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Book Review: 'A Journal Of The Plague Year'

He didn’t at first appreciate the scare and chose to stay in the crowded city. And he hadn’t at the start stockpiled food or self-isolated or realized the extent of the contagion. But he did come to acknowledge the horror and the “brutal courage” of those who tried to help. “He” was Daniel Defoe. The time was 1722. The occasion, the publication of “A Journal of the Plague Year,” three years after Robinson Crusoe. In the “Journal” Defoe is looking back 57 years to when The Great Plague hit London, one year before The Great Fire would destroy just about anything that was left. Ironically it was probably the fire that helped finally destroy the vermin carrying the infecting bacteria.

Writer, merchant, at times spy, Daniel Defoe created in the “Journal” a chronological first-person narrative of the epidemic in the voice of a middle-class tradesman, a saddler. Defoe would have been 5 when The Plague broke out, so his gripping on-the-scene account, augmented by research, must be considered historical fiction. But it reads like nonfiction. Some say he composed it from notes kept by his uncle, Henry Foe, whose initials – H.F. – end the narrative. Defoe, whose birth name was Foe, added the “De” to his name. 

Filled with statistics and personal observations, the narrative runs straight through without section breaks. It’s a lot to take in but is ever wary of facts as opposed to rumors, sanity vs. panic, science over superstition. The opportunists are everywhere – charlatans, thieves, quacks and doomsday prognosticators who blamed The Plague on sinners, usually the poor, and then offered to sell them repentance or cures. 

Amazingly, the mayor of the city and most local parish leaders did not run away, though they did not know what to do. They were slow to set up “pest houses” and to restrict people to their homes. Even so, both measures were largely ineffective – too little, too late. There was confusion, cruelty, but there was also charity and compassion. 

As in our own day, many early on did or could not believe what was happening. There were no newspapers yet, but evidence piled up – the stench in the streets, the screams of the afflicted, the bellman’s cry, “Bring Out Your Dead.” Parish by parish, the rodent-spread Plague spawned burial pits, death carts, murders, suicides. 

Why did H.F. stay? Out of “curiosity” he says, while eventually admitting he should have left for the countryside with his brother. But he also evinces a kind of fatalism – God will do what God will do, though he’s quick to add that only man makes a mess of things, out of greed, desperation, ignorance. 

“A Journal of the Plague Year “is a grim, well written, reflective record of behavior under siege. It’s long, determinedly repetitive for emphasis and can be dipped into. For sure it’s instructive, fine journalism, fierce in its details but fair. A reminder of the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Though the narrator at the end is guardedly optimistic that humanity can be reclaimed out of horror.  

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.
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