Having recently read Pepys’ account of the plague of 1665, I thought I’d visit Defoe and see what he had to say about the matter. ‘The Journal of the Plague Year
For Pepys, the plague is a nuisance which occasionally scares him (by running into diseased bodies at night) but more frequently exasperates him, such as the different bodies of government being split up into various country estates. It is an opportunity to play and to exercise his full sexual wishes. He is far more concerned with the reputation of Lord Sandwich as Admiral, the organisation of Phillip Caterat’s wedding and the possibility of profiting from the Anglo-Dutch War.
For Defoe, it’s an apocalypse - at one point in September he sees London months away from obliteration. Well… technically… not Defoe. ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ is an unusual book. For a start, it isn’t actual presented as a journal, more a reflection. It pretends to be the account of ‘HF’, a saddler who stayed in London during the whole of the plague’s ravaging. Defoe was five years old in 1665 and was evacuated into the country with his family for the duration of the sickness and so was not drawing on his own memories. It is very possible he drew on the memories of those around him, his uncle was a HF and did stay, it is possible he interviewed him. It is also possible he had access to Pepys diaries, as an acquaintance was a librarian of the Pepys library - if he did, I don’t think he used them much, Pepys’ unique perspective is not much seen in the book. It is clear Defoe also used plague literature and the recently published death lists of the time to help him.
Irrespective of the veracity of the tales told in the ‘Journal’, Defoe creates a feeling of realism and an aura of truth. Defoe plays to his strengths as a writer, describing the processes by which London tried to contain and protect itself from the plague as well as the methods and systems used by the people themselves. In doing so, he manages to create a very moving, dignified telling of a distressing tale.
Pepys on the other hand frequently finds himself remarking on how happy is and how he is experiencing ‘the greatest joy I ever had in my life’. Certainly, his wealth doubles during 1665 (and had grown a hundredfold since 1660). Part of this is his own hard work. In a very revealing passage on November 1st, he tells a friend how his good fortune has come through luck, a few good contacts and through working hard enough to be essential. The plague is only periphery, the war with the Dutch and the money making opportunities are more relevant.
Part of this may be because Pepys, as a naval official, finds himself moved out of the country whereas Swift stays in London. He conjures up timeless truths that still are true in London today. When the plague starts, it begins in the West End. Those in the City, East and South of the river consider these sicknesses to only be the West’s problem. There’s sympathy, but an overriding feeling that ‘it won’t come here’. As a result, those places are utterly unprepared when the disease spreads. Were such an illness to occur today, London would treat it in exactly the same manner, it still being a city made of different parishes and ‘ends’, even if those parishes aren’t tied to churches.
After the initial panic and exodus of the city (which Pepys remarks on and as part of), what’s most notable about the Defoe book is the calm, rational way the people left behind organised themselves. Although Defoe has definite criticism of locking the healthy with the sick, he is very clear that it was at least a response, which isn’t coming from the King or court. The Lord Mayor of London and the officials of the city are highly praised for the way they set up systems of containment and burial, for the appeal and fair handing out of charity and for their dedication to their duty - a dedication not shown by clergy and doctors.
Defoe gives a very fair account of plague nurses, pilloried in other texts for killing off their patients and stealing from them - accounts he reckons to be more a projection of people’s fears than an accurate description of the actions of the nurses themselves. Similarly, he doesn’t castigate the medical profession for being unable to get on top of the plague, seeing it as a problem that no one could control.
There are pictures of people running mad, of plague victims drowning themselves or setting themselves alight in their beds to avoid the painful death and (in September) of bodies dumped in the streets but these are the exceptions. When I think of how London would cope if a mysterious and untreatable disease killed 20% of the population in three months, those hardworking people of the 1600s are a wonder of civil duty and good sense. In modern London, in 2011, there were three days of widespread riots after a protest about a police shooting went out of hand. In 1665 there were none.
Another element that I found very recognisable in Defoe was how, when the plague was at its height and every Londoner had accepted death, they stopped the precautions that had characterised the plague until then. No longer did they walk in the middle of the street and avoid people, nor did they leave payment in vinegar to sanitise it - a fatalism swept the city. Similarly, when the incidence of infection was still high but the death rate lower, they joyfully hugged and touched each other without fear… thus causing the plague to increase a little. This moment gets a little recognition from Pepys but he is too wrapped up in his own life to pay it too much attention.
For a writer who often struggles with atmosphere, ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ is dripping in it. The close, hot summer of 1665, the voluntary (or involuntary) confinement to houses, the creeping and paranoid fear of infection - they are all simply and clearly evoked. The joy when the death count goes down, full of delight and release of tension is also communicated to the reader.
This might be my favourite Defoe book yet.
Probably the difference in the books is based on the fact that one is a genuine journal of the time and the other purports to be. Certainly, looking at the two of them together it is revealed how much everyone kept an eye on the death lists and the reports of plague - but for Pepys, the man on the ground, there was too much to accomplish to let plague get in the way. I also found it interesting how both Pepys and Defoe fail to describe or mention the now iconic Plague Doctor outfit. Were they not common in London? They seem a more European invention.
This is a fascinating topic and period and I am delighted to discover that William Harrison Ainsworth also wrote a novel about London during the plague and fire called ‘Old Saint Pauls’. I look forward, at some point, to seeing what his particularly technicolour imagination make of the material.