“The past is a foreign land; They do it differently there. “
LP Hartley, “The mediator”
“I am a person who is a stranger to me.”
I avoided rereading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) during the long course of our own plague year. Although I recommended both Defoe’s novel and Samuel Pepys’ diary reports on the plague, I feel “full of horror” in 2020, and for my own reasons I was reluctant to repeat this fictional account of an early modern pandemic in my life through a postmodern.
Defoe’s book, however, makes it grim, scary, and memorable to read. There’s even an argument for A Journal of the Plague Year as the early predecessor of medical horror fiction like Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. While Defoe lived through the plague year of 1665, he was only five years old. His diary is not an actual diary, unlike Pepys’ eyewitness account of the same events. Instead it is the fictional diary of HF, a Sadler who lives just outside the old city walls of London. Using a fictional form, Defoe is able to combine historical documents from the plague year with a healthy dose of moralizing literature and an endless supply of gruesome urban legends to teach and preach, as well as shock and shock readers with his account entertain the plague.
Defoe contains careful documentation of the spread of the plague in London’s neighborhoods, in some cases tracking progress street by street. His detailed work is so good that you could depict it. (And digital research scientists have.) Its regular mortality counting alone could tell a blatant story just because of their ever-increasing numbers. It provides a useful collection of government regulations that have sought to keep London in order throughout the plague. The bans on public gatherings, taverns, and feasts seem particularly familiar to 21st century readers, and the details of early modern sanitation ordinances will all remind us of how much better we are now, even when things are bad. And his careful accounting of the drugs, liquors, and nostrils in use by those trying to cure or avoid the plague are a boon to medical historians, as are his discussions of theories about the cause of the disease and its transmission.
Of particular interest to historians is the discussion and rejection of the germ theory of disease by HF in favor of the idea of “contagious vapors”. He writes contemptuously about:
[T]The opinion of others who say that infections are only transmitted through the air by carrying large numbers of insects and invisible creatures that enter and enter the body with the breath or even at the pores with the air and there or emit most acute poisons, or poisonous ova or eggs that mix with the blood and infect the body; a discourse full of learned simplicity …
It would be difficult to get any closer to understanding the disease transmission process or to reject it more thoroughly.
As interested as he is in recording recent political and medical history, Defoe pays at least as much attention to the need to draw moral lessons from the events of the plague year. Very early in the novel, HF tries to decide whether to stay in London to protect his business and goods, or whether to flee with his brother. He turns to bibliomancy – the old practice of letting the Bible open to a random passage which then serves as a sign or guide for one’s behavior – and lands on Psalm 91, which contains the verse: “You won’t be harmed happen and no plague will come near you. “From that moment on, HF says:
I made up my mind to stay in town and focus entirely on the goodness and protection of the Almighty, would seek no other protection; and that, as my times were in his hands, he could hold me in a time of infection as well as in a time of health; and when he did not see fit to save me, I was still in his hands and it was a meeting he was to make with me, as it should seem good to him.
After placing his survival in the hands of God, HF tries to impose order on the chaos of the plague by finding ways to understand it as the working of God’s will. This search for theological understanding means that he carefully records stories of blasphemers, drinkers and scoffers who suddenly die, and equally carefully records the charity’s miraculous escapes, noting with some caution: “I will not commit, as some do do say that none of these benevolent people had to fall under the calamity itself; but I may say that I have never known any of them who had a miscarriage. “
A Journal of the Plague Year presents the plague in part as a year-long sermon preached to the people of London, with vivid examples of good and bad behavior, reward and punishment and, finally, evidence of God’s mercy. When the plague begins to resolve itself in London, HF attributes “nothing but the immediate finger of God, nothing but almighty power”.
Whether we read the Journal of the Plague Year for its contemporary parallels, its theological explorations, its literary merits, or its evergreen attraction to the cruel side of human nature, it reminds us that almost nothing in human history is truly unprecedented.
However, readers should not assume that due to his attention to historical and medical details and his interest in a theological understanding of the plague, Defoe is not here to amuse and shock. He never hesitates to draw our attention to the creepy and grotesque. I think it would be the rare Defoe reader who comes out of the Journal of the Plague Year without vividly remembering the sleeping piper who wakes up to find himself on a cart full of corpses, or the man who runs the Pain was so crazy from his swellings of plague running naked and crazy through the city streets, and from story to story of people who were fine in the morning and dead in the evening.
I could ponder for a while the calamities of that terrible time, describing the objects that pop up among us each day, the terrible extravagances into which the distraction of sick people drove them; how the streets have now become full of horrific objects and families have been turned into a terror even to themselves. But after telling you, as above, that a man, tied up in his bed and finding no other way to save himself, set the bed on fire with his candle, which unfortunately was within his reach, and burned himself in his bed; and how another was discouraged and sung naked in the streets by the unbearable agony he endured, without knowing any ecstasy of another; After saying these things, I say: what else can be added? What can be said to make the misery of these times more vivid for the reader, or to give him a more perfect idea of a complex need?
Defoe always insists that he does not want to “deal with” these horrors, and remains persistent with them throughout his novel as part of his mission to record history, stimulate moral reflection, and instill horror in his readers.
In other words, a diary of the plague year is equal parts historical fiction, sermon, and horror story. But it is also a carefully constructed work of art. Defoe’s touching story of an Aquarius who lives on his boat and never comes ashore so he can cruise the river up and down the river to supply his family with supplies while protecting them from the plague is a set piece about kindness and Love that stays with the readers as long as Defoe tells of the horrors. Careful readers of the text will also find that Defoe’s text reflects the story it is telling. As Defoe’s text explains how difficult it was to effectively enforce the closure of plague victims’ homes, he continually interrupts himself. Again and again he starts a discussion about closing houses just to tell stories about the many escape routes people have. The text “breaks out” just like the plague victims and with the same persistence.
And Defoe’s ending, which records a short poem supposedly written by HF, just seems artless.
There was a terrible plague in London
In the year sixty-five,
What swept a hundred thousand souls
Path; but i am alive!
It is indeed a nifty callback to the opening of the novel, in which HF describes that he first heard of the plague “among the rest of my neighbors”. From a man surrounded by friends and neighbors in a thriving London, to a man surrounded by death carts laden with corpses, to a man rescued but in solitude, HF has been a guide in many cases a finely crafted text about times that remind us of our own ways.
Surely it would be perfectly possible to read A Journal of the Plague Year to see how little has changed in human response to epidemics and pandemics. In 2020 it may be impossible not to do this. Anyone looking for early modern discussions about our Covid-19 experiences such as quarantines (successful or unsuccessful); the controversial role of the church; public health mandates; established and alternative medical responses; and measured and insane behavior of citizens will find all this and many other parallels in Defoe’s work. Terence is correct as always. People are people, and our very human responses to crisis don’t seem to change much over time.
But as true as Terence is, LP Hartley is also right. The past is a strange land. And reading about an early modern plague during a postmodern plague must also make us grateful that we have plumbing and medical knowledge that nobody could have dreamed of in Defoe’s day. The realization that it took the plague to finally convince London to pass a law banning manure heaps in the city and banning emptying chamber pots and outbuildings in other people’s gardens certainly offers a potentially useful adjustment to the setting towards hand disinfectants.
Whether we read the Journal of the Plague Year for its contemporary parallels, for its historical portrait of a long-gone London, for its theological explorations, for its literary merits, or for its evergreen attraction to the cruel side of human nature, it certainly reminds us that almost nothing in human history is truly unprecedented and that there has always been someone to write everything down, no matter how bad things have ever been.