A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year Study Guide

A Journal of the Plague Year is one of Daniel Defoe's most popular and strangest works; it is an amalgam of history and fiction that attempts to relate what life was like in London during the plague of 1665-66. Published in 1722, nearly 57 years after the events depicted, the work is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of H.F., a saddler. Defoe himself was only a small child at the time of the plague, so he conducted meticulous research into the medical treatises, bills of mortality, and broadsides of fifty years prior to write his work.

The Journal has a nonlinear structure. H.F.'s personal story is blended with copious statistics, graphs, charts, data, and dates, as well as anecdotes, rumors, and stories. His sources included the Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London concerning the Infection of the Plague, 1665, which he included in the text at length; Necessary Directions for the Prevention and Care of the Plague in 1665; An Account of the Plague in Naples in the Year 1656; the Bills of Mortality; Britain's Remembrancer by John Bell; Loimologia (1672/1720) by Dr. Nathaniel Hodges; God's Terrible Voice in the City (1667) by Thomas Vincent.

Scholars debate why Defoe undertook this work. There was news of the plague in Marseilles in 1721; therefore, as fiction rooted in truth, the Journal could potentially a text that could help Londoners prepare for a potential outbreak. Its advice and factual information could allay the widespread panic that would most likely ensue. Defoe also wrote a smaller nonfiction work on this same topic: Due Preparations for the Plague, as well for Souls as Body (1722). One scholar speculated that the Journal was published to support the government's unpopular trade embargo with plague-stricken countries, while another believed it to be supportive of the policies of Robert Walpole. It also stands as a positive assertion of the fortitude and endurance of the people of London in the face of tragedy and chaos; literary critic Manuel Schonhorn wrote that the Journal "stands as a quiet yet authentic testimony of a city's victory in the face of disaster of frightful proportions. Throughout the experience Defoe's London has triumphantly asserted its illustrious qualities."

The work was well-received in the 18th and 19th centuries, but a second edition was not published until 1754 and it did not attain its cult status until nearly 200 years later. In 1830 William Hazlitt penned a review of the work, stating that it had "an epic grandeur, as well as heart-breaking familiarity, in its style and matter." Sir Walter Scott noted that the level of disgust and horror was high, but that "even had he not been the author of Robinson Crusoe, De Foe [sic] would have deserved immortality for the genius which he has displayed in this work." Another contemporary critic wrote that the Journal "is the most lively Picture of Truth which ever proceeded from imagination...we cannot take it up, after a hundredth perusal, without yielding, before we have traversed twenty pages, to a full conviction that we are conversing with one who has passed through and survived the which he describes." In the 1960s Anthony Burgess wrote an introduction to the Penguin English Library edition, concluding that the Journal's "truth is twofold: it has the truth of the conscientious and scrupulous historian, but its deeper truth belongs to the creative imagination." Today students and scholars alike study the work as a historical record – the Journal mentions over 175 different streets, buildings, churches, taverns, inns, houses, villages, landmarks, and counties – as well as a novel, delighting in Defoe's vivid imagination, subtle sense of humor, and prevailing compassion for his subjects.