Cauli Le Chat

Cauli Le Chat
Cauli Le Chat, MPL Roving Reporter

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Defoe Chronicles the Plague (Historical Fiction)

Historical fiction has become a popular genre for modern readers, but it is hardly a modern tool in the writer's laptop.  English author Daniel Defoe (ca. 1660-1731) wrote A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which is a fictionalized eyewitness accounting of the Great Plague (i.e., the bubonic plague, or "black death") epidemic that invaded London in 1665, when Defoe was about age five or six.  The authorship when the book was first published was attributed to H. F. (the eyewitness), who was, in reality, probably Defoe's uncle, Henry Foe, whose journals Defoe must have consulted for the copious details he provided about the plague's outbreak and infiltration of London.

Daniel Defoe (ca. 1660-1731)
English merchant, journalist, political pamphleteer, and novelist
Best known today for his novel Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Great Hair, Mr. Defoe (eye-roll)
(Engraving by M. Van der Gucht, after a portrait by J. Taverner, early 18th century)

Despite its fictionalization (if that's a real word) of the horrific events that transpired in the mid-1660s, readers initially considered Defoe's novel to be nonfiction.  Some early 20th century historians even gave Defoe the nod for having crafted an authentic historical account of the tragedy.

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703)
Eyewitness chronicler to the 1665 London Plague
Tory member of Parliament for Castle Rising & Harwich
and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty

Defoe's was not the only factual rendering available to early 18th century readers, however.  In his diaries, Samuel Pepys described in vivid detail the depopulation of parts of London and the consequential mass exodus to escape the pestilence.  Pepys' work is quite readable, although Defoe was perhaps the better writer, given his extensive journalistic experience.

What may have spared London from complete annihilation was, ironically, the Great London Fire of 1666, which killed most of the rats (and bacillus-carrying fleas) that were spreading the disease.  A catastrophe may have prevented a cataclysm, but it was small consolation to Londoners who suffered through both apocalyptic calamities.

Did you know that there is a children's nursery rhyme (still sung today) that recounts the onset of plague symptoms?  The final word is thankfully omitted from modern renditions.

Ring a Ring O' Roses,
A pocketful of posies,
Atishoo!  Atishoo!
We all fall down [dead]!

One of the first visible symptoms of bubonic plague infection is the development of round, rose-colored spots on the skin in the regions of the lymph glands, which formed swollen buboes (soon followed by necrotized tissue turning black).  It was believed that the disease spread through bad-smelling air, so carrying fragrant flowers or a posy of herbs was commonly thought to thwart the illness (no such luck, I'm afraid).  Incessant sneezing was considered a certain sign that a victim would soon succumb, and death was the inevitable result.

Too bad for London in 1665 that the germ-theory of disease hadn't been devised yet.  Knowledge of antibiotics could have saved millions over the centuries.  Still, Defoe's albeit fictional record of actual historical events gives modern readers insight into how earlier urban societies dealt with health crises within the range of their knowledge, social customs, and general understanding of life and its many mysteries.

Moithinks Defoe Needs a New Wig--Just Saying,

Cauli Le Chat
MPL Roving Reporter
Classical Historical Fiction News Beat

P.S. Evergreen Indiana library cardholders may check-out A Journal of the Plague Year from our online catalog.


P.P.S.  History teachers searching for ways to educate while entertaining students sometimes resort to macabre methods of instruction.  Here, intended strictly as an educational supplement, is a music video called "Black Death," a parody of "Hollaback Girl," by Gwen Stefani.  As the video description states, "It's hard to find a song to parody for such a gruesome subject. Our apologies to Gwen's fans, but it's for the cause of education!"

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