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Michigan State University

Defoe and the Plague in London 1664-1665: Books in the Exhibit

Guide accompanies a small book exhibit in the Lobby of the Main Library.

Books in the Exhibit

Defoe, Daniel.  Journal of the Plague Year, Being Observations or Memorials, of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as Well Publick as Private, which Happened in London during the Last Great Visitation in 1665, Written by a Citizen who Continued All the While in London.  Never Made Public Before.  London, Printed for E. Nutt, J. Roberts, A. Dodd, and J. Graves, 1722
MHSPC Rare xx PR 3404 .J4 1722

Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, we regard today as a historical novel about the plague in London that occurred in 1664-1665, when Defoe himself was about six years old.  The story of this plague interested Defoe all his life.   

Where did the historical material contained in the novel come from?  Paula Backscheider, author of the entry on Defoe in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, says Journal… may be his most under-appreciated novel. She writes, “H.F., the protagonist, lives in London throughout the plague, and he is torn between fleeing and staying, between pragmatic, even crass economic motives, and spiritual impulses, and, even more importantly, is obsessed with determining the reasons individuals get the plague.”  Defoe had an uncle Henry Foe. Maybe H.F. was his uncle who shared his experiences during the plague with his nephew.

Information from Samuel Pepy's Diary, written between 1660 and 1669 might have been another source.  Paul Lorrain, Ordinary of Newgate Prison, the chaplain for the prisoners from 1698-1719, was Pepys' secretary from 1678-1703.  While Pepys wrote his Diary in a personal shorthand system he invented, Lorrain had deciphered it.  Defoe was in Newgate Prison during the time of Lorrain's chaplainship.  Some scholars think Lorrain shared content about the 1664-1665 plague in London from Pepys' Diary with Defoe.  

Journal of the Plague Year has more details than Pepys' account.  Defoe may have spoken with other people about their plague experiences too.  

 

Defoe, Daniel.  Due Preparations for the Plague as Well for Soul as for Body….  London, E. Matthews, 1722.
MHSPC Rare XX PR 3404 .D9 1722

Events often shaped Defoe’s writings.  He penned Due Preparations… in response to an outbreak of plague in Marseille, France in 1720 that he expected might threaten England.  By this time in the Second Plague Pandemic (1350s-1722) there could be enough years between occurrences that one or more generations of Londoners would not have experienced it, or would have no older friends or relatives to talk with them about necessary preparations.  He meant this book as a warning to people.

Due Preparations expounds practical precautions the head of a household might take to avoid plague along with providing recommendations on how Christians should prepare for death.  The book has four parts.  In part one Defoe discusses national policy, what his country should do to prevent plague.  He evaluates measures the French took, which the English proposed to emulate. The French removed sick people to pesthouses.  They cordoned Marseille to prevent people coming into town or going out, only partly successful.  The English did not have a history of doing either. The second part contains two stories relating how two different families isolated themselves during the 1664-1665 plague in London.  The third part is an ars moriendi, a work on the art of dying well.  In it members of a family during the 1664-1665 plague in London do and do not prepare well for death.  A younger brother and sister, prompted by their mother, undertake serious prayer and Bible reading together, seeking forgiveness for their sins.  Their elder brother, more worldly, does not.  As the plague approached, the elder brother experienced more anxiety than the other two.  The last part of the book describes how this family took refuge on a ship in the Thames River owned by the two brothers to try to ensure their safety.

 

 

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