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Journal of the Plague Year

Narrated by: Andrew Cullum
Length: 10 hrs and 8 mins
4 out of 5 stars (14 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

First published in March 1722, 57 years after the event that struck more than 100,000 people, Journal of the Plague Year is a compelling portrait of life during London's horrific bubonic plague. Through the eyes of H.F. (speculated to be Defoe's uncle, Henry Foe, from whose journals the book was supposedly adapted) we witness great grief, depravity and despair: crazed sufferers roam the streets, unearthly screams resound across the city, death carts dump their grisly loads into mass graves, and quackery and skulduggery feed on fear. But there is kindness and courage too, as mutual support and caring are upheld through the worst of days. 

Defoe's Journal is considered one of the most accurate accounts of the plague, and includes many contemporary theories about the disease, along with rolls of the dead and a literary mapping of London, street by street, parish by parish. It is a fascinating and intimate account from one of the earliest proponents of the novel. 

Public Domain (P)2018 Naxos Audiobooks

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The novel as journalism

A Journal of the Plague Year isn't a novel in any conventional sense; it's a collection of statistics and anecdotes made by someone who identifies himself as a merchant, and who stayed behind when others fled. Defoe may have based it on a relative’s actual journal. The anecdotes are interesting, the statistics less so. What I found compelling about the book, even more than the facts it related, was the narrator's journalistic efforts to separate truth from falsehood by interviewing people and reviewing official documents. (The latter effort was frustrated by the Great Fire of London that swept through the following year and destroyed many of the city records.)

One aspect of the plague is dealt with at length. With the richest people fleeing for the country and with commerce at a standstill, hordes of the working poor lost their positions. Only an extensive effort at gathering and distributing charity saved these people from starvation. Otherwise the authorities would never have been able to keep the peace: the thousands of deserted houses would have been attacked by desperate mobs looking for plunder. As it was, masses of the poor fled the city and camped out in fields near a village, until they were chased down the road to a new one.

At one point as many as seven thousand people a week were dying of the plague - 50,000 dead in the space of two months. In another two-week period, 30,000 died. Funerals were impossible. Bodies were gathered by dead carts that made their rounds at night; the bodies were dumped into common pits. One drunken piper was picked up alive and thrown into the dead cart. At the last minute, about to be dumped into the pit, he came to and insisted he wasn't dead, and fortunately for him, he was believed.

Adding to the terror was the absence of any understanding of how the plague spread. It was known that being near someone who was infected made it more likely that you would get it. But no one knew the actual mechanism. A huge effort was made to rid the city of all dogs, cats, mice, and rats, but it appears that no one suspected the real culprit: fleas. (One theory was that the stench of death itself could spread the disease, so one defense was to carry around a pouncet box.) Churches closed down; if one person in a house caught the plague, the whole family was boarded up in the house and left to die. The streets were eerily quiet. An abandoned purse was left untouched until someone had the bright idea of igniting the purse with gunpowder and letting the coins it contained drop into a pail of water.

Ultimately the plague just burned itself out. No one knew why and most were left with only one explanation: God’s judgement had sent the plague, and God’s mercy ended it.

Andrew Cullum’s narration is well-paced and friendly. The book is a humane exploration of a time of great suffering.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Profile Image for Jess B
  • Jess B
  • 10-04-18

Whoa!

This is on my Uni reading list and I honestly couldn't think of anything more depressing than reading a book about the plague, but I love this book! I feel like I lived through it all. Horrifying realism and brilliantly read.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful