Journal of the Plague Year by a million little Daniel Defoes


Daniel Defoe was kind of whacky.  I didn’t know him personally, but considered from our current perception of literary genre and journalistic integrity (not that I think journalistic integrity is a thing that exists) he was wild and crazy.  In the early 1720s Defoe wrote a book about the Great Plague outbreak of 1665.  He published it under the initials H.F. and claimed that it was written just after the outbreak.  The narrator is a grown man who stayed in London for the duration of the “visitation.”  Defoe himself was five years old in 1665 and fled to the countryside with his family.  See what he did there?  He published a historical novel and claimed it was non-fiction.  Sound familiar?  Are you outraged?

I have always thought readers these days are too hung up on what things are “true” or “real” and what things are “fiction.”  I heard Tim O’Brien read at Arlington Public Library.  He said he is confused by all the people who ask him which parts of The Things They Carried are true.  Yes, the book is about Vietnam.  Yes, he was there.  But it’s all fiction and he says it is closer to the “truth” about his experience in Vietnam than any factual account could approach.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is published as non-fiction these days.  There is exactly a 0% chance that the events of that book happened just the way Thompson described them.  However the speech about the wave, you know, the one that starts with “San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…’ has got to be the truth, as he felt it.  It gives you more “truth” about that generation and that place than any doctoral thesis on the counter culture in the ‘60s could, in my humble opinion.

Swinging back around from my tangent, Journal of the Plague Year does contain plenty of facts and statistics (“But, Sydney, statistics hadn’t been invented in 1722.” I know, shut up.) about the Great Plague in London.  Defoe lists the number of people that died in each borough during each week of the plague.  He peppers in incidents from H.D.’s personal experiences.  Overall, he creates a very detailed if somewhat fictional account of the lives of the people of London during the “distemper.”  I know what you’re thinking: that sounds really boring.  You’re right.  This book was boring.  Fortunately for you I am going to tell you all the most exciting tidbits.

What I learned:

·         To ward off plague write this symbol on a piece of cloth and pin it to your clothes:












Congratulations!  You are now plague proof.

  • Each ward elected Examiners to go into houses and determine whether the inhabitants were infected.  If they refused to perform their duty, they were thrown in jail.  I would pick jail.
  • The Mayor of London issued an order to kill all the animals in the city.  Yep.  “That no Hogs, Dogs, or Cats, or tame Pigeons, or Conies, be suffered to be kept within any part of the City, or any Swine [. . .] and that the Dogs be killed by the Dog-killers appointed for that purpose.”  Can you imagine?
  • He also prohibited plays, bear-baitings (ugh), games and singing of ballads, to discourage people from assembling and infecting each other.

You might like this book if:

  • you are very morbid.
  • you like to read about dead bodies.
  • you have a particular passion for the plague.

You might not like this book if:

  • you are a human.


Final thoughts: The plague sucked.  Hooray for soap, epidemiology and microbiology!