in China – and the rich running away from danger, with rip-off merchants and rogues homing in for a quick buck wherever opportunity offered itself. Defoe details the massive economic consequences to London (and England) of the plague outbreak, something that we are equally focused on at the present. And people can be ill and contagious without exhibiting symptoms: contagion is passed on by the apparently healthy. In the seventeenth century, it was not known that fleas were the plague vector, although there are some hints at the concept of bugs or bacteria when theories about the ‘miasma’ or corrupt air are outlined…

It’s a difficult read, because Defoe is working his way to a narrative style which was only fully to flower much later in the eighteenth century: the overall feel of the work is rambling, disorganised and repetitive: there is no real sense of structure, and there are no chapter divisions. But the main downside for the contemporary reader is the almost complete lack of variation in tone, which leaves the reader feeling tired, and also inclined to skip over tedious sections of narrative: there is nothing to ‘grip’ in the sense of plot development. The lengthy section devoted to the three men of Wapping and their travels about the outer London area are probably the most interesting and closest to what a twenty-first century reader expects from a narrative.

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