Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is an elusive text. First published in 1722, it describes life in London during the Bubonic Plague through one man’s experiences and documentation. Though Defoe refers to it as a “Journal”, which is evident in the title of the book, it is debatable whether this book can be categorized as factual or fictional. It leans towards an objective account when it depicts documentation of the times, such as mortality bills, and then leans to the comparatively new fictional form of the novel when it conveys the emotional atmosphere of the plague, such as the descriptions of people’s suffering in both mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions. Today, Defoe’s book is categorized as a historical novel, which seemingly accounts for the dual nature of the book’s contents. As this previous convener’s post notes, Defoe weaves both storytelling and documentation together, to paint a picture of London in its direst straits, describing all the facets (societal, classist, psychological, etc.) of London that the plague changes.
- London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of all the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year (London: E. Cotes, 1665)
2. Bill of mortality for the week of 19th–26th September 1665, which saw the highest death toll from plague.
We are interested in exploring the subjectivity of the documents and bills quoted by Defoe, as mentioned in the convener’s post above. The recurrent use of weekly mortality bills gives the text of the narrative sections an administrative, authoritative, and authentic texture. However, there is a corollary impression with this choice to emulsify fiction and nonfiction. With fiction and information in such close proximity to each other (they’re not social distancing!), it results in a situation whereas the narrative becomes more authentic, the documentation becomes more suspect. Specifically, Ellen Cotes’ ‘London’s Dreadful Visitation’ (Fig. 1), a collection of all the bills of mortality printed in London during the Great Plague of 1665, elicits a question of to what extent a primary historical document could be a product of manipulation or reconstruction. Labels on causes of death, such as ‘suddenly,’ ‘frighted,’ and ‘grief’ (Fig. 2) are in the approximated language, leading to a question of who assigned these causes to the deaths. Whether it’s in fiction or in reality, the attempts to cover up and distort the numbers of the pandemic have continued from centuries ago. However, such continuity does not take human societies’ adaptations to the nausea of statistics, percentages, and predictions (of the pandemic) for granted.
“Preparedness, for Defoe, needed to be a closer collaboration between individual citizens and the state, one in which both parties understood their social and ethical responsibilities to each other. To be prepared involved much more human work.” — Travis Chi Wing Lau
Central to reading any piece of literature is the reader’s relationship and interactions with the text. There is no denying that reading A Journal of A Plague Year during a pandemic equips a reader with a lens through which one can further engage with and critique the text. For instance, the bills listing the number of burials per week remind us of daily COVID case announcements. The exacerbation of class issues and inequalities by the plague (as with the poor and the servants falling sick in greater numbers than other demographics) reminds us of the way the poorest and most vulnerable populations around the world today are hit hardest by the spread of the coronavirus. The lack of citizen compliance to home quarantine in the Journal when infected resembles our current-day anti-maskers and anti-lockdown rioters. Such close and jarring comparisons between our current pandemic and a legendary plague which took place hundreds of years ago, tells us a lot about the nature of governance and citizenship in crises.
The questions we had after grappling with the Journal’s elusiveness are these- What sort of literary form is most useful to warn our descendants of epidemics and pandemics, and to convince them to live in austerity that protects their community? Is it the objective form, such as through using mortality bills and statistical models? Is it the narrative form of exploring people’s grief and the dimensions of their suffering? Or do we combine both forms in as Defoe does? Which forms help us tolerate the uncertainty and subjectivity of plagues? And how can we spread useful information in a counter contagion? If A Journal of A Plague Year does warn us of times such as the one we live through, are we even paying attention to Defoe?