“The fellow that was pilloryed … I have forgot his name…” This was Jonathan Swift’s passing comment on Daniel Defoe. Elsewhere, Swift referred to him as an “illiterate scribbler”. Defoe had been a son of a tradesman, you see, and, much like a certain William Shakespeare, had not been to university. And he didn’t even have Shakespeare’s “little Latin and less Greek”: he did not know the classical languages at all. True, he was fluent in several modern European languages, but that sort of thing did not cut much ice with the likes of Swift.
Despite the immense popularity of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe seems not quite as central to the canon of English literature as, it seems to me, he deserves to be. Even Roxana, surely one of the supreme achievements of the English novel, seems barely known. Recently, I finished reading A Journal of the Plague Year, and I was struck once again by how little Defoe’s work – Robinson Crusoe excepted – is known, and how strangely peripheral a figure he appears to be in English letters.
Defoe was only 5 years old when the Great Plague visited London in 1665, and he only had the vaguest of memories of it. Some 55 years after the event, he recreates that year in the form of a fictional journal. The prose is straight-forward, but very thorough and precise. Defoe eschewed not merely courtly euphuisms, but also the poetry of Bunyan (who, like Defoe, also came from a dissenting family): there is no flight of fancy here, no imagery, no extended metaphor. For Defoe, the path to truth was through scrupulous accuracy, and a firm grasp on the solid realities of the external world. “Journalistic” is the adjective that comes to mind – not surprisingly given that Defoe, before he turned to writing novels in his late 50s, he had been principally a journalist and pamphleteer.
For this book (it’s hard to tell whether or not it can be described as a “novel”), Defoe had done prodigious research. I am no expert on the history of the plague, but from what I gather, every detail Defoe presents can be confirmed by documentary evidence. Defoe even provides us at times with tables of statistics. If it weren’t known that the writer of this book was a Daniel Defoe, it could easily be mistaken for an authentic document. The solid external world – that world which so many novelists appear to treat with an indifference bordering on disdain – is important here: it matters.
But it is not merely an exercise in re-creating history: the specific details certainly required scrupulous research, but it requires imagination, and an uncommon imagination at that, to depict how people of various sorts felt and behaved during these quite extraordinary times. The book feels like a historic document, and, in a sense, it is; but it took a great deal of art to present it as such.
The narrator – who, like the narrator of Roxana, in unnamed, but who signs himself with the initials HF at the end – is not a player in this drama: he rarely mentions his own particular circumstances. He is a witness. He is a very scrupulous witness, telling us, in great detail, how and where the plague first manifested itself; the extent to which it grew; how different people behaved under the circumstances; the theories and conjectures concerning the origins, the propagation, and possible prevention; the measures taken by the authorities, and how the populace reacted to it; the fate of those who leave the city, without having anywhere specific to go to; the economic and financial implications of the pestilence; the collection and disposal of the bodies; and so on. And, through this scrupulously earthbound prose, a picture emerges – a rich, composite picture – of an entire community suffering an upheaval of unimaginable magnitude.
In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe had presented us a man who was assailed with the unthinkable: he becomes completely isolated from the rest of humanity, and has to resign himself to living the rest of his entire life in complete isolation, without any contact with anyone else of his species. Here, the depiction is not of an individual, but of an entire society facing the unthinkable – facing an experience that threatens even to obliterate its sense of identity. Since a society is multi-faceted, different people behave in different ways: some are courageous and heroic, some cruel and vicious, most unthinking, and all frightened. It’s a society much like most societies – containing all types. But the members of this society have to face the high probability of sudden and grotesquely painful death; of losing people close to oneself; of the breakdown of the economy, and of civic structure. How do people behave when all they had taken for granted suddenly seems to collapse in so horrible a manner?
Perhaps it is because Defoe depicts everything is so matter-of-fact a manner that his depiction for it seems so awful. I have a pretty strong nerve when it comes to reading, but even I found myself having to put the book down for a while when Defoe describes women dying in labour because there was no midwife available; or because the mother-to-be is already infected with the plague, and no-one would risk coming close to her. This really is horror beyond imagining; and yet it’s all real.
In the end, as we know, the plague diminished, and disappeared, and society returned, almost incredulously, to being what it had been. Defoe could, I suppose, have carried on his narrative a bit further, and ended it with the big climax of the Great Fire, but he chose to retain the focus on the Plague: the community has come through the upheaval. It has survived, but only just; and the losses and pains it has undergone leaving behind an inevitable scar.
The literati of the time never really forgave Defoe for coming from a tradesman’s background, and having no classical education; and posterity seems largely unaware of his work beyond Robinson Crusoe (and only the first part of Robinson Crusoe at that: hardly anyone even seems to know about the two sequels he wrote!) But it’s high time we re-evaluated this very great writer. If we look back on works such as Robinson Crusoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, Moll Flanders and Roxana – great masterpieces all – we can judge him as possibly the first major British novelist, and indisputably, I think, among the greatest.