Thursday, July 29, 2004

A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe is probably better known for his two classics, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. I found Robinson Crusoe boring, I'm embarrassed to admit. But that could just be me. I remember flipping through the last twenty pages, not really reading them at all.

Moll Flanders was another matter. That won me over right away. It sets itself up as a cautionary tale against doing evil, with Moll forever wringing her hands over her immoral past, but then - thankfully for the reader - goes through all of her sins in the most lurid detail. I remember a favourite scene where she advises how to successfully rob people. Yell fire, because people will always run mad when you say there is a fire going on, and then you have free reign to make the most of the disorder.

I thought the Journal of the Plague year utterly brilliant. I had always presumed it was what its title says, a journal by Defoe of a year he experienced the plague, but it's actually a work of fiction. Defoe was five years old in 1665, the year of the plague he describes where some 100,000 Londoners died. He wrote the novel in 1722, using available records for detail.

I've never read anything like it. It's just page after page of death, people fearing death, people fleeing London to avoid death, doctors and priests taking to the hills.

Then there are descriptions of those who come off worst: the poor, who had no choice but to stay behind. Defoe leaves no stone unturned. He even goes into all the economic consequences of the plague. For example, a lot of builders were left without work due to the surplus of empty houses that were left after whole families perished.

The descriptions of quacks and mountebacks and all manner of tricksters peddling bogus cures for the plague also remind of how little we have moved from the 17th Century. The low popular culture of 1665 is pretty much the same as the low popular culture of 2004.

You knew you had plague if you found a 'token' on your body - a spot the size of a coin or token. Death would not be far off. These people were avoided or locked up in houses and guarded against escape. Worse than the infected were what Defoe describes as 'the well' - people who seemed sound, but were carrying the 'distemper'. Here's a good quote.

'Now it was impossible to know these People (the well), nor did they sometimes, as I have said, know themselves to be infected: These were the People that so often dropt down and fainted in the Streets; or oftentimes they would go about the Streets to the last, till on a sudden they would sweat, grow faint, sit down at a door and die: It is true, finding themselves thus, they would struggle hard to get home to their own doors, or at other times would be just able to go to their Houses and die instantly; other times they would go about till they had the very Tokens come out upon them, and yet know it, and would die an Hour or two after they came Home, but be as well as long as they were abroad. These were the dangerous People, these were the People of whom the well ought to have been afraid; but then on the other side it was impossible to know them.'

The book makes you feel like you are actually there. Read it if you want to be filled with dread.

No comments: