My Friday Post: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Today my book beginning is from A Journal of the Plague Year: being observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665 by Daniel Defoe, one of my TBRs. Now would seem to be the right time to read it.

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that l, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither they say it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among goods which were brought home by their Turkish fleet; others said it was brought from Canada; others from Cyprus.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

On page 56 Defoe is describing the work of the undersexton – the grave digger and bearer of the dead – in the parish of St Stephen, Coleman, who went out along the many alleys and thoroughfares to fetch the bodies a very long way:

Here they went with a kind of hand-barrow and laid dead bodies on it, and carried them to the carts; which work he performed and never had the distemper [the plague] at all, but lived about twenty years after it, and was sexton of the parish to the time of his death. His wife at the same time was a nurse to infected people, and tended many who died in the parish, being for her honesty recommended by the parish officers; yet she was never infected either.

Defoe went on to describe how the sexton and his wife protected themselves against the infection. He held garlic and rue in his mouth and smoked tobacco. His wife’s remedy was to wash her head in vinegar and she sprinkled her head-clothes with vinegar – if the smell was particularly offensive she snuffed vinegar up her nose and held a handkerchief wetted with vinegar to her mouth.


In 1665 the plague swept through London, claiming over 97,000 lives. Daniel Defoe was just five at the time of the plague, but he later called on his own memories, as well as his writing experience, to create this vivid chronicle of the epidemic and its victims. ‘A Journal’ (1722) follows Defoe’s fictional narrator as he traces the devastating progress of the plague through the streets of London. Here we see a city transformed: some of its streets suspiciously empty, some – with crosses on their doors – overwhelmingly full of the sounds and smells of human suffering. And every living citizen he meets has a horrifying story that demands to be heard.

9 thoughts on “My Friday Post: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe”

  1. Journal of the Plague Year is a brilliant book. It reads like non-fiction but was written some years after the outbreak I think. The Vizard Mask by Diana Norman deals with the plague in a very realistic manner too.


  2. This one seems like a very timely read, Margaret. And it’s so interesting to look at an event like that one from the viewpoint of someone who lived through it. I really hope you’re enjoying this one.


  3. Not sure I could make myself read this one now since we are living with our own plague. But it would be interesting to hear how safety was attempted since so little science was discovered at that time.


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