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A Journal of the Plague Year - Daniel Defoe

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Paperback: 289 pages / Publisher: Penguin Classics / Published: 29 May 2003

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      12.10.2013 21:50
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      A supposedly first hand account of the 1665 London plague

      ===The Product===

      Originally published in 1722.
      Paperback: 192 pages
      Publisher: Dover Publications Inc.; New edition edition (28 Mar 2003)
      ISBN-13: 978-0486419190



      ===Cost===

      RRP £4.50 but selling for £3.38 & Free Delivery on Amazon or can be purchased second hand 2.81.
      However see below for a FREE ebook or audio version.



      ===Brief Synopsis===

      The plague was said to have been in Holland in September 1664 but it was in the end of November of beginning of December 1664 that two men died of what was assumed to be the plague in Drury Lane, London.

      Daniel Defoe's account of the Plague Year covers from this time through all the dreadful times of 1665 until at the beginning of 1666 the plague has once again run its course.

      Hundreds of thousands are dead.



      ===Daniel Defoe===

      This Journal is written by Daniel Defoe as if it is a first person account of how he lived through and survived the plague n London in 1665.

      However this could not have been the case as Daniel Defoe was only born around 1660 so would have been a young child at the time. This Journal was published in 1722 and is now classed as a novel, or sometimes a semi-fictional novel. However it is not written as such and does indeed read as it if a first hand eye witness account of the horrors associated with the plague.

      When published the book's author was given the initials 'H.F.' which was probably based on the journals of Defoe's uncle, Henry Foe - Daniel only added the 'De' to his name for effect.

      This may well be classed as a novel but I am sure that he draws on his uncles journals for he facts of the plague as when you are reading it it would be hard to imagine it all being fictional when there is so many different facts and tables included.

      If anyone has tried reading the original Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe they may have found it, like me, rather tedious and long winded. However it is hard to judge the writing styles of almost three hundred years ago by our own standards of today.

      In fact while being quaint and old fashioned in some of its phrasing this Journal is surprisingly easy to read and understand and you would not think it had been written so long ago.



      ===The Plague Arrives===

      The account covers 1665 but is not divided into sections as such, but Defoe does endeavour to group various occurrences together.

      Defoe gives great accounts of the plague and how it spread. He writes as if he was a saddler - whose brother and family leave London but he decides to stay. Later he regrets this decision - but by then it is too late to flee - as he would be shunned as he tried to travel outside the city.

      At the beginning he writes of the Quacks who sell worthless and useless charms and amulets just to make money.



      ===London Details===

      I am not well acquainted with London streets myself but Defoe goes into great detail throughout the book about certain streets, parishes and churches which anyone who knows London would be able to recognise - those that are still there anyway.



      ==Shutting Up of Houses===

      As deaths begin to come from the plague many people would cover up the causes - so that the true extent of the plague was not known.

      Would we not all have done the same - to avoid being locked up in our own home and a foot long red cross painted on our door - and the words - 'LORD HAVE MERCY UPON US'.

      Each parish would then have 'watchers' to guard plague houses to make sure no one left. However ths did not always work - there were often more than one entrance and there would only be two watchmen - one for day and one for night - also sometimes they could be bribed to turn a blind eye to someone slipping our of the house.

      Defoe was quite scathing in his opinion of this shutting up of people with the infected person.
      Daniel believed that they should have allocated Pest Houses were the infected person could have been taken, rather than lock up the whole family so that the infection was spread through everyone. Also he believed that this did not serve much purpose as often people would be infected before they even knew it themselves, and so would be walking about in streets and markets infecting others anyway.



      ===Bring Out Your Dead===

      As deaths began to mount the churches had trouble coping with burials, proper funerals ceased and burials would be done without ceremony between sunset and sunrise.

      Defoe states that as burials became more numerous as the plague was taking hold that plague pits were being dug - he talks of having gone to see one such pit at Aldgate - which was 40ft by 16 ft and 9ft deep - later the pits would be dug deeper but they could not go too deep because they would come to water at around 17 or 18 ft.

      No burial was to be made closer than 6ft from the surface.

      Defoe told some grizzly tales - of people mad with the plague who ran into the plague pits or who ran into the Thames and drowned - such was the pain caused by the 'tokens' under their arms or in their groins.



      ===Bills of Mortality===

      Each week Bills of Mortality would be published detailing how many people had died and from what - though these could not be counted on 100% for various reasons - firstly because the whole situation was so chaotic that often those who had to collect the figures were dead themselves - and it was difficult to could bodies on numerous dead carts in the dark of night.

      Also many people tried to hide the cause of death - stating it was 'spotted fever' or 'teeth' - anything rather than having it classed as plague. In one week in the summer of 1665 apart form plague 133 died form 'teeth', 165 from 'spotted fever' and 364 from 'fever - how many of these were actually plague we will never know.

      The situation was often so chaotic with numerous death carts going out at night that it is unlikely the full total of deaths was ever recorded.

      Many people drowned and were never found or counted - others ran into the countryside to live would and may have died under hedgerows.

      The 'bills' show 68.590 dying of plague but Defoe believes the figure would ave been more likely to have been around 100,000.



      ===Flee or Isolate Yourself===

      Many wealthy people who had country houses made their escape early on - but afterwards it was not safe to flee, as no-one in the countryside would want to provide you with food.

      Defoe himself in the story states he had second thoughts about not leaving later on - but by then it was too late.

      However not all had the option to leave - the poor had no where to go - and as the plague took hold all trade ceased - so that they also often had no work and very little money.

      Defoe states that some people stayed secure in their houses - but even then often a servant would have to go out for food as they had not stocked up with enough - and would often bring th infection back into the house.

      Daniel said he should have stocked up provisions but only managed to do it for a few weeks. Even then he would like to go out and walk the streets to see what was occurring - this was when he was noticing that some streets, including his own which was a broad street with butchers on the opposite side, had grown like a field with grass in the centre - as there was seldom any carts or coaches during the day. 'Death reined in every corner.'

      Dogs and cats were ordered to be destroyed and mice and rats were poisoned.



      ===Those Suffering===

      The plague often took different forms - sometimes people developed 'tokens' - swellings in their armpits and groin. Often these would be extremely hard an painful and they would be in agony - physicians would try to burst or burn these swellings - often causing extreme agony - the patients would be screaming and roaring - and often in delirium would jump out of windows, run down the streets not knowing what they were doing - or even end up in the Thames drowned.

      It was believed that if the swellings could be brought to a head and ruptured then the patient had a chance of recovery.

      Other times the people seemed to have the sickness inside them, but they knew it not and would often be out and about mingling with other people and in the markets and would often just faint and fall down dead. These were the ones who wee spreading the disease unwittingly.



      ===Towards the end of 1665===

      Although people still continued to die from plague it was not so all consuming as it had been during the summer months.

      Often now those who caught it recovered. Houses that had been deserted were aired up and 'sweetened' with fires and herbs. Some people did return from the countryside too early and unfortunately some whole families perished for their haste.



      ===My Opinion===

      I have always been fascinated by the plague and how people coped and so I found this book fascinating. I have now read the book and also listened to the story online.

      Reading the title of the book makes one surprised to find that it is not in fact Daniel Defoe's account of the plague, but it seems that it was from journals of his uncle, Henry Foe.

      This book does not read as if it is almost 300 years old and Defoe's accounts are so vivid you would easily believe he had fist hand experience of the conditions.

      The way he talks about the people being boarded into their houses, about hearing their shrieks, of going out at night to see the death cart pile the dead bodies into the pits - all are very believable.

      Some parts of the book are a little long winded - but that is Defoe's style and the way things were probably written at the time.

      You cannot expect this to read like a modern day thriller - but it is not meant to be one. It is easily readable and understood. There are some tables showing the number of deaths for various parishes during certain weeks.

      There is much detail of different London streets with Drury and Petticoat Lane being mentioned.

      Later towards the end of the book an interesting section is where he details the locations of the plague pits and how certain ones had been built on or dug up. Anyone who knows London would be able to recognise the locations mentioned.

      Defoe also thought that the plague pits where so many thousands were unceremoniously buried should have been left to 'rest undisturbed'.

      Defoe's attitude in some cases is surprisingly modern and easy to understand. His views on the futility of boarding people up - as often by the time the disease was evident they were too ill to spread it and had already infected others anyway.

      Not exactly cheerful reading and Defoe does tend to labour some points, but all in all a great book if you want to get the general feel of what the city was going through.



      ===Star Rating===

      5 stars.



      ===Would I Recommend?===

      Yes.



      ===Free Versions===

      Ebook - free - www.gutenberg.org/files/376/376-h/376-h.htm
      Full Audio book of over 11 hours is available on Youtube - www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cdeKeBCbsE

      Comments

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      • More +
        24.04.2013 18:56
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        really interesting book

        Daniel Defoe is best known for his novels Robertson Crusoe and Nell Flanders. I recently discovered another great work of his "A Journal of the Plague Year, written by a citizen who continued all the while in London." I have always been fascinated in social history and so was delighted to see that this book was free to download on Kindle (a paperback copy currently costs £4.36 on Amazon) and soon read it from cover to cover.

        When I downloaded the journal, I thought that it was a true account of Defoe's own experiences during the plague but it transpires that he was only 5 years old when the disease hit the city of London in 1665. Many five year olds have clear and vivid memories of things that have happened in their lives but this "journal" is written from the perspective of a middle or upper class adult who maintained a household with several servants in 1665. It is believed that the journal is written based on a diary kept by his uncle Henry Foe but with input from Defoes own experiences of living during a period of the plague in France as an adult. The book does not read like a work of fiction; it gives a chronological account of the events of 1665 in great detail, is written from the perspective of an eyewitness and has none of the characters or plotlines you would expect from a story.

        The bubonic plague hit the city of London in 1665 killing up to 100 000 people or a fifth of the population in a few short months. We now know that the plague is caused by fleas, they did not have that knowledge then. It is also a disease which is now treatable by antibiotics which of course the people did not have in the seventeenth century.

        Defoe charts the progression of the plague in chronological terms giving a month by month account of how the disease spread across the city, death tolls as well as commenting on the steps the Lord Mayor took to quell the spread of the disease. It would have been helpful to have some kind of map of London at the time as well as population counts as the names of the different streets and parishes meant little to me as a modern reader.

        As the plague took hold and the victims grew in number, the city of London took a number of measures to try and halt the spread of the disease. This included shutting whole families into their houses if one person was infected to stop them spreading the disease to the population around them. This locking of houses is something that Defoe found both inhumane and ineffective and is something he spoke about a lot in the book.

        The plague was a horrible disease for those afflicted with them forming buboes or swellings due to the infection which caused great pain and there are many wrenching accounts of how people died in a horrible way. The practicalities of dealing with the dead was also discussed in great detail with death carts travelling the streets every night to take away the bodies and throw them into shallow graves as there was no way the city could cope with single burials or even produce enough coffins.

        What I found particularly interesting was the social attitudes at the time. It is easy for us in the comfort of the 21st century to say that disease is caused by biological mechanisms such as bacteria but they did not know that at the time. Defoe was a staunch Christian and he and many others attributed the cause of the plague to God who was smiting people. There were also a great many charlatans and quacks around offering herbals remedies and various charms to ward off illness so that is one thing that has not changed.

        As well as learning about the plague it is possible to learn a lot about the daily lives of Londoners from the book like how they lived, organised their families, shopped, ate and drank. Defoe is obviously writing from the perspective of a middle class man but he regularly talks about the lives of the poor; sometimes with sympathy and other times with disdain.

        The Journal of the Plague Year is obviously written in the language of the seventeenth century which is surprisingly very easy to read. I enjoyed Defoe's writing style and use of language although I made heavy use of the Kindle dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. There were several words which could not be found in the dictionary at all as they have have completely fallen out of use but it was possible to guess the meaning of those words by looking at the context in which they are used.

        There were a couple of niggles about the book. It is written in one long narrative with no chapters to break it down. Defoe can be repetitive and when he felt strongly about an issue could mention it far too many times. In the Kindle edition not all of the tables and charts were properly formatted so that they made sense but that did not make much difference.

        Defoe's journal of the plague year may not be based on his own personal experiences of the plague in London but it is still a fascinating book.

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