Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year has been a favourite of mine for a number of years. Defoe manages to evoke the absolute horror of living through the last great plague in London and I find it both harrowing and riveting. Perhaps it says as much about me as Defoe.
The haunting cry of “Bring out your dead!” by a bell-ringing collector of plague victims to be thrown into a mass grave, a plague pit, chills the reader. The descriptions of deserted London streets reminds you of a post-apocalyptic world. It is easy to imagine the fear you would have felt were you sealed up in your house with a plague victim or were living outside London at the time and a stranger approached your community.
Written in the first person and published fifty-seven years after 1665 it depicts a year in London when Defoe, like Captain Thomas Bowrey, was only a child. It cannot have been written from personal experience – it does not portray the simplistic view of a child – yet you never feel this whilst reading. It is written in the first person, supposedly by a Londoner with the initials “HF”, who lived through the year alone.
Defoe was a prolific writer, a journalist who was said to have invented the novel. He was also an agent for Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford. In this book, he used all his experience and drew on his talents for reconstructing historical events in a work of fiction. It is realistic with memorable details that ensures that a work of fiction surpasses any first-hand account in its air of authenticity.