Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book #20 - A Journal of the Plague Year (Daniel Defoe)

In 1918 my grandfather was a young, newly-married pharmacy student when he caught the Spanish Flu. Fortunately (especially for me) he did not die, but he was ill for a long time and had to go to his wife's parent's farm to recover. He eventually did, but he had a perpetual hacking cough afterwards. As he recovered, he began to work on the farm, and he and his wife ended up staying there all their lives; my grandfather thus became a farmer, taking the farm over after his parents-in-law died. Flash forward thirty years to 1948...he's working on the farm one day and cuts himself very badly on a piece of farm equipment. The wound gets infected and he goes to the doctor. The doctor gives him a new medicine that has recently come out...penicillin. My grandfather takes the antibiotic, and not only does his wound quickly get better, but within two days the hacking cough he'd had for the last thirty years went away and never returned.

We are so used to modern medicine today that we take it for granted. Bacterial infections which would have been fatal before World War II, or at least caused lifelong chronic complaints like my grandfather's cough, are now just nuisances that can be easily cured with a dose of antibiotics. Until the emergence of AIDS, death from infectious diseases became like an odd curiosity, only imaginable in some third world backwater. But with the emergence of new viral infections, like AIDS and SARS and (maybe) bird flu, and the increasing resistance of many bacterial strains to even the strongest antibiotics available, we are again entering an era where the threat of death or disability from infectious disease looms large over our lives. And there's no better reminder of what life can be like in the middle of a raging epidemic than Daniel Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year", which describes the 1665 epidemic of bubonic plague in London.

This was a book I found grimly fascinating and rather odd. I say odd because the book is a fictional account of one London resident's observations of the great London plague of 1665. It's fiction, but it's hard to call it a novel. It seems incredibly historically accurate, and the writing style is very journalistic. If we didn't know anything about the author, we would immediately assume it really was a journal written in 1665 by a plague survivor. Defoe is really good...it takes a lot of talent to pull it off and make this narrative seem so authentic. Defoe himself did live in London during 1665, but he was only five years old. I've read that the nameless narrator (we only learn that his initials are H.F.) may be based on Defoe's uncle, Henry Foe, and many of the details may be from his uncle's journals. I don't know if that's true or not, but Defoe has clearly done a lot of research to get all his details...no one could make this stuff up.

The book has no plot. It loosely follows the course of the plague, from a few isolated cases in early 1665, to the epidemic's climax in September/October of 1665, when thousands were dying every week. The book rambles...the narrator makes an observation, and then follows up with it for a paragraph, or a few pages, then goes on to some other observation. Many pages later he may come back to the same observation and add more to it. If the subject matter wasn't so morbidly intriguing, this rambling style might put the reader off. But the narrator's observations of the plague, his descriptions of the behavior of the victims and the survivors, and his religious and scientific (such as they are) musings keep the reader hooked. The narrator describes the city's attempts to stop the epidemic, which involve, among other things, locking up any house where someone falls victim to the plague. Anyone living there aside from the victim was also locked in the house, and a guard was posted outside. This may have helped prevent the disease from spreading as rapidly as it might have, but it also condemned anyone trapped inside to an almost certain death. In this way whole families were wiped out. The narrator describes how the rich and well-to-do fled London as soon as the plague appeared. Poorer people tried to flee London once the epidemic spread, but by that time neighboring towns were turning folks away, often with force. Quacks selling patent medicines to prevent the plague made lots of money deceiving people, before they themselves succumbed to the disease. People fled to the church for salvation, where clergymen died in large numbers due to their exposure to so many people. Interestingly, the narrator tells how when the Church of England clergy died, preachers from dissenting churches were often the only ones who were left to take their place, and they did so to much acclaim...the plague doing more for religious tolerance than anything previously attempted. Of course, once the plague passed, the persecution of dissenting sects began anew. Carts came through the streets on a daily basis, the drivers calling out "Bring out your dead" (yes, just like in Monty Python). The dead bodies were stacked in the cart and taken to the churchyard where they were dumped for mass burials in large pits. When people went to the store, they would not hand money directly to the shopkeepers, but instead would dump their change in a bucket of vinegar on the counter, which was thought to disinfect the money.

The book goes on and on with observations similar to these, all equally though-provoking. And that's the whole book. We learn almost nothing of the narrator...we know he's a saddler, and that his brother and his family have left the city for safety, and that he himself never catches the plague, but that's it. However, he does venture his opinions on things he sees (for example, he's very much against the locking up of houses of people who have the plague), so he's not just an impartial reporter of the events. But the main character of this book is really the city of London and its beleaguered population.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing in the book is the response of people to the plague as it reaches its terrible climax and then begins to wane. When the plague is at its height, and thousands are dying each week, the narrator makes the despair eerily palpable. Everyone has given up hope and just assumes that they'll all be dead soon. And then, the plague starts to abate. Not only do the number of deaths begin to decline, but more people who come down with the disease begin to recover completely; the disease has become less virulent. When people realize this is happening they are overwhelmed with joy, and lose all the caution they had...people talk to one another in the streets again, and touch one another, and do business. Many people die as a result, for the epidemic is not over, but people just don't care...the glimmer of hope has caused them to give in to the universal need for human contact. Humanity returns.

A final historical note, and one which the narrator of the book mentions: The summer after the great plague of London came the great fire of London, and most of the city burned down. What was perhaps not so appreciated then was that this was probably a blessing, in that large parts of London were effectively sterilized, and rid of the rats and their fleas which spread the plague. When the city was rebuilt, under the auspices of Sir Christopher Wren, the streets were made wider, and a better sewage system was put in. Ironically London's great fire may have helped prevent future epidemics and their miseries. This book serves as a vivid reminder of what we're missing, and what we may yet experience again some day.


Amateur Reader said...

The narrator is a real Defoe narrator - he's restless, and curious. Why doesn't he leave London, despite the danger? He wants to see what's going to happen.

Robby Virus said...

So true. And when the plague is at its worst, he locks himself in his house for several days to protect himself from infection, but soon he can't take it anymore...curiosity gets the best of him and he starts roaming the streets again.

Kristin said...

I never had the desire to read this book...not sure why. But you have peaked my curiousity. I think it's going on The List.

Bo Simons said...

Dear Robby Virus,
I am a librarian in Healdsburg, and for over 8 years we have had a book group out of the Healdsburg Library called 'The Canon.' We are currently reading A Journal of the Plague Year, and I would invite you and any others who might want to join in a realtime, offline discussion of this book, to come to the Healdsburg Regional Library, 139 Piper St., Healdsburg, CA 95448, on Wednesday, May 13, 2009, at 7 PM.