A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1722)

7th March 2021

It is perhaps not surprising that, in the current prolonged circumstances of dealing with the impact of Covid-19, I have been drawn to the great work by Daniel Defoe.

I prepared for my reading of the novel with a little research into the Great Plague, which is estimated to have killed approximately 100,000 people in London – almost a quarter of the city’s population – in 18 months during 1665 and 1666. A similar number may have died elsewhere in England. It was the last major epidemic of bubonic plague to occur in England. Reports of the plague had been noted in the preceding years, with quarantining regulations being introduced for ships from Amsterdam and Hamburg from November 1663. The regulations were extended to all the regions of the Dutch Republic in May 1664, although they were later removed for Hamburg.

A Journal of the Plague Year was published in 1722: 57 years after the events that it was describing. Academic scholars continue to debate whether the book is a work of fiction or of non-fictional history, though it is generally agreed that its content provides an accurate representation of the London and surrounding districts of 1665. Defoe was only 5 years old at the time of the Great Plague and it is believed that he drew on the journals of his uncle, Henry Foe, who lived in Whitechapel. The narrator of the novel is “HF”.

Defoe did his research. He conducted interviews with survivors and consulted some of the official records. The book contains a number of summary tables of statistics – reporting on the numbers of deaths by parish, for example – which I found added to the clarity and drama of the narrative.

Defoe’s story provides a litany of descriptions which parallel our experiences in 2020 and 2021: the first physical sign of plague on the body (a small black swelling or “bubo” or “token”) [for which read the modern headaches and loss of taste and
smell]; the quarantining of all within a house in which anyone was affected [self-isolation]; the strains imposed by having “no Liberty to stir, neither for Air or Exercise forty Days” [quarantine’s effects on mental well-being]; the deaths of physicians seeking to tend to those who had been afflicted – “they ventured their Lives so far as even to lose them in the Service of Mankind” [the loss of health service and care workers]; the occasional safety of the middle of the great streets, avoiding the entrances to houses from which people might come out [social distancing]; the passing on of the plague by those who apparently showed no symptoms i.e. “by the well… [who] had received the Contagion and had it really upon them… yet did not show the Consequences of it… nay even were not sensible of it themselves, as many were not for several Days” [the need for a robust “track and trace” system]; the scrutiny of the Bills of Mortality (the weekly parish record of deaths) to monitor the geographical spread of the disease and its rising toll [the daily score-keeping on the evening news broadcasts].

The authorities in London did not stand idle. The plague was not uncommon in 17th Century England and the policy response was based on past experience. The set of “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London” in 1665 provided a wide sweep of instructions.

These began with the swearing in of Examiners to enquire “what Houses in every Parish be Visited [by the plague, this was a “Visitation”] and of what Persons be sick and of what Diseases” and the appointment of Watchmen to stand guard outside infected houses. The practical requirements included “for the burial of the Dead…that all the Graves should be at least six Foot deep” and “that every House visited be marked with a red Cross of a Foot long in the middle of the Door … and with these usual printed Words, that is to say ‘Lord have Mercy upon us’.

The restrictions on social activity included that “all publick Feasting… and Dinners at Taverns, Ale-houses and other Places of common Entertainment be forbidden until further Order” and “that no Company or Person be suffered to remain or come into any Tavern, Ale-house or Coffe[e]-house to drink after nine of the Clock in the Evening”. As noted, the parallels with more recent experience are noticeable: I particularly liked the instruction “that disorderly Tipling in Taverns, Ale-houses… be severely looked into…”.

Defoe is generally impressed by the handling of the Great Plague by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen in the City of London, not least by the fact that they themselves did not flee into one of the surrounding counties. There was no serious breakdown in social order, partly because the Lord Mayor insisted that the City’s ovens continue to provide an adequate supply of bread to prevent its price from rising precipitously.

Nonetheless, the attempts to avoid being trapped by the regulations were widespread. The Watchmen’s role was to prevent anyone from leaving a house in which there was a plague victim. For many of those thus imprisoned – especially, the apparently healthy – the combination of continued confinement and nearness to the sick and dying was unmanageable and escape became paramount. Defoe has some sympathy to their plight on the road – where they would often not be taken in by anyone else – whilst critical of those who had been infected and were therefore aiding the spread of the disease outside London.

Defoe describes the ends to which the impoverished would go to make ends meet – and again not without some sympathy: the Watchman taking a bribe to turn a blind eye, the Burier purloining a fine linen in which a corpse was about to be consigned to the burial pit… All human life is here, with all its faults.

The first cases of the plague were in Holborn – in the parishes of St Giles in the Fields and St Martins – but it was not long before it swept east and into the City. “The Physicians could [not] stop God’s Judgements or prevent a Distemper eminently armed from Heaven from Executing the Errand it was sent about”. The reference to God is revealing. The narrator’s decision to remain in London, rather than flee to the country in the company of his brother and family, was driven, on the eve of his departure, by a chance reading of Psalm 91, “A thousand shall fall at thy side and ten thousand at thy right hand but it shall not come nigh thee… there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling…

Defoe evocatively describes the devastation to life and society amongst those who did not flee. It is a horror story brought about not only by the proximity to physical decay and death, but the general lack of understanding of cause and treatment. In the London of 1665, there was no peer-reviewed panacea in the form of vaccinations from Pfizer or AstraZeneca, of course, and the narrator is scathing of the opportunist money-making from the remedies provided by “Quacks and Mountebanks, Wizards and Fortune-tellers”.But there was also resilience and determination and, eventually, hope and civic recovery.

Defoe ends his tale on something of a downbeat note – and one that we would do well to consider as we make our way into the landscape of whatever our “new normal” turns out to be. Will our experience of Covid-19 – whether direct or by association or at a distance – lead us to re-evaluate what our priorities should be? His narrator’s summary of the post-plague behaviours is not encouraging, as he refers to “the Unthankfulness and Return of all manner of Wickedness among us”. The God-fearing HF, having noted how many had initially been “giving God Thanks for their Deliverance”, draws from Psalm 106 to describe how subsequently: “… it might too justly be said of them, as was said of the Children of Israel, after their being delivered from the host of Pharaoh, when they passed the Red Sea and look’d back and saw the Egyptians overwhelmed in the Water, viz. That they sang his Praise, but they soon forgot his Works”.

The 2003 Penguin Classics edition of A Journal of the Plague Year was edited with an Introduction and Notes by Cynthia Wall. With only one or two exceptions, she retained Defoe’s original spelling, italicisation and punctuation which, as seen in the quotes given above, included the capitalisation of the first letter of all nouns. I had wondered if the 18th Century presentation would have hindered any understanding of the narrative, but I need not have worried. The story progresses at pace, notwithstanding Defoe’s endearing penchant for diverting its course down regular cul-de-sacs before reverting back to the main flow.

Amongst the book’s “extras” are a chronology of the main events of Defoe’s lifetime (1660-1732), a map of the London locations to which he refers (plus a topographical index) and a useful glossary. In addition, there is a reproduction of Anthony Burgess’s Introduction to the 1966 Penguin English Library edition.

Next year will mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The book certainly stands the test of time – and not only because of its striking resonance to our own strange days.

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