Saturday 10 October 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year | Daniel Defoe #Classic

For the first half of this year, I was avoiding plague literature, like the plague! 
But since reading Camus' The Plague during August, I seem to be verging on obsession. What are the signs, I hear you ask? First up, how many people do you know, who take plague literature with them on a holiday to the beach?

I did.

For a week at the beach in September, I packed Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, Emma Donoghue's The Pull of the Stars, Katherine Anne Porter's short story collection Pale Horse Pale Rider and Barbara Tuckman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Enough said!

I think if I had read A Journal of the Plague Year prior to 2020, I may have found the story a bit difficult to follow and maybe even a bit dull with its attention to detail, death lists. laws and regulations. (See Nick @One Catholic Life who read this in 2017 and said, 'Not a bad read, but not something that I plan on rereading again'). However, reading it whilst in the middle of an actual pandemic, has been another experience entirely!

Like my reading of Camus, I was particularly fascinated by the thoughts and feelings and actions of other people throughout history, in coping with plague events.

Once again, it is all there, for us to see (and learn from), if only we would look. 

Everything we are going through right now, has been gone through before. The people just wore different clothes!

With all our wonderful advances in technology and science, we still make the same erroneous assumptions, the same mistakes are made and we go through the same psychological trauma. 

Happily, the same causes for celebration and hope also reoccur with every plague. The hero helpers, the medical staff, and the carers. The law makers who take the time to get it right, who regulate for the common good yet find a way to act humanely and kindly to individuals, the regular folk who do they right things and make personal sacrifices for the greater good. Every time, there are more of these than of the others who rebel, deny or ignore.

My reading of A Journal of the Plague Year was about finding the common experiences.

The rather shambolic structure of the book, can be seen to reflect the chaotic nature of the plague. The fears, the rumours and the disbelief that spread, as the plague approached, the changing laws and (dis)information as the first cases were diagnosed, the grief, loss and suffering that ebbed and flowed with hope and relief at different times. Defoe describes it all, in great detail, several times!

A lot of the rambling style is taken up with the numbers game. 

Just as we watch the daily news and listen to regular updates about how many people were tested today, how many positive cases, how many deaths, how do we compare to other states and other countries, in 1665, they had the Parish Bills posted on the local church board and Bills of Mortality. Defoe tracked the Plague through the various boroughs and counties of England and he also listed the various trades and jobs adversely affected by the Plague. 

The city of London is a central player in this story. Defoe did a lot of research to accurately recall the layouts of streets and shops during this time. His character walks the streets and describes what he sees. This was not an easy thing to do. The streets of the city were crowded, confusing and dirty. And everything changed, the following year, in 1666, when the Great Fire of London gutted most of central London. Defoe had to work on memory and old reference books to bring pre-1666 London to life again. 

Below, I've included a number of quotes, that show the progression and common experiences, as I saw it, during my read.

  • We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things...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 Counsels were held about Ways to prevent its coming over; but it was all very private.
  • it was rumour'd that an order of the Government was to be issued out, to place Turn-pikes and Barriers on the Road, to prevent Peoples travelling; and that the Towns on the Road, would not suffer People from London to pass.
  • that the best Preparation for the Plague was to run away from it.
  • I enclin'd to stay and take my Lot in that Station in which God had plac'd me.
  • Sorrow and Sadness sat upon every Face.
  • the shriecks of Women and Children at the Windows, and Doors of their Houses.
  • already People had, as it were by a general Consent, taken up the Custom of not going out of Doors after Sun-set.
  • It was a very ill Time to be sick in, for if any one complain'd, it was immediately said he had the Plague.
  • it was most surprising thing, to see those Streets, which were usually so thronged, now grown desolate, and so few People to be seen in them.
  • The Apprehensions of the People, were likewise strangely encreas'd by the Error of the times...the People...were more adicted to Prophesies, and Astrological Conjurations, Dreams, and old Wives Tales.
  • These Terrors and Apprehensions of the People, led them into a Thousand weak, foolish, and wicked Things.
  • the people, whose Confusions fitted them to be impos'd upon by all Sorts of Pretenders, and by every Mountebank.
  • the their Praise, that they ventured their Lives so far as even to lose them in the Service of Mankind; They endeavoured to do good, and to save the Lives of others.
  • Every visited House to be...marked with a red Cross.
  • Every visited House to be watched...the shutting up to be for the space of four Weeks after all be whole.
  • That no Hogs, Dogs, or Cats, or Tame Pigeons, or Conies, be suffered to be kept within any part of the City.
  • no wandring Begger be suffered in the Streets of this City, in any fashion or manner, whatsoever.
  • That all Plays, Bear-Baitings, Games, singing of Ballads, Buckler-play, or suck like Causes of Assemblies of People, be utterly prohibited.
  • That all publick Feasting...and Dinners at Taverns, Alehouses, and other Places of common Entertainment be forborn till further Order and Allowance.
  • This shutting up of houses was at first counted a very cruel and Unchristian Method, and the poor People so confin'd made bitter Lamentations.
  • But it was a publick Good that justified the private Mischief.
  • many Families foreseeing the Approach of the Distemper, laid up Stores of Provisions, sufficient for their whole Families, and shut themselves up.
  • this Necessity of going out of our Houses to buy Provisions, was in a great Measure the Ruin of the whole City.
  • the Misery of that Time lay upon the Poor.
  • the Danger of immediate Death to ourselves, took away all Bowels of Love, all Concern for one another.
  • I must acknowledge that this time was Terrible, that I was sometimes at the End of all my Resolutions.
  • Perfumes...Aromaticks, Balsamicks, and Variety of Drugs, and Herbs; in another Salts and Spirits, as every one was furnish'd for their own Preservation.
  • the danger of Relapse upon the whole City, and telling them how such a Relapse might be more fatal and dangerous than the whole Visitation that had been already.
  • in what manner to purge the Houses and Goods, where the Plague had been.
In the appendix of my 2003 Penguin Classics edition, I was reminded that the plague bacillus was not discovered by science until 1894 during the Hongkong epidemic of that year. Until then, the plague was believed to be an airborne disease. 

We now know that the plague was spread by the fleas found on black rats. The bacillus can actually survive in textiles and faeces for up to a year in warm, damp places. 

There are three types of plague - bubonic, pneumonic (or pulmonary) and septicaemic.

The note is made that 'people rarely communicated the disease to each other (except through the coughing of those with pneumonic plague), but in a flea and rat ridden culture, that is almost beside the point.'

Defoe did a brilliant job of bringing to life this time in history. The despair and fear was palpable, the confusion and hopelessness felt real, almost too real, during this time. The people of London were brought low and wondered what they had done to deserve this fate. Yet, Defoe was determined to show us, that it is, in fact, our community, and our desire to live a good collective life, that can save us all in the end.  

One can only imagine what was felt, by the good citizens of London, to have their year of plague followed by a cataclysmic fire. We can take heart from the fact, that those before us, have survived and thrived much worse that a year of coronavirus. This too shall pass.

Previous Plague/Pandemic Reads

Current Plague Reads:
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction)
Up Next:
  • Intimations | Zadie Smith (non-fiction)
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter
Plague/Pandemic Books On My Radar:
  • Station Eleven | Emily St John Mandel
  • Blindness | José Saramago
  • The Last Man | Mary Shelley
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World | Steven Johnson (non-fiction)
  • Nemesis | Philip Roth
  • Love in the Time of Cholera | Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Years of Rice and Salt | Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Dog Stars | Peter Heller
  • The Children’s Hospital | Chris Adrian
  • Severance | Ling Ma
  • The White Plague | Frank Herbert
  • The Passage | Justin Cronin


  1. Great review and a list of 'plague books'...thanks.
    In USA the COVID will pass only when the country
    moves on from 'political public health theater' (i.e. the Covita balcony scene by Trump!) and start working on a national plan to defeat the virus.

    1. The Covita comment had me chuckling all day - thanks :-)
      Having a laugh is the only way I can deal with the news and tweets coming out of the States!

  2. I read the Defoe a while back and while I liked it well enough it did seem an odd thing at the time. Interesting to see what you thought now that it's more relevant again.

    Not much cholera actually in Love in the Time of Cholera, which was sort of a surprise, and in fact the real reference is a bit of an in-joke. (I won't give it away, though, in case you do read it!)

    1. I suspected That LITTOC was not really a plague/epidemic book, but it was on many of the lists online, so I decided to include it, until I read it for myself to see :-)

  3. I've only read Love in the Time of Cholera (so long ago I hardly remember it) and Station Eleven which was wonderful, but I can't bring myself to read it again right now (I read it in 2018, some of it on an airplane which is key in the story -- everytime a passenger coughed I got stressed). I have had 2 nonfiction books about the Spanish Flu on hold from Overdrive, and I can't count how often I've delayed them. I just can't read them right now.


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