Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe: Book review

Drink with this

Bloody Beer

Bloody Mary was the obvious choice of cocktail for a book which delights in dwelling on the screaming agonies of Londoners infected with the Black Death. Bloody Beer, a variation which substitutes vodka for light beer, is more appropriate given the gallons of ale guzzled by the denizens of London throughout their times of hardship. Bloody Beer is also commonly served with a ‘beef straw’ which sounds more like a 17th C pub nibble than a cocktail ingredient of today. The typical Bloody Beer adornment of Worcestershire sauce is satisfyingly English, while its black pepper and hot sauce are in keeping with the pungent remedies resorted to in vain attempts to stave off death.

What’s what

I discovered this book - to give it its proper name, A Journal of the Plague Year, written by a citizen who continued all the while in London - by way of an insalubrious Goodreads search for plague novels. Sometimes I feel as if The Stand has spoiled me for every other plague book out there - a sad realisation as my interest in infectious diseases has only burgeoned in the years since reading King’s masterwork.

Anyway I knew I had to have this Defoe as soon as I learned of its existence. Its not often I find a book which allows me to pretend to be intellectual whilst indulging my dirty literary cravings.

For a 17th C text this was surprisingly readable. I learned afterwards that it was an attempt by Defoe at historical fiction, and that the narrator is not actually meant to be Defoe himself but some anonymous third person. On these terms the book does not work at all. It is not a journal as we understand it today and doesn’t really have a narrative either.

“therefore I desire this account may pass with them rather for a direction to themselves to act by than a history of my actings, seeing it may not he of one farthing value to them to note what became of me.” Pg 5

However as a sort of unstructured collection of musings, speculation and facts on the infection in London in 1665 it’s worth a look. It’s written more like a report or a guide than a novel and is all the more interesting for that reason, with its dispassionate accounts of horrific scenes interspersed with comments on the official response to the disease and advice to future readers.

I did find it frustrating that we weren’t given more hands-on accounts of the fate of individuals and their families, or more details of the situation throughout the country as a whole. Some of the most interesting parts of the book were those which referred to the small everyday aspects of life in London in 1665, such as the mention of bear-baiting being banned due to the illness. Likewise it was very revealing of the prejudices and snobbery in place at the time. Defoe makes no secret of his contempt for the working classes or for women, or indeed for those who do not share his religious beliefs. It was instructional and more than a bit apposite in today’s climate to read his disapproval of the poor, including the ‘labouring poor’ who spent money ‘with abandon’. The more things change…

“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 the most liable to infection; and if they were spoken to, their answer would be, 'I must trust to God for that; if I am taken, then I am provided for, and there is an end of me', and the like.” Pg 134

I loved the constant speculation on the causes of the plague and the efficacy of various treatments. It was remarkable and a bit spooky to read Defoe skirting around the edges of what we know now to be the facts of the Black Death.

“that many people had the plague in their very blood, and preying upon their spirits, and were in themselves but walking putrefied carcases whose breath was infectious and their sweat poison, and yet were as well to look on as other people, and even knew it not themselves; I say, they all allowed that it was really true in fact, but they knew not how to propose a discovery. My friend Dr Heath was of opinion that it might be known by the smell of their breath; but then, as he said, who durst smell to that breath for his information?” pg 130

Parts of the book are pretty gory, and these are the parts which read as a typical dystopian novel. In my opinion though the book isn’t nearly as grisly as I hoped expected, probably due to its focus on the facts and its distant and objective stance. With my historical ignorance coupled with my over-familiarity of cheap dramatic novelistic tricks, I expected the book to end with the whole of London and its plague-ridden inhabitants going up in cleansing flames as the city is consumed by the Great Fire. Spoiler: it doesn’t.

“lamentations were seen almost in every house, especially in the first part of the visitation; for towards the latter end men's hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour.” Pg 10


Definitely worth a read if you are interested in the history of 17th century London or in disease. Otherwise you probably won’t find much to relish here.

On the big screen

Would love to see a BBC miniseries focusing on the plague in London in 1665. Ideally in the style of The Wire, illuminating the corruption and failed attempts to address the problem as much as the disease itself.


Yes, the subject is about as grisly as it gets, but it still passes as highbrow due to its literary pedigree, its age, and its columns of statistics.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Please blog about The Stand.