A Journal of the Plague Year ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
English author Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was a literary late bloomer. He wrote his three famous novels (Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year) after the age of sixty. A Journal of the Plague Year was first published in 1722 and is an account of the London plague epidemic in 1665, when Defoe was only five years old.
A Journal of the Plague Year is fiction but is told in first person, as if the narrator is there at the time of the epidemic. The fictional narrator doesn’t leave London when he has the chance when the plague starts, as many sensible people do, but stays behind. He is spared the infection but witnesses firsthand the horrors of the epidemic and lives to tell about them. Defoe supposedly drew on the journals of his uncle, one Henry Foe, in writing the novel. That is obviously what gives the story its sense of authenticity and immediacy.
People can have the plague and not even know it, so are spreading it to everybody they come into contact with. Is it airborne or does it come about only through contact with an infected person? In 1665, nobody seemed to know for sure. Those who have someplace to go outside the city leave before the epidemic takes hold. It’s mostly the poor people who have to stay behind, so they are the principal victims.
So many people are dying during the height of the epidemic that the niceties of burying the dead in coffins are dispensed with. With a thousand or more people dying a day, “dead-carts” are dispatched to round up the dead and dump them into a huge pit. The only requirement for the pits is that the dead be buried at least six feet deep. As the lucky people who collect the bodies sicken and die themselves, new people have to be found all the time to fill the job. (It sounds even worse than a job as a technical writer for a restaurant chain.)
As with any human tragedy, there are stories of heroism and sacrifice along with the stories of opportunism and charlatanism. Quack doctors prey on the poor and uneducated, selling them fake “medicines” that are supposed to be a surefire remedy against the plague. Houses of the sick are ransacked by thieves. Unscrupulous “nurses” murder the sick people they have been hired to care for. Infected people willingly spread the disease to those they know are uninfected. On the other hand, caring people risk their own lives to stay behind and care for the sick in the “pest houses.” Charities are set up that provide food and necessities to the poor to see them through the epidemic.
There isn’t much plot or story to A Journal of the Plague Year, but that doesn’t mean it’s dull reading. A plague epidemic in a large seventeenth-century city is dramatic enough without much embellishment. Once you get used to the old style of sentence structure, it’s a fascinating reading experience. I bought a paperback of the novel when I was in college for sixty cents (new, not used—so you know how long ago that was). I read a hundred or so pages of the novel back then but for some reason didn’t finish it. That’s why I undertook to read the entire book (a breezy 240 pages) this summer, and I’m glad I did.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp