Journal of the Plague Year

Narrated by: Andrew Cullum
Length: 10 hrs and 8 mins
4.4 out of 5 stars (88 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

What listeners say about Journal of the Plague Year

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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.

25 people found this helpful

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The More Things Change, The More They Don't

The text is tedious. The language is florid and archaic (being published nearly 3 centuries ago). The narration is stilted as he necessarily over-enunciates. The material itself is dry, yet somehow all the more fascinating for all of the above. I'm a fan of medical history, and of post-apocalyptic fiction. I was recommended this book during the time of COVID, Not sure I'd have stuck with it otherwise, this was definitely the right time for me to listen to it! The parallels are unmistakable, Human behavior has not changed, only the details have been altered. Hearing in a nearly first-person contemporary account, how statistics were altered to initially minimize and later possibly exaggerate death tolls, the proliferation of charlatans, and the influence of rumor on life-changing decisions was eye-opening and more than a little dismaying.

2 people found this helpful

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Strong start, similarities to pandemic are uncanny

The book begins as a proper journal of life in London as the plague hits. So much of it reminds me of our current pandemic, such as people pushing fake cures, meat packers being heavily hit, and folks turning to brewing and baking at home (though out of necessity then). It offers a lot of insight into what life was like and how people were trying to get by. From here the book shifts to a collect of secondhand stories and anecdotes, with lists of statistics thrown in as well. The latter is probably interesting for historians, but it didn't make for very good listening. Narrator does a great job and his voice fits the vibe of the book.

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history brought vividly to life

A Journal of the Plague Year surprised me. I didn't expect to enjoy it and only picked it up thanks to a group's choice, and the fact that we are in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. But I found this book much easier to read and more interesting than I expected it to be. Defoe includes loads of facts, numbers and statistics, making it more journalism than anything. But the fact that he centers the story of that one year on one man's view of London and everything that happened, allowed it to read more easily and enjoyably. Defoe himself was only 5 years old at the time the book took place so his memory was likely very limited. However, he describes the sights and sounds and smells of London so vividly that it feels as though this is actually his real journal. The atmosphere of place is tangible on every page. And for me this is what made the book enjoyable. It isn't a book with plot or even much character development. It is truly about one place in one specific time. And it is so rich in the description of that place that the reader can see it like a movie in their minds.

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  • 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.

6 people found this helpful

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  • Adam
  • 03-12-20

Ground zero of a pandemic

The Plague year in question is 1665, directly before the sequel tribulation of the great fire. Our narrator HF, whose journals were adapted by the writer, tells it as he sees it, and there unsettling echoes of our current Coronavirus pandemic: there is confusion and mixed messages as the plague spreads from abroad, failed containment measures, and then escalating notifications of cases and the dead, here reproduced in 'bills' where now we are notified by our breaking news app. And there are the 'social isolation' measures of the time, perhaps one of the most painful controversial measures taken then; that of containing the infected household locked up and guarded in their houses. The chronicler argues that given, as now, that the plague was most efficaciously spread that those who were non-symptomatic, this measure had limited value. There are chilling descriptions of plague pits, including horrible scenes of people throwing themselves into them alive, haunted by the bereaved, and of the symptoms, the 'tokens,' tumours, swellings and vomiting. There are fascinating descriptions of the roles created to seek out those who were infected, diagnose, and eventually dispose of the dead. There are insights into the role of medical practice, both 'quackery' and the best guess science of the time, and of religion. There are fools, cowards and knaves as well as good people doing their best. In one of the more gripping parts of the narrative, we follow the progress of a group escaping the city from the country, attempting settlements, and trying to overcome the hostility of suspicious and scared rural communities. Its a shame then that given all this, I struggled to pay attention to a lot of this audio-book and kept tuning out. It is because that for me a lot of the real human interest stuff is buried in a lot of dry reporting. The narrator seems distanced from events, given that he is reporting first hand, and we don't get much of a measure of the impact of him and his own family and loved ones. He talks about his feelings and his faith, but he is hard person to get to know. The narrator, Andrew Cullum, reads clearly and does their best with a lot of this dry material. Quite possibly, this is better to read than it is to listen to.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Shaun
  • 01-31-20

Amazing Insight into the Plague

A really eye opening listen that puts you in the mind of someone during epidemic. listening to someone who dosent understand germ theory theories about the disease is great, if a little dry in parts.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 05-06-20

Fascinating slice of history

I listened to this during the current Coronavirus pandemic, it's great for putting things in perspective. On one hand, science and medicine have improved hugely since 1665, but human nature, for better or worse, is still largely the same. The journal covers a wide variety of subjects: stories of individual people's experiences; the author's firsthand experiences from his neighbourhood and from walks around London; descriptions and criticism of the official response; theories about the cause and origins of the plague and discussion of how doctors (and quacks) tried to treat it. Sometimes amusing, sometimes heartbreaking, always interesting. The journal is well written and well narrated. The only problem with this recording is the frequent bills of mortality - there's no easy way to narrate a table, but the information is important to the narrative and just hearing a list of statistics doesn't work for me. I found that after listening for a few hours I would look at the relevant tables online (on Project Gutenberg's copy of the journal) to get an overview of the bills I'd just heard.

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  • Richard McCrory
  • 09-09-20

Pandemic reading

A journalist in the Guardian noted the similarities of the populaces behaviour in this book with some actions in the Covid Pandemic. I think the performance highlights the occasional naiveté of the narrator's trust in authority figures, contrasted with queries about the numbers succumbing to the plague. Tables summarised in audio form don't really work to maintain flow of the overall narrative, and this book has quite a few tables! I thin it remains an appropriate read, regardless whether readers think it a novel or a more accurate account of events.

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  • Mary Carnegie
  • 07-27-20

Epidemic and human nature

I would probably have rated this book less highly before Covid-19 arrived., though I have read about the Black Death and “Spanish” flu before this pandemic. Defoe was but a wee boy when this plague epidemic occurred but it seems believable that he had an account by an older relative on which to draw, and has obviously done considerable research, far more than expected of a historical novelist then, and even now. The plague is a far more deadly, infectious, and ghastly disease than the present pandemic, but nevertheless many of the measures taken to contain it and the behaviour of the population are now familiar to us. The destruction of the economy of London, and consequently of England was severe. All non-essential businesses collapsed. European trade was impossible. Of course, as usual, the wealthy fled at the first hint of threat, the affluent stockpiled the necessities of life, and the poor tried to stay alive. The authorities in London, however, did not flinch, and stayed to mitigate as best they could the disaster that had overwhelmed their city. The reactions of the citizens weren’t very different from those we’ve seen this year, from panic to complacency, from denial to pseudoscience, from evasion of regulation to altruism. Rumours and misinformation managed to spread even without newspapers and social media. I don’t usually have much time for Defoe, English spy and agent provocateur in pre-1707 Scotland, but his analysis of the Plague Year reveals intelligence and a wisdom I have to concede, grudgingly.

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  • David
  • 06-29-20

Topical. Enlightening. Relevant.

A gripping story, topical and directly relevant 350 years on from the Great Plague of London in 1665. A detailed chronicle that records and examines the 1665 Plague from an educated Londoner's point of view. A solid reading performance by Andrew Cullum.