“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
L.P. Hartley, “The Go-Between”
“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”
I have been avoiding re-reading Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) throughout the long course of this, our own plague year. Though I have recommended both Defoe’s novel and Samuel Pepys’s diary accounts of the plague, 2020 has me feeling “supped full with horrors,” and I have been reluctant, for my own reasons, to revisit this fictionalized account of an early modern pandemic while living through a postmodern one.
Defoe’s book makes grim, frightening, and unforgettable reading, however. There’s even an argument to be made for A Journal of the Plague Year as an early predecessor to medical horror fiction like Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. While Defoe did live through the plague year of 1665, he was only five years old. His journal is not an actual journal, unlike Pepys’s eye-witness account of the same events. Instead it is the fictionalized journal of H.F, a sadler, who lives just outside the old city walls of London. By using a fictional form, Defoe is able to combine historical documents from the plague year with a healthy dose of moralizing literature, and an endless stock of gruesome urban legends to teach and preach, as well as to shock and entertain readers with his account of the plague.
Defoe includes scrupulous documentation of the spread of the plague through London’s neighborhoods, in some cases tracing its progress street by street. His detail work is so good that one could map it. (And digital research scholars have.) His regular inclusion of the Bills of Mortality could all on its own tell a stark story merely through their ever-increasing numbers. He provides a useful collection of government regulations that attempted to create some sort of order in London throughout the plague. The bans on public gatherings, taverns, and feasts may seem particularly familiar to 21st century readers, and the details of early modern sanitation ordinances will remind us all how much better off we are now, even when things are bad. And his careful accounting of the medicines, cordials, and nostrums in common use by those attempting to cure or avoid the plague are a boon to medical historians, as are his discussions of theories of the cause of the disease and its transmission.
Of particular interest to historians is H.F.’s discussion, and rejection, of the germ theory of disease in favor of the idea of “contagious vapours.” He writes scornfully of:
[T]he Opinion of others, who talk of infections being carried on by the Air only, by carrying with it vast Numbers of Insects, and invisible Creatures, who enter into the Body with the Breath, or even at the Pores with the Air, and there generate, or emit most accute Poisons, or poisonous Ovae, or Eggs, which mingle themselves with the Blood, and so infect the Body; a Discourse full of learned Simplicity…
It would be hard to come closer to an understanding of the process of plague transmission or to reject it more thoroughly.
As interested as he is in recording recent political and medical history, however, Defoe gives at least equal attention to the need to draw moral lessons from the events of the plague year. Very early in the novel, H.F. tries to decide whether to stay in London to protect his shop and his goods or whether to flee with his brother. He turns to bibliomancy—the old practice of allowing the Bible to fall open to a random passage that is then taken as a sign or guide for one’s behavior—and lands upon Psalm 91, which includes the verse, “There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.” From this moment, says H.F:
I resolv’d that I would stay in the Town, and casting my self entirely upon the Goodness and Protection of the Almighty, would not seek any other Shelter whatever; and that as my Times were in his Hands, he was as able to keep me in a Time of the Infection as in a Time of Health; and if he did not think fit to deliver me, still I was in his Hands, and it was meet he should do with me as should seem good to him.
Having placed his survival in the hands of God, H.F. tries to impose order on the chaos of the plague by finding ways to understand it as the working of God’s will. This quest for theological understanding means that he carefully records stories of blasphemers, drinkers, and mockers who die suddenly, and just as carefully records the miraculous escapes of the charitable, noting, with some caution, “I will not undertake to say, as some do, that none of these charitable People were suffered to fall under the Calamity itself; but this I may say, that I never knew any one of them that miscarried.”
A Journal of the Plague Year presents the plague, in part, as a year-long sermon preached to the people of London, with illustrative examples of good and bad behavior, reward and punishment, and—at long last—evidence of God’s mercy. When the plague begins to lift from London, H.F. credits “Nothing, but the immediate finger of God, nothing, but omnipotent power.”
Whether we read Journal of the Plague Year for its contemporary parallels, its theological explorations, its literary merits, or its evergreen appeal to the gruesome side of human nature, it reminds us that almost nothing in human history is truly unprecedented.
But readers should not assume that because of his attention to historical and medical detail and his interest in a theological understanding of the plague, Defoe is not here to entertain and shock. He is never hesitant to draw our attention to the grisly and the grotesque. I think it would be the rare reader of Defoe who comes away from Journal of the Plague Year without vivid recollections of the sleeping piper who wakes up to find himself on a cart full of dead bodies, or the man who was so maddened by the pain of his plague swellings that he ran naked and crazed through the city streets, and tale after tale of people who were well in the morning and dead by evening.
I could dwell a great while upon the Calamities of this dreadful time, and go on to describe the Objects that appear’d among us every Day, the dreadful Extravagancies which the Distraction of sick People drove them into; how the Streets began now to be fuller of frightful Objects, and Families to be made even a Terror to themselves. But after I have told you, as I have above, that One Man, being tyed in his Bed, and finding no other Way to deliver himself, set the Bed on fire with his Candle, which unhappily stood within his reach, and Burnt himself in his bed; and how another, by the insufferable Torment he bore, daunced and sung naked in the Streets, not knowing one Extasie from another; I say, after I have mentioned these Things, What can be added more? What can be said to represent the Misery of these Times more lively to the Reader, or to give him a more perfect Idea of a complicated Distress?
Always insisting that he does not mean to “dwell” on these horrors, Defoe dwells insistently upon them throughout the whole of his novel as one part of his mission to record history, to inspire moral reflection, and to inspire horror in his readers.
A Journal of the Plague Year is, in other words, equal parts historical fiction, sermon, and horror story. But it is also a carefully constructed work of art. Defoe’s touching story of a waterman who lives on his boat, never coming to shore, so that he can travel up and down the river to bring supplies to his family while keeping them protected from exposure to the plague, is a set piece about kindness and love that will stay with readers as long as any of the horrors Defoe recounts. Careful readers of the text will also discover that Defoe’s text mirrors the story it is telling. While explaining how hard it was to enforce effectively the shutting up of houses of plague victims, Defoe’s text constantly interrupts itself. Again and again he begins a discussion about shutting up houses only to find himself telling stories about the many ways people found to escape. The text “breaks out” exactly as the plague victims do, and with equal persistence.
And Defoe’s ending, which records a brief poem supposedly written by H.F, only seems artless.
A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away; yet I alive!
It is, in fact, a sophisticated call back to the opening of the novel, where H.F. describes himself as first having heard of the plague, “among the Rest of my Neighbours.” From a man surrounded by friends and neighbors in a flourishing London, to a man surrounded by corpse-laden death carts, to a man saved but in solitude, H.F has been a guide through a finely wrought text about times that remind us, in many ways, of our own.
Certainly, it would be entirely possible to read A Journal of the Plague Year for the exercise of tracking how little things have changed in human response to epidemic and pandemic illness. In 2020, it may be impossible not to. Anyone looking for early modern discussions of our Covid-19 experiences such as quarantines (successful or unsuccessful); the contested role of the church; public health mandates; established and alternative medical responses; and measured and maddened behavior by the citizenry will find all this, and many more parallels in Defoe’s work. Terence is, as ever, correct. Humans are humans, and our very human responses to crisis don’t seem to change much over time.
But as right as Terence is, L.P Hartley is also correct. The past is a foreign country. And reading about an early modern plague during a postmodern plague must also make us grateful that we have sanitation and medical knowledge that no one could have dreamed of in Defoe’s day. Realizing that it took the plague to persuade London finally to make a law that forbade dung heaps in the city and outlawed emptying chamber pots and outhouses in other people’s gardens certainly provides a potentially useful adjustment to one’s attitude to hand sanitizer.
Whether we read Journal of the Plague Year for its contemporary parallels, for its historical portrait of a long-vanished London, for its theological explorations, for its literary merits, or for its evergreen appeal to the gruesome side of human nature, it surely reminds us that almost nothing in human history is truly unprecedented and that, so far, no matter how bad things have ever been, there has always been someone left to write it all down.