With Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague year we shift from plague frameworks (as in Oedipus and The Decameron) to a full-blown plague narrative, an historical novel that was presented to the public, and in all likelihood understood by its original readers, as an authentic narrative of a plague outbreak. Defoe’s novel was published in 1722, in the aftermath of a plague epidemic in Marseilles, which had generated a lot of newspaper press in London. But the book purports to be an account of the city’s last great outbreak of the plague in 1664-65, some 57 years earlier. To put that gap in perspective, it’s roughly like a book or movie today being set during the 1950s. Maybe the better comparison would be to a narrative or film that claimed to have originated in the earlier moment, and to offer an historical eye-witness.
We’re going to be hard-pressed to take on the question of factual accuracy in Defoe’s narrative, though there is scholarship out there on the subject if you’re interested. Rather, I want to pay attention not just to representations of the plague, thinking about how they may relate to Defoe’s moment as much as to London in the 1660s, but also to other patterns that run through the text. One key issue, I think, becomes apparent from the very title page. Note the full title, and think about how it prepares us for the novel’s concerns. We have the question of genre and generic distinctions up front (something we’ve already been talking about), but also this matter of “publick” and “private.” Why call attention to these categories on the title page? The word “publick” comes up again in the title page’s gloss on the anonymous author: “Written by a CITIZEN who continued all the while in London. Never made publick before[.]”
Publicity seems to be a key feature of the novel’s opening paragraphs as well: The story starts not with the outbreak of plague, but with the narrator’s first exposure to “ordinary Discourse” about the plague’s return to Holland. The story precedes the actual visitation of the plague; what might the adjective “ordinary” mean here? Look at how many times “they say,” “some said,” “others said” appear in the sentences to follow. The opening paragraph seems to focus as much on chatter as a genre or sociological phenomenon as it does on the content of the gossip, though clearly the content is such that it’s instilling extraordinary fear in the narrator and his neighbors. Now look at the second paragraph’s opening sentence: “We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv’d to see prictis’d since.” I’d like us to start our discussion of the text tomorrow with a reading of these opening paragraphs. What’s the connection between invocations of “the publick” on the title page and the attention to publicity and the circulation of rumor/information, whether in speech or print, in the novel’s opening lines? And where might an historical novel pretending to be a recently discovered factual account fit into such a discussion?