A Journal of the Plague Year n/e (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 9 Sep 2010
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The London of an earlier period - 1665 - is brought vividly and pungently back to life. (Cannock and Rugeley Chronicle)
Gruesomely compulsive reading. (Colin Waters, Sunday Herald)
From the Inside Flap
Defoe's account of the bubonic plague that swept London in 1665 remains as vivid as it is harrowing. Based on Defoe's own childhood memories and prodigious research, A Journal of the Plague Year walks the line between fiction, history, and reportage. In meticulous and unsentimental detail it renders the daily life of a city under siege; the often gruesome medical precautions and practices of the time; the mass panics of a frightened citizenry; and the solitary travails of Defoe's narrator, a man who decides to remain in the city through it all, chronicling the course of events with an unwavering eye. Defoe's Journal remains perhaps the greatest account of a natural disaster ever written.
This Modern Library Paperback Classic is set from the original edition published in 1722. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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In the book, Defoe goes to great pains to achieve an effect of verisimilitude, identifying specific neighborhoods, streets, and even houses in which events took place. Additionally, it provides tables of casualty figures and discusses the credibility of various accounts and anecdotes received by the narrator. The novel is often compared to the actual, contemporary accounts of the plague in the diary of Samuel Pepys. Defoe's account, which appears to include much research, is far more systematic and detailed than Pepys's first-person account.
This is an excellent historical resource despite the debate over the reliability of authorship and an unreliably narrator, the use of primary source information alone makes it a worthy novel. It is up to the reader to discern whether bias or poetic license was used. Personally, I feel it is trustworthy, somehow the supernatural elements and religious mania that engulfed the people during a time of death and disease rings true. A very interesting and unique historical document.
While essentially a work of fiction, the level of detail, the statistics, anecodotes and endless conjecturing give the work a strong semblance of veracity. The reader is compelled to read on through the terrifying details of a plague that in all probability took around 100,000 lives during the year that it raged. One of the interesting features of the book is the conflict between science and religion, is a continuous thread throughout. Defoes author H.F. writes in a profoundly religous tone, early on in the book a group of mocking aetheists who coarsely drink and curse their way through the plague are, each and everyone, struck down and deposited in the communal grave before two pages are out. At the same time there is a recognition of scientific attempts to understand and control the plague, the shutting up of houses is much discussed as well as the variety of "preventatives" that offer protection from infection. Much of the book is given over to a variety of speculations, and given the state of medical science at the time of writing a good many of the conjectures verge on the amusing. The author even tells of one theory, of small organisms in the blood, only to scoff at it while the modern reader may sense as good a description of bacteria as that age could furnish.
A good deal of the facts are horrifying, whole families dying, the nightly horse and cart patrols to collect the dead for communal graves, people maddened by the infection running through the streets unhindered, the dying screams of those shut up in their homes to die. It is a puzzle at first where they find men to collect the dead and women to nurse the sick until later in the book the author contemplates the plight of the poor. It simply seems that if they did not take these jobs they would have starved to death as all other industry and employment had ground to a halt, the risk of dying of the plague seemed a better bet than the certainty of dying of starvation.
Definitely an interesting book though some may find the grotesque grammer and lengthy sentences a little too much. The edition I purchased was from Dover classics and consisted of just the journal itself and I felt my ability to get the most from the book was undermined by not having the additional context that a good set of footnotes and introduction should provide.
I first read this book in the early 1970s as a work of fiction because it has been classified as such since the 19th century, and I found the "plot" dull. When I read it again twenty years later I realized why - this book isn't fiction at all, it is a factual account of what happened in London in 1665, based on his uncle Henry Foe's eyewitness experience, which is blended with Defoe's journalistic research after the event. The result is a marvellous work of journalism that has the vividness of an eyewitness account, taking the reader right into the events, and the mastery of Defoe's talent and research of the whole subject. The eyewitness account is turned into a most vivid masterpiece.
If you try to read the Journal of the Plague Year as fiction it will seem dated because it can't satisfy as such. It doesn't have any of the effects that go with fiction such as plot, fantasy, author's whim, or character development. However it is beautifully constructed.
The Journal of the Plague Year is a great work of journalism and is (as far as I know) the most vivid account of any historic event in English. It is great to read and browse in as well.
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