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A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague YearDaniel Defoe ([1722] 2003)

A Journal of the Plague Year is grim, strangely gripping almost in spite of its author.

I had to try and remember that this is so early, among the earliest of the many claims of earliest novels — that’s hard enough. Written decades after the events it is describing, it’s still questioned how much of it is based on Daniel Defoe’s uncle’s diary (he himself was 5 at the time he describes in such detail), how much is historical research, how much is ‘novel’. It’s strangely removed yet at the same time close enough to be fairly terrifying.

Many claim it as part of the psychogeography tradition, an early example of a literary mapping of London, and I confess that is what I liked the most. The street by street, parish by parish descriptions, the sense of all London reading the death lists, waiting, watching the plague move from West to East and South but all the while hoping it wouldn’t reach them. Getting some sense of what these times were like, how they were lived so far removed from imagination and Hollywood’s occasional depictions. It’s hard to believe that it all started only a short distance from where I work every day in Holborn.

I haven’t read much beyond wikipedia and short descriptions, but what bothered me most was trying to decide how much irony is in this, how much is written straight faced. I just couldn’t tell. From the point of view of someone who doesn’t identify with the rich but with the poor, it is fairly staggering. He rails against the thievery, the lengths to which the well-off had to go when fleeing the city to protect their property–there is so much here about protecting property. So damn much. Yet he himself lists the multiple professions, the thousands that lost all work and hope of sustenance when the plague hit London. The many families who fled the cities, firing their servants and turning them out of their homes penniless and with nowhere to go.

He writes at one point of the plague as a kind of deliverance, how it:

carried off in that time thirty or forty thousand of these very poor people which, had they been left, would certainly have been an insufferable burden by their poverty; that is to say, the whole city could not have supported the expense of them, or have provided food for them; and they would in time have even been driven to the necessity of plundering either the city itself or the country adjacent, to have subsisted themselves…

In fact, it is extremely noticeable that all of the much vaunted charity of the city and ‘gentlemen’ of the country is primarily a measure to stop mass starvation resulting in rebellion and theft. Personally, I was angry enough at it that I was hoping for a little more pillage, for some distribution of the high life in this time of horror, especially as he describes the frightful conditions under which people lived. Their desperation is visible in the number of people willing to risk their lives for the small pay offered them to nurse the sick and watch at their doors and dig the graves and collect and bury the dead.

While praising London’s government for running the city well through it all, Defoe blames the poor for spreading the plague, for not remaining shut up in their houses like the wealthy, waiting out the infection:

But it was impossible to beat anything into the heads of the poor. They went on with the usual impetuosity of their tempers, full of outcries and lamentations when taken, but madly careless of themselves, foolhardy and obstinate, while they were well. Where they could get employment they pushed into any kind of business, the most dangerous and liable to infection…

As though people seek out such employment when they don’t need to eat. There is also a curious interlude when he reproaches some men getting drunk in a pub and laughing at those praying and grieving. He tells them to repent, to learn from his own behaviour, and tells them he is saved by God…As I say, almost over the top enough that it could be stab at some critique of the religious and the rich, but left me with the feeling that it’s probably not, or not critical enough. Though it has contradictory opinions in it to fill another book sorting them all out.

Thank god I live now.

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