This is an unusual book as it’s part fiction, part historical reflection. In today’s parlance we might call this “historical fiction” but many scholars today still can’t agree on how to classify this book.
It is 1665 and we follow one man, “H.F.,” as he explores the devastating bubonic plague, also know as the Black Death, and its effects on families and communities throughout London.
Defoe does a remarkable job at making this personal and bringing the reader right to the door of plague victims and neighbors of victims – those living in fear of catching the plague. We meet a wide arrange of people, giving us a snapshot of all the different fears and reactions during this dark experience.
Defoe wrote the book in 1722, likely based on actual journal accounts, such as that of Samuel Pepys, but his narrative makes this easier to read than true journals.
There is a little bit of humor here (or at least I found a couple of the encounters a little humorous), but overall this is a bleak story – as one would expect.
What really struck me were the counts. The local parishes post the weekly burials:
The weekly bill, which makes out this decrease of the burials in the west and north side of the city, stands thus—
From the 12th of September to the 19th—
– St Giles, Cripplegate 456
– St Giles-in-the-Fields 140
– Clarkenwell 77
– St Sepulcher 214
– St Leonard, Shoreditch 183
– Stepney parish 71
– Aldgate 623
– Whitechappel 532
– In the ninety-seven parishes within the walls 1493
– In the eight parishes on Southwark side 1636
– Total 6060
What strikes me, aside from the numbers, is the fact that today I check the daily reports of the number of people infected with the COVID-19 corona virus as well as the number of people who’ve died, daily, from the virus.
Readers will also note other similarities to today’s pandemic reactions. From those who don’t take it seriously, those who take advantage of the situation, those who are overwhelmed with fear, and those overwhelmed with grief. Essentially … humans haven’t changed much in 300 years.
The narrative style is just a little difficult to read (as many works of literature, 300 years old, are difficult, I find), but the story definitely resonates given our current pandemic.
Looking for a good book? A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe reminds us that humans haven’t changed much over the course of centuries, and that nature, by way of plagues and viruses, is relentless and unforgiving.
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A Journal of the Plague Year
author: Daniel Defoe
publisher: Open Road Media
Kindle Edition, 184 pages