THE narrator of A Journal of the Plague Year is an ordinary man, a saddler, in London in 1665, who struggles to make sense of the last significant visitation of the bubonic plague in England.
Is the plague a purely natural phenomenon that can be explained through science? Or is it also a sign of God’s displeasure, a punishment for the excesses of the Restoration and the end of the Puritan experiment with republicanism? If the latter, how is it that King Charles II’s court, which holed up in Oxford, was unaffected, whereas the capital’s poor, especially those with little choice but to work and expose themselves to infection, died in droves?
When Daniel Defoe wrote Plague Year in 1722, he feared that history was about to repeat itself. Reports of an outbreak at Marseille had reached Britain, and Londoners feared that the plague itself would follow. The book is a fictionalised account of events that occurred when Defoe was five years old. We don’t know whether he remained in London as a boy in 1665. The narrator, whom we know only as H. F., could be based on Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe. (It was Daniel who added — or restored — the aristocratic-sounding “De” to the family name.) If there is first-hand testimony in Plague Year, it is supplemented with all kinds of other documents, which H. F. compiles to make sense of this traumatic national experience.
The first thing that will strike readers is the presence of rudimentary data: the Bills of Mortality, which puncture H. F.’s eye-witness narration. These are records of deaths, with causes, returned by each parish. Londoners in 1665 (and 1722) obsessed over these tables, looking for patterns that might herald the pestilence.
In the early months of the plague year, H. F. sees some trends that cause him concern. The data show the plague’s gradual spread, though H. F. must learn to be a canny analyst, recognising that deaths lag behind infections, that methods of deducing causes of death are rudimentary, and that rich people could prevent their deaths being entered as plague cases, thus avoiding having their houses shut up and a watchman posted to prevent exit. As the death rate increases, the priority understandably becomes getting bodies buried rather than examined or counted.
H. F. has to evaluate other kinds of information besides the Bills of Mortality. First, there are the dozens of rumours that he encounters or hears of during the year. Some of these are horrifying: stories of deliberate infections and accounts of stealing from the dead by “searchers” — women employed to examine corpses for buboes. He simply does not want to believe any of this about his fellow citizens.
Then there are reports of remarkable recoveries: one man at the height of infection dashes undressed out of his house, past the watchman, swims the width of the Thames twice, then returns home and hops back into bed. And he gets better: the exertion causes his buboes to burst, and the chilly water abates his fever.
Granger Historical Picture Archive/AlamyAn engraving from a contemporary English broadsheet reporting on the Great Plague of London, 1665
H. F. has to learn to “read” the city and to navigate its dangers by correctly interpreting the signs of the plague — the mortality data, the factual accuracy of the human stories and rumours he hears secondhand, the signs posted by quack physicians promising cures, the marks placed on doors of shut-up houses.
There are also the Orders produced by London’s civic authorities announcing curbs on individual freedoms (for instance, “all publick Feasting . . . and Dinners at Taverns, Alehouses, and other Places of common Entertainment be forborn till further Order and Allowance”). H. F. has conflicted feelings about the suitability of such laws. He tells a long story about three men who defy the mandate to remain in London. Pandemics have always raised questions about the limits of personal freedom and state control.
H. F. himself concludes that the best remedy for the plague is to run from it, but, none the less, he stays in London. He even practises bibliomancy — randomly opening the Bible to get a steer on what he should do — but ignores the message to flee. This tells us much about our narrator, who is our eyes and ears in plague-ravaged London. He is appalled by the scenes of suffering, and yet compelled to seek them out and describe them.
The urge to document, to bear witness, seems therapeutic. H. F.’s account of the Aldgate burial pit, where he sees bodies indiscriminately pelted into a mass grave, is one of the most moving scenes: a challenge to human dignity which makes us ask whether H. F.’s sense that a benevolent God presides over all this can be right. The novel retains a great sense of hope, however, because faith survives a stern test: Defoe, who was a Protestant Dissenter, shows that scepticism — and even atheism — were on the rise, but he reaffirms a Christian outlook by putting stock in the stories of compassion and charity which are just as much a part of the experience as suffering.
Plague Year will appeal to readers who are interested in how great writing emerges from traumatic experience. The prose will sometimes seem rough and unliterary to modern readers, because Defoe sought to capture an “authentic” voice that spoke to (and for) a new kind of ordinary, middling-class reader. But the book’s emotional power and contemporary resonance are hard to deny.
Dr Nicholas Seager teaches English literature at Keele University, where he is Head of the School of Humanities. He was assisted by Amy Louise Blaney, who is pursuing a doctorate in English at Keele, concentrating on literary appropriations of Arthurian legend in the 18th century.
A Journal of the Plague Year is published by Penguin Classics at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9); 978-0-14-043785-0.
A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR — SOME QUESTIONS
- Defoe’s novel is a combination of cold facts and emotional individual stories. What effect did this have, for you?
- What were the difficulties for those fleeing London? Why didn’t more people flee?
- How are doctors and other care-givers characterised in the novel? Do we have different expectations today?
- “Bring out your dead!” The plague of 1665 was characterised by the bodily presence and visibility of the sick and the dead. How does it differ today?
- How does H. F. manage to stay safe? Is it sheer luck, or something else?
- “Some frighted out of their Senses, some out of their Memory, and some out of their Understanding.” How does the plague bring danger and death, other than by the illness itself?
- “Abracadabra.” What role does superstition play in Defoe’s London plague?
- How does human behaviour change (for good and ill) during Defoe’s plague?
- Does it matter that Defoe’s version of the 1665 London plague is at least partly fiction? Is it still a “truthful” rendition?
- What effect does poverty have on Londoners’ experiences of the plague?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 April, we will print extra information about our next book, The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It is published by Penguin Classics at £9.99 (£9); 978-0-241-45481-7.
The Corner That Held Them (1948) is the fictional story of the convent of Our Lady and St Leonard at Oby, a Benedictine convent in Norfolk, beginning at its inception in the 12th century and ending in 1382, when one of the nuns stages an escape. During this time, the convent experiences (sometimes from a distance) the dramatic history of the 14th century, including a visitation from the Black Death. Warner’s novel is, above all, however, a poignant history of the women living in the convent: their daily lives, their intrigues, their struggles and joys, and the nature of the community in which they live.
Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was a poet, novelist, translator, and a musicologist with a specialism in early English church music. Her writing often touches on political questions, and is described as having a satirical, subversive edge. Together with her long-term partner, Valentine Ackland, she was an active member of British Communist Party — and was at one point investigated by MI5 for “communist activities”. Warner also worked in a munitions factory in the First World War, and volunteered with the Red Cross during the Spanish Civil War. She lived most of her life in in rural Dorset and Norfolk.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
May: Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour
June: The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark