Though Defoe wrote this book as a first-hand account of the Black Death that hit London in 1664, it is classified as a
fictional book. Defoe was born in that city in 1660, and spent years in and out of jail as a non-conformist and for attacking the government. Sounds like my
kind of guy. He was age 59 when he began his writing career, and his most famous book, Robinson Crusoe was written in 1719.
This one came in 1722. According to the Note in the Dover edition, "many critics over the years have judged it to be a more inciteful account of the awful
events of 1665 than the eyewitness account written by Samuel Pepys." When the plague finally ended, the"official" total death count in London was 68,590
(although Defoe disputes that figure). Again in 1721, the bubonic plague once more threatened Europe, and Defoe wrote this book as a warning.
The unnamed narrator of the story is a well-off businessman, living in a more upper class part of London. He begins his story, commenting that it came to be known that the plague had hit Holland in the beginning of September, 1664. In November, two Frenchmen living at the end of Drury Lane were said to have died of the plague, though that information was attempted to be suppressed. A few more died in that part of town, St. Giles's and St. Andrew's parish, known to be the plague, though deaths seemed to be increasing. Defoe gives a listing by week of the number of people who died in those two parishes from December 27 to February 14. In December, two more parishes, St. Bride's and St. James's were added to the list of a higher than normal death rate, although it was denied that it was from the plague. As the weather got colder, the deaths seemed to taper off, but a warm spring set if off again, adding more parishes and greatly increased deaths.
Defoe makes some strong points. First, he says that the deaths from the plague were, and had been much greater than reported because the information was being suppressed, until, of course, it could no longer be done. The wealthier people began to leave the city in droves during late spring, and the narrator was in a state of confusion as to whether he should also leave. His brother removed his own family to the country, and urged his to leave also. Since leaving would also mean leaving his lucrative business, after much debate, he decides to stay, and put his life "in God's hands."
At this point, Defoe doesn't talk at all about the horror of the disease. He talks about the horror of people and their behavior and reactions which made the situation much worse. One of the most deplorable were the quacks and swindlers, who preyed on mostly the poor, and claimed to have medicines that were guaranteed to cure the plague or prevent its manifestation. Not only were these potions fraudulent, they were often downright poisonous. They had such colorful names and claims as "Infallible preventive pills against the plague;" "Never-failing preservatives against the infection;" "Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air;" "Incomparable drink against the plague never found out before."
Things haven't changed much in 350 years, have they?
Even worse were the soothsayers, fortune tellers, and those who believed there were signs in the stars and comets and whatever that foretold disaster, all, of course, attempting to make a buck on a poor and uneducated population in terror.
Next, Defoe goes on to explain the rigid procedures adopted by the city to shut up houses where the plague had hit. A watchman was appointed to the house, one during the day and one at night. Their duty was to make sure no one left the house, and also to run errands for what the families needed. This was a cause of extreme distress for all and many watchmen were killed or treated with violence. I cannot imagine being shut up in a house with the plague, as in a prison. The people found ways to deceive the watchmen, and often would send him on an errand, then escape, leaving the sick person to die on their own. Unfortunately, many of these people were also infected, so by leaving, they only spread the disease farther, the exact reason they were shut up in the first place. Some, of course, did escape, and afterwards returned home, safe and well. But no matter how you view it, it had to be an atrocious experience.
Next he talks about his own parish, which was eventually hit with a vengeance. So many people had died that they dug what could only be called a pit at the church. In two weeks, 1114 bodies had been thrown in. He speaks of people also coming to these pits nearly dead, and throwing themselves in, thus dying in the place where they were buried.
Defoe is amazingly scientific and devoid of superstitions, especially keeping in mind the time period in which he lived, and his thoughts about how the disease was spread so rapidly and how much of the misery could have been avoided are completely intelligent and level-headed. He goes on to explain the disease itself and how it effected different people in starkly different ways. Some people had no symptoms of the disease whatsoever, though it was growing inside, as Defoe says, a gangrene inside the body. They would be out somewhere, like at the market, and sit down and drop dead, or just fall over in the street. Of course, those people were most responsible for spreading it. Other would develop the buboes, which named the Bubonic Plague. Buboes were extraordinarily painful swellings of the lymph glands in the neck and groin. Often a doctor would lance them or in some way attempt to get them to break, which cause even more intense pain, especially since they were extremely hard. However, once that task was complete, the victim often had a chance of recovery. It is all so terrible, I cannot imagine living through it.
Defoe also discusses the financial aspect of this time of horror, and how many of the poorest people were able to survive because the wealthier ones who had left the city contributed to charities. Of course, common laborers found themselves without work, especially in those areas that were deemed not necessary for life, such as seamstresses, and people in the construction business. No houses, obviously were being built now because the city found themselves stuck with a glut of uninhabited houses whose families had all died. Even more sad were all the maids and servants who were let go by the families they served.
Though the official number of deaths in London from this horrible outbreak stood, for the records, at 68,590, Defoe disputes that figure and gives his reasons. In the parish where the narrator lives, though often the numbers of dead per day were 600-800, he believes it was closer to 1,000 per day, and at its peak, 1,700. When so many were dying so rapidly, the bodies would be loaded onto the carts, usually at night, and dumped into the huge pits, where they were covered with a layer of earth. Defoe said when all in a household were dead, the bodies could lay for days until the stench prompted the neighbors to report it. Often the poorest people would crawl out into the country and lie down under a bush to die. The country folk would leave food for them until it remained uneaten. Then they would get a long pole with a hook and push the body into a hole, so as not to touch it. It would certainly seem impossible to keep an accurate record of the deaths, at that rate, and under the circumstances. Sometimes the very people who were in charge of keeping the records would die, and certainly the ones who drove the carts, crying out "bring out your dead," would have a high death rate, though easily replaced because so many people were out of work.
At one point, Defoe tells a rather lengthy story of how two brothers, joined by another man, armed with a horse, a gun, a few provisions, and a lot of ingenuity manage to defy the odds and escape the city. They are joined by another group of men and women, and by putting all their heads together and making best use of all they had, both mentally and physically, they built a little shelter in the forest, then found a broken down house which they were able to use to weather the storm of the raging plague. Of everything Defoe has written, this section, perhaps, seems the most "fictional," yet it is very likely an example of what was possible for those who kept a cool head and developed a game plan. And according to him, probably a great deal of the disaster could have been lessened if people had not allowed their mental and emotional frenzy to overtake what should have been calm and wise decisions. Keep in mind, Defoe wrote this book long after the event, but at the time of another outbreak of the disease, in the form of a warning against stupid and irrational behavior. I am impressed with his wisdom, which seems advanced for the era in which he lived.
Incidentally, another form of escape, especially for those who had money and again, planned ahead with provisions, was to live on a boat on the river. There were men who would run errands for them on land, like fetching what they needed, bringing mail, and other necessities.
One term that Defoe constantly uses, sounds much more cruel than it is, and that is pest-house, where people who had the plague were urged to go. It was simply a hospital that housed patients with contagious or pestilent diseases.
Perhaps one of the most chilling aspects of this terrible episode in London's history was the mental effect the disease had on many people, like an animal delirious with rabies and ready to attack. Defoe was not able to ascertain the cause, whether the disease caused a breakdown of the mind, or whether people were just evil, or believed in "misery loves company," but so often, someone who was infected, and knew it, would purposely go out and infect others. I have heard many modern accounts of some people who have AIDS behaving in the same manner. It's sickening.
One of the reasons the plague did not wipe out most of London is that it began in the west and moved east and south. So by the time it actually hit the city, which was September, 1665, it had already abated in the western suburbs. And before September, those on the east side mostly went about their business, hoping the city would avoid the onslaught all together. Defoe also discussed the city officials, and how they approached the disaster in a calm and strict manner, and were able to keep order as much as possible, greatly aiding the city's stability. During the day, the streets were kept clean, bodies were covered and taken away until night time when the dead-carts went through to remove them to the pits. Defoe also says that a great many poor people were relieved of their distress for necessities, such as food, through the generous contributions of the wealthy, said to be 100,000 pounds per week, no small figure in 1665!
Defoe makes a point in saying that one of the reasons the disease spread so rapidly was the often there were no symptoms until people felt weak all of a sudden, then dropped dead. He tells of a man with a wound in his leg who carried a little cordial with him. He claimed whenever the wound began to smart, he was in the company of someone with the plague, and would remove himself, with warnings to others, and sip his cordial. He was proved to be correct, and survived.
Along with the physical distress was the psychological effect the calamity had on the population. Toward the end, especially the poor, tired of being locked up in their houses, threw caution to the wind, desperate to be in company, they figured they were going to die anyways, and began to come outside and socialize again.
It takes a great deal of fortitude to read this book, though I do recommend it. It is debatable whether it is truly a work of fiction, but the final consensus of the literary world classifies it as such, therefore, so will I. As mentioned above, the narrator is unnamed, except at the very end, the manuscript is signed H.F.. According to Wikipedia, this probably refers to Defoe's uncle, Henry Foe upon whose journals the book is likely based. My only criticisms with the book are that it is not divided into chapters (which make good starting and ending points when you have a few minutes free to read), and also that it is perhaps longer than it needed to be, since there is so much repetition of certain points that obviously bothered the person who made the original observations, especially the issue of locking down houses so that the sick and well were stuck in the stagnant air, resulting often in death of the entire household, and the issue of the reasons the disease was spread so rampantly. While the author never denies his belief in the "Hand of God" striking London, as mentioned before, he also approaches it very scientifically, and clearly states that everyone who became infected was done so through their contact with an infected person, beginning with goods shipped from Holland, where the outbreak actually began.
And speaking of shipping, Defoe also devotes a section to the trade industry, and how so many coastal countries would not allow ships to dock or unload their goods from London, and later from much of England, as the plague spread throughout the entire kingdom. He speaks of at least one instance where goods were smuggled in. The criminals, however, were apprehended and put to death, and the goods burned.
At last, in September, the raging disease began to show signs of abating, and the number people who were infected with it but recovered also greatly increased. However, again, people's stupidity and rash behavior created a situation that could have reversed this into another onslaught. Those who had been extremely careful and took care to protect themselves and their families suddenly were under the notion that all was safe, even though the doctors warned against this attitude. Consequently, the next week's listing of deaths once again showed an increase. Defoe tells of one particularly sad and avoidable tragedy. A man who had escaped with his family: his wife, five children, and servant, ten in all, returned to London at the first hint of the passing of the plague, and began once again to carry on his business. Within a short time, the entire family was dead, except the maid.
But eventually, of course, it is over, and life gets back to normal. There is quite of bit of philosophical and religious commentary, and whether it is Defoe's or the thoughts of his uncle through his journal, he had hoped that some of the wickedness would have been purged and people's hearts would have changed, but it was not to be. And the following year London was hit by the Great Fire.
In addition to what I mentioned above, the other thing I found annoying about this particular edition was that there were no maps, and so much of the book is specific to locations. I found this map of Defoe's London during the plague which is helpful.
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