Review of A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

You will notice right away Defoe’s journalistic approach, rife with supporting statistics. His powers as a writer and boldness of presentation are clearly beyond the pale. As was the case with Robinson Crusoe, he was not forthright with sources or veracity in the tale. It is often impossible to tell where he obtained his facts, and how much was mere invention.

A Journal of the Plague year is a vast catalogue of deaths, in all manners of protracted agonies, distempers, including plenty of “murthering” crazed wives fraught with frantic squalor. He adds sensational moments of street nudity, boiling underwear, and displays everywhere the distress and agony, heartache and sorrow to be found. He is not loathe to describe the ungodly boils, blisters and sacs, running with pus of myriad colours. But what is most intriguing is often the instigation of further hazards, posed by human beings in the thrall of distress. They are hazards of economy, selfishness, & prurience, born from their inelegant, uncontrollable dying. The fury of the contagion is not only crystal clear from the onset, it is obnoxiously apparent.

As usual, Defoe employs 17th-century nonstandarized spellings. His articulate wordiness is beguiling. The London plague was of topical interest, his belletristic swagger was prominent, and as a commercial, professional author of more than 500 works, as vague as that accomplishment is – he knows what he’s bloody doing. Defoe sought to dispel suspicious superstitions. Journalistic writing was his mode, but his style becomes almost legalistic. It’s less readable than it is a defense of readability.

What is called the Great Plague went by many names, including the Visitation, and Defoe inserts all the monickers, with his characteristic remarkable verisimilitude. He is one of the authors responsible for bringing the English novel out of its infancy. Is this an essential “classic”? I personally don’t believe so. You might summarize the book as: Various divers tales about the Distemper and how it carried away man, woman, and childe.

As was the case for Robinson Crusoe, many readers believed the Journal to be an eyewitness account in its time. Defoe omitted his name from the original publication and would have been 5 years old when the book takes place. He describes in his roundabout way a natural machine or mortality, coupled with the creaking of death carts, the reek of rotting piles of rats along the trenches, and an endless number of atmospheric set-pieces.

I found the work, on the whole, very tedious. The minutiae it describes was by turns fascinating, but the accumulation, while probably fairly true, strains believability in more than one way. Defoe had to have invented parts of it – which parts though, are well-hid. I’ve read 4 of his other novels, and greatly enjoyed them all. This was his driest, the most disturbing, and also his most journalistic work of the bunch. I will never revisit this incessantly brooding, grim, tragic, historical document. On the other hand, I greatly look forward to reading his other novels. He is a keen observer of the human animal. Many of his literary documentaries are creative masterpieces, but I found this one overlong and essentially the same experience as reading 300 pages of reportage.

It is worth perusing if you are curious about old fashioned regulations and customs. There is no plot or character development. The main character is a generic upstanding citizen, a moral, unpanicked, detached surveyor amid chaos.

By this point, if we are at all literate, we have seen these images elsewhere – Holocausts, genocides, pandemics. The fear-imagery associated with them should be familiar to us. This does not immunize us to their power, but we are not as shocked as most people were centuries ago by the thought of mountains of human corpses. What also renders the text difficult is the wandering method Defoe employs. He foregoes chapter breaks for a “realistic” scrawl of data, theses, and key details. It was as if he boiled down 3000 pages of notes to the most essential, most alarming facts and speculations, and then summarized them one after another after another until he reached the requisite length. I believe he wrote another piece on plagues, but searching his immense bibliography is likely to arouse confusion. He was a great, influential and interesting writer, but this resembles his nonfiction more than his fiction.