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A Journal Of The Plague Year Relié – 1960
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The plague (H.F. writes) arrives by way of carriers from the European mainland and spreads quickly through the unsanitary, crowded city despite official preventive measures; the symptoms being black bruises, or "tokens," on the victims' bodies, resulting in fever, delirium, and usually death in a matter of days. The public effects of the plague are readily imaginable: dead-carts, mass burial pits, the stench of corpses not yet collected, enforced quarantines, efforts to escape to the countryside, paranoia and superstitions, quacks selling fake cures, etc. Through all these observations, H.F. remains a calm voice of reason in a city overtaken by panic and bedlam. By the time the plague has passed, purged partly by its own self-limiting behavior and partly by the Great Fire of the following year, the (notoriously inaccurate) Bills of Mortality indicate the total death toll to be about 68,000, but the actual number is probably more like 100,000 -- about a fifth of London's population.
Like Defoe's famous survivalist sketch "Robinson Crusoe," the book's palpable moralism is adequately camouflaged by the conviction of its narrative and the humanity of its narrator, a man who, like Crusoe, trusts God's providence to lead him through the hardships, come what may. What I like about this "Journal" is that its theme is more relevant than its narrow, dated subject matter suggests: levelheadedness in the face of catastrophe and the emergence of a stronger and wiser society.
The persuasiveness of Defoe's fiction comes from his specificity, and little comments suggesting the narrator has an additional life outside the Journal. He mentions not only the dead (and the increasing losses), but the quacks taking advantage of the gullible, the quarantining of infected houses, the marks on the doors, the efforts to escape from quarantined houses, the efforts of the mayor's offfice to limit the spread of infection, and the public pits where the bodies were thrown. And so on into the facets of everyday life. Through it all, his portrayal of the narrator also has a personal richness, a consistent first-person perspective; the conceit is reinforced by insertions such as "what I wrote of my private meditations I reserve for private use, and desire it may not be made public on any account whatever." The narrator is a product of Defoe's imagination, of course, and similarly, any private meditations such a narrator would have. But Defoe has cleverly made the narrator real.
Having said that, this account IS second-hand; it is only Defoe's journalistic expertise, boyhood memories and down-to-earth style that make it so believable.
BUT - anyone who reads this should not expect another Gulliver's Travels - it IS heavy going; it's not a book that one can curl up with & relax, you have to work for your entertainment.
The main point that comes across is the constant religious undercurrent, which was, I guess, typical of the time (if not of Defoe) and the willingness to attach blame for anything unusual to outsiders, or God's will, rather than examine their own circumstances (so what's changed in 339 years!?). As one of the few records of that terrible year, this deserves a place on any amateur historian's bookshelf.