The Plague Diaries of Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe: A Historical Overview

June 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

Autobiography has often been a response to moments of historical crisis. Diaries such as those of Anne Frank who wrote about the hardships of living in Nazi Germany as a Jew, the Bronte Sisters who wrote of the era in which they lived, and Nelson Mandela who recorded his life in prison on a desk calendar, have been found and have revealed insightful information on those events (Liddy, 2014; Pettinger, 2014). Among these famous diarists are the world renowned writers Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe, who both wrote on the events of The Great Plague of London which occurred in 1665. Pepys and Defoe approach the plague in contrasting manners. This can be seen through the way in which they recorded the event, their motive behind recording the event, the authentic details used throughout their texts, the manner in which their text addresses and affects the reader and lastly through their emotional responses to the plague seen in their texts. These differences in their texts occurred due to the fact that Pepys and Defoe have contrasting personalities and backgrounds; thus, their texts were informed by different premises despite similarities of historical situation.

The Great Plague of London was an epidemic which devastated London from 1665 until 1666; aplague is defined as, “an infectious disease spread by bacteria and causing fever and delirium, typically with the formation of buboes and sometimes infection of the lungs” (Oxford Dictionary , 2007). The Great Plague occurred due to the household and human waste discarded in the streets which caused poverty, filth and unsanitary conditions especially in the poorer, densely crowded areas of London. Rats, which thrived in these conditions, contributed to the rapid spread of the disease as they carried the fleas which were infected with plague (The National Archives, 2008) . The symptoms of the plague are characterized by a high fever, vomiting, headaches and swellings or buboes in the groin and armpits which eventually spread across the body. Death finally occurred due to a sneezing fit. Victims of the plague were often seen as delirious due to their speech being affected and their actions becoming uncoordinated and unpredictable (Trueman, 2011). The English Nursery Rhyme, “Ring, a-ring, o’rosies /A pocket full of posies/ Atishoo, atishoo/ We all fall down”, describes the symptoms of the plague where the “ring o’ rosies” refers to the buboes, “a pocket full of posies” refers to the flowers people carried around to mask the miasmas of the plague, “Atishoo” refers to the sneezing episode which eventually lead to death, “we all fall down” (Firth, 2012, p. 15). The deaths due to the plague were recorded and posted on a weekly basis in a public area in the form of the Bill of Mortality. The plague reached its peak in September of 1665 when there was an enormous increase in the weekly deaths, “7,000 people per week were dying in London alone.” (Firth, 2012, p. 14). Although the plague slowly diminished in 1666, it was the Great Fire of London which occurred in September 1666, which finally ended it. The fire sterilized the city, destroying all the filth and rats which had caused the plague to continuously re-emerge (Firth, 2012, p. 14).

The events of the plague were recorded in many documents such as medical records and personal writings such as those by Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe which provide subjective and descriptive interpretations of the plague and its effects. Samuel Pepys, an English diarist and politician, lived in London during the time of The Great Plague. Pepys was a well-educated man who attended Cambridge University and became successful due to his occupation as an administrator in the Navy and his position as the President of the Royal Society (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000; Stevenson, 1909–1917). His education, skills and high position in the Navy and in the Royal Society allowed him to advance rapidly in society and in his private life. Pepys became very wealthy early in life thus lived luxuriously as an upper-class citizen (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000, p. 542). His love of wealth, material goods and social status contributed to Pepys being described as shallow, self-absorbed, lustful and greedy. Pepys’ personality is defined by his pleasure-seeking nature, “the diary is a manifestation of Pepys’ character: he was a vain, naturally curious pleasure seeker” (Cannan, 2006, p. 214) . He sought pleasure in all aspects of his life such as food, theatre, people and women which is evident through his many affairs, “He’s a lover of music, he’s a lover of sex, he’s a lover of administration, he’s a lover of literature, he’s a lover of science.” (Timpson, 2010 ). He lust for and pleasure in accumulating money remained strong during the plague which is seen through Stevenson’s statement, “He stood well by his business in the appalling plague of 1666” (1909- 1917). This statement also shows how Pepys profited from the plague while others suffered thus, further justifying his selfishness and self-absorption. Pepys was a diarist for nine years, 1660 to 1669, who faithfully recorded the details of his personal life, interests and daily activities. This document provides a scientific interpretation of the plague. His diary not only describes the historical events of the plague; it also reveals the lifestyles lived by the wealthy in London and provides the reader with an idea of the social classes which existed in society (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Ultimately, it was his myopic and egotistical personality and his focus on money, status and business which influenced how he viewed the events of the plague and thus how he wrote about it.

Daniel Defoe, however, is unlike Pepys in terms of his education, wealth and personality. Although Defoe’s parents prevented him from studying at Oxford and Cambridge due to them being Dissenters, he was still well educated (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). He began his career as a merchant and entrepreneur and he moved from being prosperous to being bankrupt and then to being successful again (Richetti, 2006, p. 126). Even though Defoe was busy in his career and with his services to King William III as a spy, he constantly found time to write and pursue literature. His writing were classified into four prominent groups; his political and religious writings which had him arrested, his didactic writings, his journalistic writings such as A Journal of the Plague Year and his fictional writings which included his famous book, Robinson Crusoe (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe was a simple, middle-class citizen and has been described as, “a practical man, who took an active and not unimportant part in the daily work of the world” (Jokinen, 2006) .The quotes, “Defoe belonged by birth to a persecuted minority” and “Socially, his position differed from that of his greatest contemporaries in literature”, imply that Defoe did not come from a wealthy background nor did he live a wealthy and extravagant life-style. He went through hardships which shaped his personality and his literature, “His experiences might have embittered or warped him, but instead he became endlessly versatile, courageous and resilient” (Backscheider, 1989, p. 11). It is clear through his literary works that his personality, social status, hardships and spirit influenced his writing in terms of the emotion and understanding he portrays in them and this makes them differ from Pepys’s work. Pepys and Defoe’s accounts of the plague differ drastically in many terms.

One prominent feature regarding the difference between the two writers is the form of writing they used to document the events of the plague. Pepys provides a day to day account of the Great Plaque in the form of a personal diary. A diary is referred to as “A book in which one keeps a daily record of one’s experiences” (Oxford Dictionary , 2007). In his diary he recorded the daily events of his life and during the plague years he wrote about the progression of the plague and its effects on his life on an almost daily basis. Unlike Pepys, Defoe wrote about the plague many years after it had passed and focused on several main events (Shober, 2014). He did this by writing a journal on the Great Plague. A journal is, “A record of events… by a person who is an eyewitness or participant”, and is less intimate and private than a personal diary as it does not necessarily record a person’s daily activities and emotions (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe’s, A Journal of the Plague Years, can be described as a “semi-fictional reconstruction of an authentic, contemporaneous record” as he obtained his information for his journal from eye-witnesses’ accounts, pamphlets and official documents such as medical records and doctors notes which he used to reconstruct the events of the plague for his journal (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Pepys presents the events of the plague through his own experience of it; whereas Defoe presents the events of the plague through the narrator he created called H.F. or presumably Henry Foe, Defoe’s uncle who could have experienced the events of the plague (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000).

The ways in which Pepys and Defoe recorded the events of the plague, their responses to these events, and their individual personalities all influenced how and why they wrote about the plague. Indeed, the motives each writer had when presenting the events of the plague and the didactic nature of their works are vastly different. Pepys documented the events in his personal diary, thus making his work purely subjective and private. This brings about the notion that his work was written solely to record the events of his own personal life and his ideas. This also indicates that he had no intention of others ever reading his diary and thus his motive was not to inform or educate others on the events of the plague. Pepys wrote for his own pleasure and self – reflection, which is clear through his constant referral to his business, commerce and to the affect the plague had on him such as, “being troubled at the sickness, and my head filled also with other business enough, and particularly how to put my things and estate in order” (Wortham, 2011).

Even though Pepys had no intention of educating others on the plague, his diary is still didactic as it provides information on a historical event from a personal eye- witness account and constantly mentions factual information about the plague such as, “Above 700 dead of the plague this week” and “his servant died of a Bubo on his right groine, and two spots on his right thigh, which is the plague” (Wortham, 2011). “To the Theatre, and there saw “The Scornfull Lady” and “Mercer, her woman – Mary, Alice and Su, our maids; and Tom, my boy” also indicate that Pepys’ diary educated the reader on the different social classes in society in the 17th century as well as of the life-styles of the wealthy (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). In contrast to Pepys, Defoe’s journal of the plague is notably didactic and was written purely for the purpose of teaching its readers about the events of the plague. Defoe used his journal to show how the plague was spread and highlights the beliefs and ideas surrounding the plague, “the danger was spreading insensibly, for the sick could infect none but those that came within the reach of the sick person” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe’s journal informs the reader of how the plague affected ordinary people and their families, rather than himself and business as seen in Pepys’ diary. Defoe manages to convey the tragedy of the events and enables the reader to understand the events through the use of emotive stories such, ‘Burial Pits and Dead-Carts’, where the narrator sees a man mourning over his dead wife and children (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe also uses humour in the stories of the piper and the violent cure to lighten the sombre mood which surrounded the plague, “Defoe using the humour to balance the weightiness of some of his themes” (Hannis, 2007, p. 49). “’But I aint dead though, am i?’” is a statement made by the piper which causes the other characters to laugh and in turn reflects to the reader that not all happenings during the plague were grim (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000).

Pepys’s and Defoe’s texts both show didacticism, though for different reasons, and this in turn allows the text to relate to the reader in a certain manner. Pepys’ diary is purely personal and this influences how the text relates to and addresses the reader. His dairy shows no concern for the reader as he did not intend to have his dairy read, “There is no sign that he wanted people to read his brutally frank personal thoughts” (Timpson, 2010 ). It addresses the reader in an indirect and distant manner and is uninviting as he makes no effort to include them in the text and the events of the plague for example, “Up, and to the office and there all morning sitting” and “In the evening home to supper” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). This is evident as his diary entries are short and to the point and he predominantly wrote on the progression of his business and the events of the plague in terms of the death numbers, for example on March 13th 1666 he states, “the plague increased this week from 29 to 28, though the total fallen from 238 to 207, which do never a whit please me” (Wortham, 2011). This manner of writing may be useful to the reader in conveying information about the plague; however it doesn’t allow the text to relate to the reader on the personal and emotional level such as Defoe’s text. Defoe’s journalistic style allowed for him to carefully phrase the stories he told and to use certain methods to include the reader in his text. Defoe’s journal directly addresses his readers as he makes use of complete sentences and pronouns and this, “helped engender a sense that Defoe was directly talking to his readers” (Hannis, 2007, p. 48). Examples conveying this are “I remember one citizen who” and “I know the story goes” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Quotes from his journal such as, “I say, no sooner did he see the sight” and “but as John told me, the fellow was not blind”, also indicate that Defoe is conversing with the reader to a certain extent and directly including them in what the narrator was experiencing and thinking (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Ultimately, this brings the reader closer to his text and allows for them to gain a deeper understanding of the events he presents.

Another aspect to consider when looking at the contrast between Pepys and Defoe is the authenticity of their work. Both their accounts of the plague have elements of truth which are reassuring to the reader as they provide the texts with a sense of authenticity. Even though the reader is aware of the truth in Pepys’ text as it is his personal diary, there are many other aspects of it which assure the reader that there is truth in what he has written. This is firstly seen through Pepys’ constant referral to the Bill of Mortality which, “were produced… to reveal patterns of death and disease in early modern London” (Slauter, 2011, p. 1). Examples of this in the text are, “sent for the Weekly Bill and find 8252 dead in all” and “The Bill of Mortality, to all our griefs, is encreased 399 this week” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Pepys also writes about conversations he has had which indicate to the reader that he is speaking the truth, for example, “I met this noon with Dr Burnett, who told me…” and “Sir W Batten met me and did tell me” (Wortham, 2011) . Pepys also creates authenticity in his dairy through mentioning the dates of the days which he wrote such as, “October 31st 1665” and “April 5th 1666”. In Pepys’ diary, statements such as “So home late at my letter and so to bed” and “where to my great trouble I met a dead corpse, of the plague, in the narrow ally, just bringing down a little pair of stairs” provide detailed descriptions of small and trivial things which he does or experiences and this gives his text a further sense of truthfulness.

Defoe’s text on the other hand is based on actual events but was not written during the time of the events such as Pepys’ diary. Defoe is highly successful in reconstructing the events of the plague and creating a sense of authenticity in his work through the various techniques and sources he implemented, “Defoe’s reports were true, he was quick to include facts and details to heighten their verisimilitude” (Hannis, 2007). Although he writes about past events he uses a first person speaker, Henry Foe, who converses with other people in the journal such as the sexton (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). His narrator provides detailed, personal testimonies and honest first person accounts of the events such as, hearing about the man who committed suicide and seeing a man mourn over his dead wife and children. This causes the reader to believe that he was indeed a witness of the events (Shober, 2014).Defoe also includes dialogue such as, “‘Is he quite dead?’ And the first answered, ‘Ay, ay, quite dead; quite dead and cold!’”, which makes the situations in the text more believable (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe also uses street names such as “Bell Alley” and “Aldersgate Street”, names of inns such as “Angel Inn”, “White Horse” and “Pied Bull” and people’s names such as “John Hayward” which all existed in London during the time of the plague, to create authenticity in his journal (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe uses many primary and secondary sources such as The Bill of Mortality, doctors’ notes, pamphlets and eye- witness accounts to reconstruct his version of the plague years (Shober, 2014). Through the use of these sources, and also through scientifically associated people agreeing on the facts he mentions for example, “the opinion of the physicians agreed with my observations”, Defoe provides the reader with scientific credibility (Hazlitt, 1841). Although the events in his journal are verified, his descriptions of these events are sometimes overly dramatic, for example, “a woman… cried, ‘Oh! Death, death death!’” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). This dramatization may cause the reader to believe that that truth of the events could have been twisted to create a certain affect in the journal (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000).

The final, most important difference between Pepys and Defoe’s accounts of the plague is their use of emotion and understanding in their texts. As stated earlier, Pepys’ dairy is narrow focused compared to Defoe’s journal (Shober, 2014). Pepys shows little concern for other people who are affected by the plague and does not express emotion towards them but rather towards the shutting down of the town for example, “and so to bed sad at the news that seven or eight houses in Bazing-hall street are shut up” and “Lord, how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people,” (Wortham, 2011). In fact, he appears to be only concerned with his family and his business as his diary primarily focuses on himself, his daily events and how the plague affected him which is seen through his diary entries stating, “As to myself, I am very well” and “Also, the business of the office is great” (Wortham, 2011). Pepys takes an objective approach to the plague and it can be assumed he does this because of his self-centred personality. He is not at all concerned with anyone else and especially those who are of a lower status than him which can be seen through his statements such as, “the poor that cannot be taken notice through the greatness of the number” and “Captain Cockes black was dead of the plague- which I had heard of before but took no notice” (Wortham, 2011). He does not describe any personal or emotive happenings which occurred during the plague and this makes his text appear unsympathetic and unresponsive to the sorrow experienced by others who were affected by the plague (Shober, 2014).

Pepys’s diary elicits little emotion from his readers compared to the journal of Defoe, who, through his text, allows the reader to visualize and understand the true horror people experienced during the plague. Lewis states that Defoe’s text, “sets out to help its reader form images” and this is done through his use of emotion and the descriptions of people’s reactions to their experiences (2004). An example of this is his description of a man who mourned with, “a kind of masculine grief that could not give itself vent by tears” and that, “he cried out aloud, unable to contain himself” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). This emotional story, along with vivid descriptions such as, “a woman gave three frightful screeches, … in a most inimitable tone” and “His clothes were pulled off, his jaw fallen, his eyes open in a most frightful posture”, allows Defoe’s readers to visualize and understand the how the plague truly affected people on an emotional level. The quote stating that Defoe’s, “eerie evocation … of the plague itself, ‘freighted [their readers] terribly’”, supports the notion that he was able to clearly convey the true horror of the plague to the reader (Lewis, 2004, p. 95). Defoe also provides a broader picture of the plague compared to Pepys, as he not only writes about himself but also about others such as the man who lost his family and the piper (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000). Defoe writes compassionately and with concern for all who are affected by the plague. He writes about different people from different backgrounds, social status and wealth and this in turn informs the reader that Defoe found every story of the plague to be meaningful, important and worth mourning over. Defoe’s compassion towards others is further seen through the scene where he hears of a man who has committed suicide and then states, “I care to not mention the name… that would be a hardship to the family, which is now flourishing again” (Stack, M and Griffin, L., 2000).

Ultimately, Defoe’s emotions, compassion and attention given to affect the plague had on others, make his text a true and life- like description of the events. Although recording a single historical event, the Great Plague of London, Pepys and Defoe’s interpretations and their writings of the plague could not be more different. In his diary, Pepys’s approach to the plague is objective and scientific, as is seen through his constant referral to business and death numbers. He is primarily concerned with his own well-being and that of his business and thus provides numerical evidence of the plague to the reader. Defoe, however, provides a reconstructed journal of the plague years which focuses more on the events of others and the affects the plague had on them. His text also contains factual elements he gained through the use of many official sources and thus his journal not only provides historical evidence but also expresses genuine emotions experienced during such a tragedy.


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