A Journal Of The Plague Year

A Journal Of The Plague Year by Daniel Defoe is an account of when the great plague visited London in 1665. There is a debate among scholars as to whether this is purely a work of fiction or based upon some memoirs that Defoe discovered (ostensibly of his uncle H.F., a person of the same initials who supposedly writes the account we read). Either way, it was a very interesting look at the plague and its ravages through London.

I was surprised to read how slowly the plague moved through London. It started toward the west, and slowly made it's way east. I know that it was spread by flea bites and not an airborne pathogen, but I still expected it to travel faster than it did. A Journal is not just a strict narrative however. It includes accounts of what the author derides as nonsense from astrologers, old women and quacks, a wonderful story concerning three men from Wapping who decided to escape and ended up living in Epping Forest with some escapees they found, and general stories from when H.F. wandered around the town, such as concerning the naked Quaker. It is also interesting to read what was thought to spread the plague (contact with an infected person, which given it was flea bites isn't too off the mark), and the various ways that were devised to combat the spread. A lot of attention is paid to the plight of the poor, generally so as they were unable to flee London and make safe retreat to the countryside. You can't help but feel sympathy for the poor of those days as they struggled to make a living and just survive the year.

I did think though that the book suffered a little from not being divided up into sections. It is effectively a 242 page essay, and in some parts I found some of the musings not entirely relevant and sometimes caught my mind wandering. For the most part though, I found it to be a very interesting account of life during the plague, fiction or non-fiction.

As I was reading A Journal, it struck me that the seemingly oft-quoted 'fact' by historians nowadays, that the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed any last semblance of the plague, is a nonsense, and I was intrigued to find the following amidst the last few pages of the book:

"But the time was not fully come that the city was to be purged by fire, nor was it far off; for within nine months more I saw it all lying in ashes; when, as some of our quacking philsophers pretend, the seeds of the plague were entirely destroyed, and not before; a notion too ridiculous to speak of here, since, had the seeds of the plague remained in the houses, not to be destroyed but by fire, how has it been that they have not since broken out, seeing all those buildings in the suburbs and liberties, all in the great parishes of Stepney, Whitechapel, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Shoreditch, Cripplegate, and St Giles, where the fire never came, and where the plague raged with the greatest violence, remain still in the same condition they were in before?"

That quotation also illustrates one of the difficulties, at least for me, of reading 17th and 18th century literature - the massively long sentences. It reminds me of reading primary sources from the 1640s in A-Level History, with seemingly a whole page being one sentence.

The following is a part of the book that frankly I never seem to tire of coming across, which is the almost folk beliefs of people which nowadays seem quite ludicrous and yet very imaginative. Viz:

"I have heard it was the opinion of others that it might be distinguished by the party's breathing upon a piece of glass, where, the breath condensing, there might living creatures be seen by a microscope, of strange, monstrous, and frightful shapes, such as dragons, snakes, serpents, and devils, horrible to behold. But this I very much question the truth of, and we had no microscopes at that time, as I remember, to make the experiment with.

It was the opinion also of another learned man, that the breath of such a person would poison and instantly kill a bird; not only a small bird, but even a cock or hen, and that, if it did not immediately kill the latter, it would cause them to be roupy, as they call it; particularly that if they had laid any eggs at any time, they would all be rotten."

The final thing which I have to remark upon is the actual book itself. I purchased a copy of this book in the Barnes & Noble Library Of Essential Reading, a rather grandiose titled collection, but the cover, paper and print are all nice to behold. However, I would stop short of recommending this particular edition, and any others in this collection until I have assurances from Barnes & Noble that what I noticed in this particular book does not happen throughout their whole Essential Reading set. At first, I noticed a typo, which I was willing to overlook as we all make mistakes. But then I kept finding them, and they were what I think of as stupid mistakes, as you will see below:

P34 - 'as if the plague was not the hand of Cod'
P39 - 'concerning the infection of the pague'
p60 - 'it was the loth of September'
p85 - 'yet where they had tent perhaps their wives and children away'
p118 - 'by degrees his head tank into his body, so between his shoulders, the the crown of his head was very little teen above the bone of his shoulders'
p180 - 'prodigious numbers which would have been tick at a time'
p233 - 'I cannot but leave it upon record that the civil officers, such as constables, head-boroughs.Lord Mayor's and sheriff's-men'

To me this mistakes are especially infuriating as they are all foolish and careless to have made. If I am paying for a book, I do not expect so many idiotic mistakes. We will see if Barnes & Noble get back to me.

That aside, this is an interesting book for anyone who may feel obliged to pick it up - I think that speaks for itself as it is hardly a book that one would casually look upon and decide to read.


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