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.

The English Spy by Donald Smith

I’d gone to my local library to collect Road to Referendum by Iain Macwhirter, a book I’d reserved after I read about on FictionFan’s blog, and was browsing the shelves when this book, The English Spy caught my eye. Road to Referendum is about the run up to the Independence Referendum to take place in Scotland in September 2014. It also has chapters on Scottish history leading up to the present day as background.  So, it was quite a coincidence finding The English Spy as this is a novel about the build up to the political Union of England and Scotland in 1707 – the Union that Independence for Scotland would break.

My knowledge of the Act of Union in 1707 was limited to just the fact that by that union Scotland and England, together with Ireland and Wales, became the United Kingdom and I thought it was to settle the successor to Queen Anne who was childless and ill. Of course, it was much more complicated than that and The English Spy tells the story of how Daniel Defoe, at that time still known as Daniel Foe, was sent to Scotland under secret instructions from the English government to persuade the Scots to give up their independence. It’s a fascinating story of intrigue and backstabbing amongst the members of the Scottish parliament!

The narration moves between multiple viewpoints, mainly in the first person and some in the third person of various characters, some obviously historical figures and others possibly(?) fictional ones. There are Foe’s own account, letters between Isobel Rankin, his landlady in Edinburgh and her friend Nellie in Glasgow, the journal of Lord Glamis and a third person narrative of Robert Harley, the first Earl of Oxford. There are several other characters who pop in and out of the story – Lady O’Kelly and Aeneas Murray amongst others. This is a story about spies and the struggle between various factions for power and once I had got the characters sorted in my mind I was swept along with the intrigue and dangers of the times, keen to see how the Union came about.

The English Spy is a mix of fact and fiction but A Warning to the Reader at the beginning of the book clarifies that Daniel Defoe had indeed been sent to Scotland and was required to provide London with ‘clandestine reports on affairs in the north’. The Scottish Government was led by the Marquis of Queensberry who favoured union with England and the Duke of Hamilton was opposed to the union. Donald Smith warns:

Yet why did Scotland surrender its hard won and long cherished independence? The historians remain divided. What is offered here is fiction, yet as Defoe himself shows, the truths or apparent deceits of fiction may be uncomfortably closer to home.

Now, over 300 years later the question of independence for Scotland is still in question!

Dr Donald Smith is a founding member of the Scottish Storytelling Forum and of Edinburgh’s Guid Crack Club, and he is currently Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre at The Netherbow.  He has written, directed or produced over fifty plays and is a founding director of the National Theatre of Scotland.

Now to read what Road to Referendum has to offer.