When the narrator of Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722, written about the great London plague of 1665) requested permission from the church sexton to visit the massive "pit" where plague victims are unceremoniously catapulted, he was told the grave was a "'speaking sight.'" This perfectly describes Defoe's historical novel. Punctuated by pained shrieks of victims and bereft loved ones alike, the Journal is, above all, a story of hope and survival. Defoe (under the guise of a first-person narrator, H.F.) deftly entangles the reader in a saga of an entire city's mortal combat with an enemy more powerful and inscrutable than any previously known. While Robinson Crusoe gave rise to a host of desert island tales, A Journal of the Plague Year spawned decades of survival stories, and the entire genre of historical fiction.
Defoe (born Foe) is an apt author for the first disaster novel, having survived numerous catastrophic events himself. A journalist and pamphleteer (who wrote for virtually all the major periodicals of the time, as well as edited his own Review ), this tradesman-turned-fiction-writer was twice bankrupt, worked as a secret agent (perhaps in payment for help getting out of prison), and spent three days in the pillory. Typical of Defoe's resourceful spirit of survival, while in the stocks he composed a poem about his experience that so moved the local flower sellers that they festooned his pillory with roses. Scorned by upper-class writers for his popularity with the masses and his interest in trade, he was deeply concerned about social issues, ones that included the well-being of London's poor, and the education of women. He was called by Jonathan Swift "so grave, sententious, dogmatical a rogue, that there is no enduring him," yet highly praised by Ben Franklin, Samuel Johnson, and Leigh Hunt. This prolific author of over 400 titles was so beloved by England's girls and boys that, in appreciation for Robinson Crusoe , they erected an elaborate monument over his grave. Many consider Defoe to be the father of the modern novel.
A Journal of the Plague Year comes mid-way in Defoe's amazing output of nine major works of fiction in about five years: Robinson Crusoe (1719, plus two sequels), Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720), Captain Singleton (1720), Moll Flanders (1722), A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Colonel Jack (1722), and Roxana (1724). His works further include two major texts regarding trade (The Complete English Tradesman and A Plan of the English Commerce ), as well as a three-volume guidebook to England, one widely used for a half century (A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain .) While the popularity of most works (by any author) pales in comparison to the ever-popular Robinson Crusoe , Defoe's entire fictional output has been receiving increased critical attention in the last fifty years, as the definition of "fine literature" - i.e., worthy of critical study - has broadened to include a much wider variety of authors, subjects, and genres than ever before.
It is difficult to address the issue of Defoe's contemporaries. Although John Locke, William Congreve, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope were his chronological contemporaries, Defoe did not begin writing fiction until he was sixty (1719), making Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1717), Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), and Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742) his nearest literary contemporaries. (It is easier to cite his contemporaries in journalism: Richard Steele, Tattler , 1709, and Joseph Addison, Spectator ,1711.) Moreover, it is unfair to criticize him, as many do, for not conforming to the as-yet-unformulated conventions of the novel. He is amazingly well educated for someone who, because he was a religious dissenter, was barred from attending university. Perhaps not surprisingly, the major literary debate regarding Defoe's Journal , still raging, concerns its categorization as either fiction, history, or historical fiction.
Defoe's historical work about the plague (his second, preceded by Due Preparations for the Plague ) was written directly in response to a fresh outbreak of the infection in Marseilles in 1720. In 1721 Sir Robert Walpole passed an unpopular act stipulating that were the disease to spread to England, the movement of people and goods would be severely restricted. Tellingly, throughout the Journal , Defoe debates the practice of "shutting up" houses where infected people reside - i.e., not allowing seemingly healthy family members or servants to leave, many of whom died as a result. Yet, the greater good - slowing the spread of the infection - may have been served. Moreover, in the book, Defoe incessantly praises "the prudence of the magistrates, their charity, their vigilance for the poor, and for preserving good order, furnishing provisions and the like."
Ostensibly, it was H.F., not Defoe, who praised the local government. When A Journal of the Plague Year was published, it was genuinely presented as true, written by a saddlemaker in Whitechapel. Then and in ensuing decades, it was viewed almost exclusively as an authentic, historical account; the text's focus on individual characters and moral lessons was not considered to be inappropriate, as they would be today in a history text. In the 1770s, Daniel Defoe became widely known as the author. Some believed the observations in the Journal to be his, with H.F. merely serving as a pseudonym. This was of course impossible, because Daniel Defoe was only five years old in 1665, and did not remain in London (as did the narrator) during the plague. Subsequently, Daniel Defoe's uncle H.F. has been generally thought to be the model for the narrator, although there is evidence neither that he kept a journal, nor that he resided in London during the plague.
From the 1770s onward, critical debate has focused almost exclusively on the genre of A Journal of the Plague Year . The claim that it is a history text is bolstered by its using many historical documents. The principal ones are Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London concerning the Infection of the Plague (reprinted in 1721) and The Weekly Bills of Mortality , both of which liberally pepper the Journal with charts and proclamations. Defoe also used Richard Meade's A Short Discourse Concerning Pestilential Contagion (1720) and Nathaniel Hodge's Loimologia . Although proponents of the "Journal as history" camp note Defoe's factual errors, they counter with equal numbers of internal inconsistencies in the source documents. Defoe undoubtedly knew people who had survived the plague year (in addition to his uncle, H.F.) and, as with any major disaster, stories about it kept circulating and re-circulating. Although notable critics through the years have continued to see the Journal as history (most recently, and adamantly, Watson Nicholson in 1919), this viewpoint is no longer accepted. Once Daniel Defoe was revealed as the work's actual author, the Journal has increasingly been viewed as fiction, most notably in Sir Walter Scott's comment that it "hovers between romance and history." He contends that even though "the subject is hideous almost to disgust.... De Foe would have deserved immortality for the genius which he displayed in this work." The Journal is now almost universally viewed as historical fiction, a narration containing elements of historical truth, but one that cannot be relied upon for accuracy.
The genre debate aside, there are numerous important themes in this book of "speaking sights." As in many of Defoe's fictional works, the narrator presents the story from his own vantage point - in this case, by looking out his window, walking the streets, and serving as an "examiner" whose duty it is to identify the infected. The use of a narrator serves to personalize the experience, reinforced by his using phrases such as "I remember," as well as by his adding more detail than would have been necessary to tell a story - i.e., H. F. characteristically starts, "It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbors, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland." This colloquial inception is followed by two pages of charts of the dead, which serve to carefully establish a factual tone. In the Journal (and other works) critics have commented on Defoe's ability to recreate natural speech, no where more evident than in the work's middle section, which is presented entirely as dialogue. Yet another tactic for promoting believability is the narrator's habitual practice of presenting, and then backing away from, more outrageous claims made at the time - as in the common assertion that none who went to minister the sick became infected. H.F. counters, "I never knew any one of them that miscarried" and that it is reasonable that they "may hope to be protected in the work."
Those ministered to were primarily the poor, the major victims of the plague. Not only did many of them lose their jobs, but most did not have access to the usual defense, of fleeing the city. Numerous critics, in fact, assert that the total group of the London poor is the book's major character. As Maximillian Novak asserts, "It is a novel with a collective hero - the London poor - and though it ends with the triumphant voice of the Saddler proclaiming his survival, it is the survival of London that matters." Serving as a foil to these London poor are those who prey on them: the quacks and fortunetellers. H.F. complains, "With what blind, absurd, and ridiculous stuff these oracles of the devil pleased and satisfied the people I really know not."
Both of these sets of characters are part of the larger living being of London, a city valiantly attempting to assume a face of normalcy by day - i.e., by having burials at night. Day and night, the diseased run through the streets (in various states of undress), dead-cart drivers expire even as they drive, people shout their death-bed confessions because the well dare not come near them, and, at the height of the outbreak, "There was nobody left to give notice to the buriers or sextons that there were any dead bodies there to be buried." Stories abound of hangings, people setting themselves on fire to escape the pain of the disease, and men "throwing themselves out at their windows; shooting themselves, & c.; mothers murdering their own children in their lunacy, some dying of mere grief as a passion, some of mere fright and surprise without any infection." Conversely, when the plague lifts, people eagerly come out of their homes and shake each other's hands.
Interspersed with stories of mass misery are descriptions of a few memorable characters (aside from the narrator, who carefully keeps himself in the role of observer). For example, there is a pathetic, personal story of a healthy man whose entire family is infected. He continues to work, yet dares not come close to his loved ones. Instead, he regularly puts his wages on a stone outside his home, and dejectedly watches from a distance as his wife or children come to collect them. H.F. is so moved that he adds his own pocket change to the day's offering. Another story is of a man whose wife and several of his children are on the dead cart: "No sooner was the cart turned round and the bodies shot into the pit promiscuously, which was a surprise to him, for he at least expected they would have been decently laid in, though indeed he was afterwards convinced that was impracticable.... but he cried out aloud.... but he went backward two or three steps and fell down in a swoon." In the very middle of the Journal , the author provides much-needed relief by taking the reader out of the city, as he recounts the saga of three poor, homeless kinsmen who resolve to leave London. The story of their struggle to survive both paints a larger view - the plague was not confined to London - and, unabashedly "has a moral in very part of it."
This emphasis on God is perhaps the dominant theme of the Journal . Although Defoe rejected his father's request that he become a minister, the story might be regarded as "a sermon to you, it may be, the best that ever you heard in your life." (This was the description of the mass grave presented to H.F.) Defoe seems to straddle the line of ascribing both natural and divine causes for the plague, saying that it is "a distemper arising from natural causes" yet "Divine Power has formed the whole scheme of nature and maintains nature in its course." Numerous references to divine justice include an implication of the "remarkable hand of Divine justice... that all the predictors, astrologers, fortune-tellers... were gone and vanished." At the book's end, when the plague is abating, "nothing but the immediate finger of God, nothing but omnipotent power, could have done it."
In conclusion, although the subject of A Journal of the Plague Year is indeed grim, the story, on the whole, is engaging and uplifting, in large part due to the countless stories of both public servants and private citizens alike selflessly and courageously contributing to the ease and survival of the infected, often at the cost of their own lives. A Journal of the Plague Year focuses on compassion for the poor, the goodness and effectiveness of the government, and, moreover, the human spirit of resourcefulness in the face of an immense impersonal disaster.
Catherine A. Henze is a writer for Tekno Books.