Plague Years

As we move into a bank holiday weekend, when the government has announced that there will be some review of the details of lockdown, it is appropriate to introduce you to some truly pestilential literature.

The first, shockingly, is not a text of English literature, but of French literature: Albert Camus’ La Peste, or The Plague, which communicates a powerful sense of gathering claustrophobia. While the plague in question has often been read as a metaphor for the spread of fascism in Europe, it is medically detailed and the central character is a doctor, though there are also religious, government, journalistic and volunteer characters who all react to the spreading disease in different ways. A perfect read for our times, whether in French or an English translation.

The other text for this post is English, and marks one of the early experiments with what a novel might be, before such things as novels were established or the word was in regular use. Daniel Defoe published The Journal of the Plague Year in 1722, three years after Robinson Crusoe. Like the earlier work, The Journal of the Plague Year did not present itself as a novel, or even a fiction; it purported to be a first person account of one man’s experience of the plague in 1655 and included data, charts and government proclamations within its text. Defoe’s name did not appear on it at all and some early commentators took it at face value.

The account is eerily familiar to us: the government enact emergency measures, banning public gatherings and closing schools. Those suffering from the plague, and their families, are locked into their houses. Volunteers are recruited to oversee the lockdown and trace the disease.

Here’s the text online or it can be downloaded here.

Here is a short video of the book’s opening:

Here is an example of the way in which Defoe includes data:

The next week was thus: And to the 1st of Aug. thus:
Aldgate 14 34 65
Stepney 33 58 76
Whitechappel 21 48 79
St Katherine, Tower 2 4 4
Trinity, Minories 1 1 4
71 145 228

This use of other texts, other authorities within the text, is used to create verisimilitude, to persuade the reader of the non-fiction nature of the fiction, though in this case, the fiction is very closely based on fact. The book claims to be the account of ‘H.F.’ and there is conjecture that Defoe might indeed have been editing a manuscript, rather than authoring an imagined one. When the novel form was in its infancy and the reading public had yet to fully accept the notion of a prose fiction, novels were written in ways that pretended not to be novels – as accounts, diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, exchanges of letters, so Defoe’s quasi-historical account of the plague is not unusual.

Here are two interesting articles about the book and its relevance to our crisis today.

It’s interesting that in the early 18th century, writers were struggling with an appropriate form for the novel, but 1759 saw the beginning of the publication of one of the most experimental, modernist novels of all time. But that’s for another day.