Thursday, August 29, 2013

23. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

That weird mask was because the nose was
stuffed with strong-smelling spices to ward off
the disease and the stench of dead bodies.
I have a general rule, which is to try and read as little as possible about a book before I actually start reading it.  I especially avoid all the business printed on the book itself that is not the actual story, like the blurb on the back, critic's quotes, the author's bio and forwards.  I am always tempted, as I am easily distracted.  So this practice is a form of self-discipline to get me through the book.  All that other stuff is a little bit like desert.  The big reason, though, is spoilers.  I know editors have to sell books, but it is just selfish and irresponsible the way they give away all the cool stuff on the back cover.

With a classic like A Journal of the Plague Year, the temptation to read the foreword (by J.H. Plumb, Cambride) and even to go to the internet was strong.  I wanted to find out the history behind the narrative as it is just so fascinating and crazy what happened.  However, spoilers were just not a concern for me in this case.  Well when I did finish it and read the Foreword, I was totally blown away to find out there was a HUGE spoiler (explained at the end of the post) and one that would have completely changed my perception of this work had I known ahead of time.  It was a great pleasure to be surprised in this way and this experiences reinforces my dedication to my rule.

Victims would run through the streets, naked and crazed
with pain and the madness of the disease.
So on to the book itself.  It is a first-person recollection of the year 1665 when the Black Plague swept through London, killing tens of thousands and (as you can well imagine) throwing the city into an upheaval.  We've all heard about it to some degree or another, most limited (like me) to Monty Python and a few scraps of memory from high school history classes.  It was pretty hard core!  It's hard to imagine the way London was back then, even before there was a plague.  There were open sewers and people just threw their garbage out into the street.  When the plague hit, thousands of people were dying per week.  The whole "bring out yer dead!" thing really happened.  The book, though, stresses that despite some mistakes, the city managers actually handled the situation relatively well, creating policies that ensured that ensured that there were no dead bodies left on the street.  They also managed to ensure that enough trade remained open so that the poor who remained in the city didn't starve.  One of the controversial policies was the act forcing families to be shut up in their homes if one of their members or staff showed signs of the sickness.  Guards were hired to stand outside their door to ensure that nobody left and nobody came in (which also helped create employment).  Defoe narrates some great stories of families trying to sneak out, or attack the guard.  Several were murdered.

Structurally, the book is lacking.  There isn't really an order and it goes all over the place in time and subject.  Defoe often gets started on something and then says that he'll say more about that later.  This happens a few too many times so that the reader loses track.  And dude, chapters!  The whole thing is one long flow and it makes it hard to put it down and pick it up again.  (Oh yeah, right, they hadn't been invented yet.)  The writing style is rich and arch, made me laugh out loud at times
However, in general, prudent, cautious people did enter into some measures for airing and sweetening their houses, and burned perfumes, incense, benjamin, rozin, and sulphur in their rooms close shut up, and then let the air carry it all out with a blast of gunpowder; others caused large fires to be made all day and all night for several days and nights; by the same token that two or three were pleased to set their houses on fire, and so effectually sweetened them by burning them down to the ground...
 Dry British humour in its earliest days.

A really enjoyable read that gave me a strong interest in the Black Death, which led to lots of fascinating internet reading.

ADDENDUM: new (and avid) reader and commenter Kelly Robinson (check out her great blog Book Dirt) reminded me in her comment below about how Apocalyptic this novel is.  It reminded me strongly of the British authors from the 60s and 70s and especially John Christopher's Death of Grass. A big part of the book is about the exodus out of London, with the issues of the advantage of wealth and class and having to decide when (or whether) to leave.  He also recounts a tale of a small group of workers who banded together to travel in the country and how they were refused to enter by certain towns.  I wonder if this is something that is part of British culture that has been passed down with the various disasters that have befallen London in history.


Daniel Defoe was 5 years old when this London plague happened!  He wrote the book as a work of fiction based on several non-fictional tracts and his own childhood memories and tales.  The entire time I was reading it, I thought it was his own recollection.  Looks like he was a darned good writer!


Kelly Robinson said...

I enjoy old fiction about the Plague. It has a post-apocalyptic feel, but it's not sci-fi -- it actually happened. I've never read this one, but I enjoyed Camus' The Plague quite a lot.

A lot of introductions to classics seem to operate under the assumption that you're already familiar with the novel. It's silly, really, considering that it has to be your first time reading it at SOME point.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Oh snap! I completely forgot to write about the PA angle of the book! Thanks for reminding me. Totally. I am going to need to add an addendum.

And yes, great point on intros to classics. I think they are often written by academics who are trying to score points with other academics rather than introducing the book. In this case, the intro was actually fairly responsibly done with a good overview of the history and Defoe's life.

Kate M. said...

The Python sketch implies a mediaeval setting and is more likely a reference to the Black Death that killed off almost half the population of Europe between 1348 and 1350. Europe was in terrible shape then because the epidemic came after a time of bad harvests so most people were already in poor health when it struck.

London of the 1660s plague was probably filthy by our standards but not quite Python territory. More Blackadder territory. Samuel Pepys is your man for descriptions of the plague and the ensuing Great Fire of London, which he really did witness, but reading him can be a bit of a slog because it's all mixed in with what he had for dinner and how he impressed somebody at the admiralty and got to grope his maid between courses or whatever.