Jim Green, Librarian
This is the second of a series of blog posts about books in the Library Company’s collections about contagion and confinement, epidemics and quarantines. Read the first post on Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Just as the gilded youth of the Decameron told tales to alleviate the tedium of their self-imposed quarantine, I find writing these blogs really makes the time fly. So now let’s turn our attention to a much later outbreak of the bubonic plague, the Great Plague of London in 1665-1666. It killed a quarter of London’s population over an 18-month period, and it lived in memory as the last major epidemic of plague to strike England.
Part of that memory is due to the fact that it was memorialized in 1722 by Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year. We think of Defoe as a novelist, because of Robinson Crusoe, but he wrote in a wide range of genres. In fact, Crusoe itself straddles generic boundaries that hardly existed then; when it was published in 1719 it was received as a travel book written by a real person called Crusoe. To this day, critics still argue over whether the plague journal is novel or an actual journal written by Defoe’s uncle Henry Foe, a saddler by trade, who really existed and unlike his nephew (born 1660) really witnessed the plague. (It is written in the first person, the author calls himself a saddler, and he identifies himself at the end as H.F.) Most likely Defoe came across his uncle’s journal somehow and edited it to make it even more life-like, or perhaps I should say novel-like.