Monday, February 9, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR” by Daniel Defoe (first published 1722)
Once, when this blog was very young, over three years ago, I wrote a brief and inadequate comment on Daniel Defoe’s Colonel Jack [look it up on the index at right]. I noted the usual things that are said about Daniel Defoe, who was born about 1660 (his exact birth date is not known) and died in 1731. I said that he had the characteristics of a prodigious liar, with his ability to string out his – always picaresque and episodic - stories by fertile inventiveness. I noted that his best known tales have very dodgy chronology, with Defoe so often and so casually remarking that his main character has lived in such-and-such a place for so many years, and then in such-and-such another place for so many years, to the point where one academic wit was able to add up such statements and conclude that the said protagonist must be many hundreds of years old by the end of the novel.
What I should have noted – but didn’t – was the immense energy of this man. After a lifetime of hack journalism, pamphleteering and versifying Defoe, who is certified in all the histories of Eng Lit as one of the founders of the novel, turned to fiction only when he was nearing 60 years of age. But in the extraordinary five years between 1719 and 1724 he turned out all seven of the books by which he is best known: Robinson Crusoe, Memoirs of a Cavalier, Captain Singleton, Colonel Jack, A Journal of the Plague Year, Moll Flanders, and Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress. I should also have noted the strong influence of Defoe’s non-conformist (i.e. non-Anglican Protestant) upbringing. All his novels are first-person narratives purporting to be authentic autobiographies, and some were accepted as such by their original readers. This follows on from the tradition of “spiritual confession” as practised by non-conformists like John Bunyan (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners etc.). So we have the compulsion to write something “true”, and therefore non-frivolous, and yet the paradox that Defoe’s apparently truthful stories are all fictions.
Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in A Journal of the Plague Year, or, to give it its full title, A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations and Memorials of the most Remarkable Occurrences as well Publick as Private which happened in London during the last Great Visitation in 1665. Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made publick before. (Let us remember that when it was published, title pages often functioned as blurbs.) For many years printed without Defoe’s name on the title page, this book was taken to be the authentic memoirs of a survivor of the plague that hit London in 1665. It was no such thing. Defoe quoted a few genuine documents such as the lists (“bills”) of the numbers who had died, which London’s government produced during the plague, and the Lord Mayor’s proclamation. But in the main, the book was made up of what Defoe’s fertile imagination could piece together from popular stories he had heard about the plague. His narrator was his own invention. Defoe would have been a very small child at the time of the 1665 plague, and there is no way that he himself was the observer whom he concocted.
It is this element of creative and persuasive lying which most interests me about A Journal of the Plague Year, but this is not the only interest that it holds, as a recent reading told me.
One obvious thing to strike me is that, despite its title, this fictitious memoir is NOT a journal – that is to say, it is not a diary-like day-to-day account of events, but a general narrative interspersed with sets of reflections. Another thing is how shadowy a figure Defoe’s fictitious narrator is. Early in the piece he tells us that he is single and childless at the time of the plague, but a prosperous businessman and “sadler” who has a warehouse of goods to protect and therefore does not wish to leave the plague-stricken city. He is also concerned to protect the property of his brother, who has fled the plague with his family. Much later, the narrator tells us “I had in my Family only an ancient woman, who managed the house, a maid-servant, two apprentices and myself.” [p.75 – like all Defoe’s novels, this one is not divided into chapters and my page references are according to a paperback edition that runs to 234 pages]. He and his dependents manage to avoid eating pestilence-infected meat by staying indoors with much cheese and salted butter and making their own bread and brewing their own beer. Unlike the narrators of Defoe’s other fictions, this narrator is not in any way affected in his personal circumstances by what happens in the course of the book. In other words, there is no “plot” as such, apart from the development, intensification and eventual abatement of the plague. A Journal of the Plague Year consists of what the narrator observes and hears as he wanders about the city, quite unharmed, conversing with citizens.
So what are the things that are observed and heard?
There are his speculations on how the plague reached London from Holland, with pseudo-medical information on effluvia and contagion by breath or contact with sweat or ingesting the stench of rotting corpses; his initial accounts of the plague first striking the poor suburbs outside the city walls and only later reaching the City itself; a reference to how London’s population had been swollen by the influx of servants and traders at the time of the Restoration in 1660; and of how the court retired to Oxford at the first hint of plague, and thus saved itself.
There are his accounts of the panicked way in which the unlettered poor reacted, seeing portents on comets and clouds, and of the quack doctors who preyed upon them with useless “cures” such as the wearing of amulets. Pitiful tales are told of whole families dying while confined to their homes by the official attempts to impose quarantine. Violent tales are told of watchmen, charged with keeping houses closed and their occupants confined within, being attacked and beaten by families who wished to escape. Yet all the escapees managed to do was to carry the plague into country areas. Then there are the death carts carrying off corpses and the huge pits dug in parishes, into which scores of naked bodies are dropped while the bereaved look on and wail.
Tales are told of eccentrics and loonies whose minds cracked under the mental anguish that the plague brought. Says the narrator: “I suppose the world has heard of the famous Solomon Eagle, an Enthusiast: he, though not infected at all, but in his Head, went about denouncing of Judgment upon the city, in a frightful manner; sometimes quite naked, and with a pan of burning charcoal on his head…” [p.100]
Later, there is another story of an infected man raving and dancing naked in the street [pp.163-164]. Defoe notes “there was a seeming propensity, or a wicked inclination in those that were infected to infect others” [p.147]. He then proceeds to a long discussion about what “Physicians” have said about this – whether it is a kind of irrational rage brought on by the plague’s weakening of the brain or desperation and the desire to share the disease with others.
There are anecdotes of increased lawlessness and of foolish accidents. One man, carried off in a death cart, proves not to be either infected or dead, but only dead drunk. The warehouse of the narrator’s brother is looted by women seeking luxury items such as hats. The narrator argues that petty crime increased because of the widespread unemployment occasioned by the plague, with many goods no longer being manufactured in the city, with few people going out to buy things, and with servants having been turned out into the streets as their employers escaped to the countryside. Many of those who worked the dead carts themselves became infected and died and, says the narrator, had there not been so many unemployed men to take their places, bodies would have rotted in the streets, unburied.
Ships on the Thames remain anchored in mid-stream, being provisioned only by trusted people from the shore, to keep their crews uninfected. Infant mortality soars as babies contract the plague from their mothers. (Defoe describes living infants sucking at the breasts of their dead mothers). Sometimes midwives smother children. There are grimly ironical tales, such as the one about the uninfected family confined to their home because one member of the family had a minor, and non-plague-related, disease. The family were wiped out when they were visited by sympathisers who did not realise that they themselves were in the early stages of plague-infection.
There is the real horror of desolation as the city empties out and parts of it become deserted:
“Many houses were then left desolate, all the people being carried away dead, and especially in an Alley further on the same side, beyond the bars, going in at the sign of Moses and Aaron; there were several houses together which (they said) had not one person left alive in them, and some that died last in several of those houses, were left a little too long before they were fetched out to be buried; the reason of this was, not, as some have written very untruly, that the living were not sufficient to bury the dead, but that the mortality was so great in the Yard or Alley, that there was nobody left to give notice to the buriers or sextons, that there were any dead bodies there to be buried. It was said, how true I know not, that some of those bodies were so much corrupted, and so rotten, that it was with difficulty that they were carried…” [pp.165-166]
In general, Defoe’s (and the narrator’s) tone is one of support for the Lord Mayor and magistrates and city authorities, whom he tends to depict as keeping the city supplied with bread and ensuring that corpses were buried as quickly as possible, despite the widespread hostility of the population to the quarantines that were imposed.
There is some drooping of Defoe’s inventiveness in the middle sections of this narrative, where he dwells far too long over a company of healthy young city men who took the opportunity to go into the country and extort charity out of country towns by threatening their inhabitants with violence. The last sixty pages, however, turn to general reflections after all the anecdotes are done. The narrator opines that “The best Physick for the plague is to run away from it” and says that sending the uninfected out of the city was a sound stratagem. He (revealing his very middle-class perspective) denounces the boisterous and unruly poor for continuing to live rowdy and debauched lives and therefore being careless about spreading the plague. He again speculates on how the plague started and he suggests some parish clerks falsified records to minimise the general panic, pretending that many people had died of causes other than the plague. He commends many Londoners for keeping up with religious observance. Then he considers the whole impact of the plague on English trade, and foreign ports were closed to English ships bearing goods from London.
As the plague abates, doctors and clergy who had skulked away into the country, and thus ignored the pastoral care of their patients and flock, are said to be despised by those who had remained throughout in London. Dissenters claimed the Anglican clergy were the worst in this respect, while Anglicans blamed Dissenters. But Defoe closes on a note of charity, claiming no one religious faction was more guilty than another, and praising true doctors (as opposed to quacks) who gave real service.
He closes his account with a doggerel verse:
“A dreadful Plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away – yet I alive!” [p.234]
Just before he does so, however, he ascribes the abatement of the plague to the merciful hand of God.
This is one of the chief features of A Journal of the Plague Year. Like others of Defoe’s fictions, it is filled with sententious moralising and frequent speculations on the role of God. God is apparently the author of the narrator’s initial decision to stay in London:
“It came very warmly into my mind one morning…. That as nothing attended us without the direction or permission of Divine power, so these disappointments must have something in them extraordinary; and I ought to consider, whether it did not evidently point out, or intimate to me, that it was the will of heaven I should not go. It immediately followed in my thoughts, that if it really was the will of God that I should stay, he would be able to effectually preserve me in the midst of all the death and danger that would surround me; and that if I attempted to secure myself by fleeing from my habitation, and acted contrary to these intimations, which I believed the be Divine, it would be a kind of fleeing from God…” [pp.15-16]
The plague is sometimes presented as a chastisement, serving the purposes of God in making people repent:
“Many consciences were awakened; many hard hearts melted into tears; and many a penitent confession was made of crimes long concealed.” [p.37]
Defoe gives an account of the “atheistical” mockers and scoffers at a particular tavern, who ridiculed those who went to church in atonement for their sins or said the plague was God’s judgment for our sins. With some satisfaction he suggests “it could not but seem reasonable to believe, that God would not think fit to spare by his mercy such open declared Enemies, that should insult his name and being, defy his vengeance and mock his worship…” [p.68]
At one and the same time, Defoe’s narrator seeks rationally to find the physical and medical causes of the plague AND attributes it to the inscrutable will of God. At times it is seen to ameliorate the moral temper of the populace, for he declares that the plague made for unwonted amity between Dissenters and Anglicans [p.167]. But after plague:
“It was not the least of our misfortunes, that with our Infection, when it ceased, there did not cease the spirit of strife and contention, slander and reproach, which was really the great troubler of the Nation’s peace before: it was said to be the remains of the old animosities, which had so lately involved us in blood and disorder.” [pp.221-222]
Stylistically, though, far more interesting is this matter of creative and persuasive lying. Remember that, despite making use of some historical documents concerning a real historical disaster, A Journal of the Plague Year is essentially a work of fiction passing itself off as an authentic memoir. Defoe’s aim is to persuade us of its truth. Sometimes he does not succeed in this aim. There are some instances where what his narrator overhears or reports strikes me as very unlikely. There is, for example, a long and very improbable conversation he claims to have had with a man who had confined his family to his home and needed provisions [pp.102-106]. Even as we read it, we wonder why a man in this condition would have conversed at such length with a mere spectator to his woes.
More often, though, Defoe’s lying is most persuasive. His narrator takes every opportunity to assure us of his concern for truth, and is scrupulous in discrediting false rumours. When he deals with the wild rumours that circulated in this time of severe distress, he gives a very good analysis of what we would now call an “urban legend”. He tells the reported story of a nurse who was supposed to have suffocated her plague-ridden patients, but he adds:
“.. wherever it was that we heard it, they always placed the scene at the farther end of the town, opposite, or most remote from where you were to hear it. If you heard it in White-chapel, it had happened at St Giles’s; or at Westminster or Holborn or that end of town; if you heard it at that end of town, then it was done in Whitechapel or the Minories, or about Cripple-gate parish; if you heard of it in the City, why, then in happened in Southwark; and if you heard it in Southwark, then it was done in the city and the like…. Of what part soever you heard the story, the particulars were always the same, especially that of laying a wet double clout on a dying man’s face, and that of smothering a young gentlewoman; so that it was apparent, at least to my judgment, that there was more of Tale than Truth in those things.” [p.83]
He sometimes claims to have delicate feelings about people who survived, and so practises the art of evasion, as when he tells the pitiful story of a rich plague-stricken merchant who hanged himself: “This person was a merchant, and a deputy alderman, and very rich. I care not to mention the name, though I knew his name too, but that would be an hardship to his family, which is now flourishing again.” [p.80]
Defoe’s killer technique, however, it to create verisimilitude by claiming to be “uncertain” about details, as in the comment he appends to a wrenching story of a family death: “It is so long ago that I am not certain, but I think the mother never recovered, but died in two or three weeks after.” [p.58]
Or again he says:
“…it was reported, that the Buryers were so wicked as to strip them [the corpses] in the cart, and carry them quite naked to the ground, but as I cannot easily credit anything so vile among Christians, and at a time so filled with terrors as that was, I can only relate it and leave it undetermined.” [p.63]
A very good example of this reculer pour mieux sauter technique is after he has been telling various stories of the desperate measures people took to cure themselves of the burning pain, such as the distracted man who plunged into the Thames and swam across it, gaining some relief:
“I have only to add that I do not relate this any more than some of the other, as a fact within my knowledge, so that I can vouch for the truth of them – and especially that of a man being cured by this extravagant adventure, which I confess I do not think very possible; but it may serve to confirm the many desperate things which the distressed people, falling into deliriums and what we call light-headedness, frequently run upon at that time, and how infinitely much more there would have been, if such people had not been confined by the shutting up of Houses…” [p.155]
In introducing the Folio edition of this fiction in 1960, Kenneth Hopkins described Defoe’s clever stratagem as “to profess ignorance on some corroborative point, or to give differing versions of the same story; and sometimes to be excessively particular”.
Quite so. This book is excellent lying – so excellent that it is understandable so many people took its vivid fiction to be documentary truth.