Wednesday 6 December 2023

Review: The Storm by Daniel Defoe

I read The Storm during storm Brenda or Bethel or Bertha or something. As much as these named storms get a dramatic build-up, they’re never as dramatic as they promise to be, certainly compared to the Great Storm of 1703. Even the storm that barrelled past my childhood house in 1987 was nothing compared to the Great Storm of 1703. This storm was a real doozy and was the subject of Daniel Defoe’s first fall length work.

He wrote this piece at a difficult time. Long a writer under William III, he’d lost his patron and stumbled into dangerous territory with his satirical piece The Shortest Way With The Dissenters, where head aped the vicious rhetoric of anti-dissenters with such accuracy that there are still discussions over whether it was meant or not. (Personally, I feel that as a dissenter, Defoe was probably taking the piss). As a result he’d been put in prison while awaiting his punishment by being put in the pillory. This was a serious punishment, people had died from the injuries sustained but he managed to spin the PR in such a way that he was crowned with flowers and released. Most damaging to him, was that his time in prison unravelled his wavering business and sent him bankrupt - most galling, the business made roof tiles, something people needed a lot of after The Great Storm.

It must be this recent run in with the law that gives the book so nervous a tone. The Preface, addressed from ‘The Ages Humble Servant’ takes great pains in stating the methodology of the book and the importance of truth. He talks about how producing a book that’ll reach thousands has a greater duty to truth than a sermon that reaches hundreds. He says how the public were asked for their experiences of the storm and how he, as editor pored through each communication, selecting the ones that support each other and come from the most reputable sources. Compared to the narrator of The Plague Year, which happily mixes fiction and truth, and of his other novels which confidently present the imaginary as history, it’s a really tip-toeing tone, which is maintained throughout.

The book proper begins with a discussion of weather, and what is known about wind in particular. He cites theories, both classical and modern but concludes that ultimately, not much is known. Even the people who have “rifled Nature by the Torch-Light of Reason, even to her very nudities” have no definitive answer. As such, studying natural phenomena like storms always leads a person back to God, his immensity, his power and his unknowability. 

The book then goes on to describe his own experiences with the storm in London. I particularly liked the detail of how his barometer dropped so low and so quickly he’d assumed his children had broken it playing. He would also have recorded the wind direction but his weather-vane had been blown off the roof of the house. I found it interesting he had such things, perhaps The Storm was partly written because Defoe had a previous interest in the weather.

The book then includes a large number of accounts from people in different parts of the country about how the storm had effected their local area. There are many tiles blown off, chimneys blown down - sometimes crushing those on beds in rooms below, sometimes missing them. In the countryside there are reports of barns being blown down and hay-ricks blown up, some of them landing fully formed but in a different place. A Somerset correspondent mourns the ‘apples without number’ that have been blown off trees. Bits of churches were blown off and many lead roofs were described as being peeled off or rolled up ‘like parchment’. There was a particularly striking description of windmills being blown so hard, the friction of their gears set them alight.

The drama is higher in costal places and at sea. The Eddystone Lighthouse collapsed with the designer and builder inside, a man is crushed by a ship. Whole fleets were blown as far as Sweden and the descriptions of sailors include huge panic, fear and a little bit of heroism.

To be frank, this information would probably have been presented better as tables or graphs. The repetition of details becomes quite tiresome. There’s a bit more interest when a correspondent is from a place you know, I was particularly interested in the storm’s impact on Grimsby (where I will soon be moving to) and Brighton (where I was born). It’s an interesting snapshot of ‘Brighthelmstone’ before it became a popular holiday destination.

The biggest controversy in the book is probably the differing accounts relating to the seaside town of Deal, where some accounts stated that the townspeople refused to help those in trouble in ships near the town. The Mayor very indignantly tries to argue that the people of Deal simply could not help because his town had been woefully underfunded. 

Defoe’s nervous tone doesn’t help the book much. While the introduction suggests that he probably did rewrite many of the letters to shape it, the appearance is one where he simply mediates what was sent to him. He planned to make a sequel of the book by getting correspondence of the storm’s effect over the wider European area, but he never did. The book reminds me of the programme 999, which ran for ten years on the BBC. It used to show dramatic reconstructions of rescues, and even had a special in 1997 about the Great storm of ’87. I have to say, I hated that programme as a child and found it very dull. The Storm was, however, going to be the next step in Defoe’s career, where he’d gain confidence again and become one of the progenitors of the English novel.

Incidentally, the Great Storm of 1703 took place on the 26th of November, and I was going to post this last week as the closest date to that. However, that date was in the old style calendar and actually took place on the 7th of December on our calendar, so I’ve posted it on the nearest Wednesday to that.

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