Posts Tagged ‘bubonic plague’

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.

Mary Shelley: The Last Man

August 12, 2016

41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_I think this is the fourth time I’ve read or listened to this strangely compelling novel. It’s so much better than Frankenstein, more leisurely paced, with more ideas and more complex characters, though still painfully overblown in the romantic strain in places. But what fascinates me most is that, as far as I’m aware, it’s the first ‘end of the world as we know it’ novel in history. (Do correct me if you know different!)

The Last Man is set in the closing decades of our current century, and ranges widely through different and challenging ideas: the future of England and how it is to be ruled, and its eventually becoming a republic when the heir to the throne steps down (though Parliament eventually votes him Lord Protector), and then the gradual disappearance of humanity with the world ravaged by seven successive years of bubonic plague.

The central characters are a group of friends centred around the ex-royal family of England and their associates; there are also various intermarriages and children, and we follow their lives, happinesses and ultimate fates over quite a lengthy period of time, which allows Shelley to develop real characters, feelings and attitudes.

As with any attempt to see far into the future, she too has problems, particularly with technology. She was looking two hundred and fifty years into the future, and yet cannot conceive of the world itself as radically different politically from her own time, so Greece’s attempts to achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire still figure prominently in the 2050s, while we hear very little of ‘the Americas’, and a love of Italy still looms large, as it did in the late eighteenth century. England is pictured as a relatively prosperous, if not semi-utopian land, and yet Shelley cannot conceive of any kind of industrial or technological progress, which surprises me, since she imagined Frankenstein’s experiments and achievements: travel is still largely by horse (when people actually need to travel), although apparently there are some Montgolfier balloon-type airships for use when speed is required, or in case of emergency. Otherwise we might well still be in 1800… England is not an industrial nation – nowhere is.

But, of course, it’s not hard science she’s interested in here, in contrast to Frankenstein; she is considering humanity under threat from an unseen enemy – plague. Medicine does not seem to have made any advances in the intervening centuries either, so the disease sweeps all before it, and all that it’s possible to do is manage the catastrophe and the depopulation. There are episodes of great heroism and also cowardice as the inevitable end approaches; the last band of 1500 English people set off for better climes in Europe, but give way to rivalries and are beset by religious mania; eventually we come to focus on the last four survivors, and then finally there is one, all alone.

I make it seem rather banal, describing it baldly thus, whereas Shelley does make us care about her characters and their fates, and does get us thinking about humanity’s reaction to total calamity; it is a compelling tale, and even the overwritten, hectically gushing and romantic sections where our emotions are wrung out in search of a response, do not diminish the overall effect of what is a rather neglected classic. Verney, the last man, writes his farewell to the world at the turn of the year 2100 at the top of the dome of St Peter’s in Rome, and then sets off into his unknown. Powerful stuff.

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