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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Book Review: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

This book featured in my recent list of books I couldn't read for whatever reason. I was nudged towards reading it by The Amateur Casual, someone whose opinion I trust. While I'm glad I've read Journal, I can't pretend it didn't feel like a chore at times.

A Journal of the Plague Year is essentially what it claims to be - with one important caveat. The year it documents is 1665 but the book was first published in 1722. Also, since Defoe was a small child at the time, it must be taken that - however accurate his sources - it is a work of speculation in parts. That said, though, the initials at the end of the text suggest that many of the tales within the pages came from Henry Foe, Daniel Defoe's uncle. This adds legitimacy to the book, as does the fact that Anthony Burgess in the introduction included in my Penguin Classics edition states that Defoe immersed himself in contemporary sources to produce a work of significant journalistic merit.

There is no doubt that Journal is a landmark in British journalism. Defoe's devotion to his subject means that, as well as presenting overviews of situation, he hones in on the personal stories which the plague left in its wake. How truthful these personal tales were it is, of course, impossible to ascertain but the use of them accentuates the truthfulness of Defoe's over-arching narrative. If he makes a statement he tries to back it up with a personal story. This is the crux of modern journalism really.

The language in the book is very difficult to get used to. As a student of later fiction, my main forays in eighteenth-century literature has been through novels such as Defoe's Moll Flanders and Fielding's Tom Jones. Somehow the grammatical differences of those texts were overshadowed by the on-going excellent story. It was a lot easier to ignore the capitalisation of words and punctuation differences in those novels because I was eager to find out what happened next. In the case of Journal, because of its fragmented nature (slipping from one digression to another), I found myself constantly noticing the layout and order of the text. It became distracting and was part of why I was happy to reach the end of the book.

Journal does offer us lessons for our own time. The idea that differing religions were put aside in order for people to survive is quite a poignant one. It's difficult to stifle the irritation when, inevitably, the religious divisions are some of the first to return when the crisis begins to abate. Also, in reading the book, I became aware how desensitised they were - and we are - towards mass death. Just as the figures of the reported dead were gigantic, we deal with terrible figures of those touched by earthquakes, tsunamis and famine today. Our reaction seems to be similar to that of eighteenth-century dwellers: the enormity of the figures are too much to comprehend so they focus on the local and the personal; their neighbours and their families.

Did I enjoy Journal? I don't think 'enjoy' is the word. It was certainly an educational experience. It informed me about a period of history I was sketchy about and did so by introducing me to a few personal tales which may or may not have been based on fact. However, Defoe's repetition of facts seemed to demonstrate a distrust in his audience to retain information for more than a few pages at a time. While it added to the overall feel of the Journal, it became irritating to be told things four or five times. I also feel his frequent digressions were unnecessary and fragmented an already-difficult text. At one point he returned to talking about two brothers, having left them many many pages earlier. I'd actually forgotten we were going to return to them because he went off on such a tangent.

I'm glad I've read Journal but I don't think it's something I'll rush to re-read. I would recommend it as a semi-historical source but perhaps not as fun reading material.

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