A Journal of the Plague Year may be fictional, but it's not untrue | Daniel Defoe

Before we even began reading A Journal of the Plague Year together, it felt like an obvious choice as we try to find our way through thi...

Before we even began reading A Journal of the Plague Year together, it felt like an obvious choice as we try to find our way through this pandemic. That feeling only grew when we began, and I saw its many parallels to our current situation.

But it also seems strange that this particular book should have been preserved by history – not least because, as a historical account, it’s pretty dubious. Most now think of it as fiction, despite the frontispiece’s claim that the book was “by a CITIZEN who continued all the while in London”.

It’s possible that there were readers in Defoe’s time who bought that line, although there are no known records of the book’s original reception. Later editions of the book were presented as history and it was cited as such throughout the 18th century in other books about the plague. There’s also evidence that people took it to be serious reportage on into the 19th century, even after Defoe’s authorship of the book had been established. In 1809, Edward Wedlake Brayley wrote in his book The Beauties of England and Wales that the Journal was “a genuine piece of history” and doubled down in 1835 when he edited the Journal and claimed it was “emphatically not a fiction”. As late as 1919, Watson Nicholson wrote in his book The Historical Sources of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year that “there is not one single statement in the Journal, pertinent to the history of the Great Plague in London, that has not been verified”, and that it should be regarded as “authentic history”.

That’s a pretty amazing claim, given the moment late on in the book where our narrator describes Old Bethlem churchyard and says: “The Author Of This Journal, lyes buried in that very Ground, being at his own Desire, his sister having been buried there a few years before.”

That’s not the only thing that calls the veracity of the account into question. It is full of details that can only have come from the imagination. Most notably, Defoe gives a long, rambling account of three men (John, Richard and Thomas) who fled London and admits that this tale is not strictly documentary. “Their Story has a Moral in every Part of it,” he says, “and if there was not other End in recording it, I think this a very just one, whether my Account be exactly according to Fact or no.” Theirs is fantastic adventure, with fraudulent documents and encounters with hostile, frightened people protecting their villages from the infected. There’s a wonderful piece of theatre where the men manage to convince people at a checkpoint that they are among a squad of armed and dangerous military men and have to be allowed to travel. There is snappy dialogue, set out as if in play:

Village constable: Why you will not pretend to quarter us by Force, will you?

John: We have offer’d no Violence to you yet, why do you seem to oblige us to it?

It’s all interesting and entertaining, but even the “CITIZEN who continued all the while in London” couldn’t possibly have heard such conversations. To say so is not a criticism. Some of the most astonishing moments in the book could be pure invention. The woman who strikes the narrator with “horror and a chillness in my very blood” by shrieking out of a window: “Oh! death, death, death!” Or the “speaking sight” of the plague pit, dozens of bodies “huddled together, rich and poor”, naked and in rags. The narrator tells us he persuaded a sexton to let him in and was given the memorable warning that it “will be a sermon to you, it may be, the best that ever you heard in your life.”

These scenes are vivid and shocking – but to believe them, we also have to believe that the narrator was indeed there, not to mention possessed of a faultless memory. But that doesn’t matter. As you’re reading, it feels right. A more perceptive 19th-century critic, writing anonymously in the Quarterly Theological Review in 1830, said: “Defoe’s journal is the most lively Picture of Truth which ever proceeded from imagination.” Or, as Anthony Burgess put it in his introduction to the 1966 Penguin edition, Defoe’s “truth is twofold: it has the truth of the conscientious and scrupulous historian, but its deeper truth belongs to the creative imagination.” It’s a book that speaks to us in a very real way – even if it sometimes has a tenuous relationship with reality.

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Newsrust: A Journal of the Plague Year may be fictional, but it's not untrue | Daniel Defoe
A Journal of the Plague Year may be fictional, but it's not untrue | Daniel Defoe
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