A Journal of the Plague Year

A repost from 2009, seemed timely:

Most have heard of the story of Robinson Crusoe but not many have heard of Daniel Defoe’s other works. He was a prolific writer and some will argue the inventor of the modern English novel because he was the first to introduce short simple prose. His parents were dissenters from the Church of England and he was raised with a strong sense of God’s providence in governing all of creation and their actions down to smallest detail. Although Defoe moved away from his parents Puritan beliefs he remained, as displayed in his writings, a convinced predestinarian.

In A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, Defoe describes in vivid detail “London in agony” as the streets become deserted as the Plague kills 100,000 people during 1665. The narrator keeping the journal signs the book with H. F. and it probably refers to his uncle Henry Foe[1] who lived during the “Day of visitation; a Day of God’s anger…” H. F. ponders the greater meaning of this tragedy as he struggles to understand what is happening from a Divine perspective and believes the spread of the Plague is due to the wrath of God. H. F. finds affirmation for this believe in the Old Testament where one could site, for example, Miriam who was infected with leprosy as a Divine judgement. (Numbers 12) The attention to detail is amazing. What I really found haunting is Defoe’s use of parish burial notices. The reader becomes slowly aware just how immediate the danger of the Plague is as H. F.’s neighbours die off around him. This is historical fiction at its best.

Following is a quote from the Journal where H. F. struggles to decide if he should stay in the city or flee the Plague :

In the Retirement of this Evening I endeavoured to resolve first, what was my Duty to do, and I stated the Arguments with which my Brother had press’d me to go into the Country, and I set against them the strong Im-pressions which I had on my Mind for staying; the visi-ble Call I seem’d to have from the particular Circum-stance of my Calling, and the Care due from me for the preservation of my Effects, which were, as I might say, my Estate; also the Intimations which I thought I had from Heaven, that to me signify’d a kind of Direction to venture, and it occurr’d to me, that if I had what I might call a Direction to stay, I ought to suppose it con-tain’d a Promise of being preserved, if I obey’d.

This lay close to me, and my Mind seemed more and more encouraged to stay than ever, and supported with a secret Satisfaction, that I should be kept: Add to this that turning over the Bible, which lay before me, and while my Thoughts were more than ordinarily serious upon the Question, I cry’d out, WELL, I know not what to do, Lord direct me! and the like; and that Juncture I happen’d to stop turning over the Book at the 91st Psalm, and casting my Eye on the second Verse, I read on to the 7th Verse exclusive; and after that, included the 10th, as follows. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge, and my fortress, my God, in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisom pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shah thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that fiieth by day: Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness: nor for the destruction that wasteth at noon-day. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thou-sand at thy right hand: but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine Eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked. Because thou hast made the Lord which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation: There shall no evil befal thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling, &c.

I scarce need tell the Reader, that from that Moment I resolv’d that I would stay in the Town, and casting my self entirely upon the Goodness and Protection of the Almighty, would not seek any other Shelter whatever; and that as my Times were in his Hands, he was as able to keep me in a Time of the Infection as in a Time of Health; and if he did not think fit to deliver me, still I was in his Hands, and it was meet he should do with me as should seem good to him.

With this Resolution I went to Bed; and I was farther confirm’d in it the next Day, by the Woman being taken ill with whom I had intended to entrust my House and all my Affairs: But I had a farther Obligation laid on me on the same Side; for the next Day I found my self very much out of Order also; so that if I would have gone away, I could not, and I continued ill three or four Days, and this intirely determin’d my Stay; so I took my leave of my Brother, who went away to Dorking in Surry, and afterwards fetch’d a Round farther into Buckinghamshire, or Bedfordshire, to a Retreat he had found out there for his Family. [end quote]

Peace,

jm

[1] It’s been suggested that Daniel must have heard stories from his uncle and used those stories as inspiration for his work.

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