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LONDON, in former ages, has frequently suffered from the ravages of Pestilence, and thousands and tens of thousands of the inhabitants have been swept by its virulence into one common grave. But at no period of our annals was the mortality so devastating as in the year 1665. It was then, indeed, that man “withered like the grass,” and that his brief earthly existence became a "fleeting shadow.” Contagion was rife in all our streets, and so baleful were its effects, that the church-yards were not sufficiently capacious to receive the dead. It seemed for a while as though the brand of the avenging angel had been unloosed in judgment, and that the infected city was doomed to become another Golgotha !
The “ Journal of the Plague Year,” attributed to De Foe, was originally published in the year 1772; and the question as to its genuineness and accuracy, as an account of that calamity, has given rise to much discussion. Like most of De Foe's works, it appeared without an author's name, but no one who is at all acquainted with the general characteristics of his writings, “ can, for a moment, hesitate to agree with the voice of common fame, which assigns it to him.” But the question then arises, as to what degree of credit is due to the “Journal” or to the circumstances which it records ; since De Foe was scarcely two years of age, when the Great Pestilence occurred which it affects so minutely to describe. His narrative,
by one writer, has been styled “a pure fiction;" by another, it is described as being 6 as much a work of imagination as his Robinson Crusoe ;” a third (the author of his “ Memoirs ”) says, it would baffle the ingenuity of any one but De Foe to frame a history with so many attributes of truth upon the basis of fiction;" and a fourth, with a somewhat reprehensible ignorance, has included the " Journal of the Plague Year” in a collection of Novels.
Now De Foe's work is not a fiction, nor is it based upon fiction; and great injustice is done to his memory so to represent it. Most of the circumstances which it records, can be traced to different publications to which the writer had access, and which are still accessible; and it is extremely probable that a part of his information was actually derived from some diary, or manuscript observations, communicated to him by an individual of his own family,—and to whom he probably refers by the initials H. F., which are attached to the end of his “Journal.” *
It may be assumed also, in accounting for the individuality and minuteness of some of his details, that other manuscripts were in existence at the time when De Foe wrote, from which he derived information; for unquestionably, among those who resided in London during the dreadful Visitation of 1665, there must have been some who drew up memoirs, more or less extensive, relating to those extraordinary and appalling scenes and occurrences which distinguished the period in question.t
* It must be recollected, that the proper surname of this celebrated writer was Foe, and not De Foe, the prefix being an assumption of his own when advanced to manhood.
† An instance of this will be found in the “ Loimographia” of Boghurst, whose manuscript is now preserved in the British Museum, and copious extracts from which are given in the Appendix, No. I., attached to this volume; and it is very probable that Boghurst's narrative had been perused by De Foe.
From considering the circumstances of the times when De Foe's work first appeared, which was in the year 1722, we may fairly conclude that the occasion of his compiling it,-for he was then reduced to mere authorship for his means of daily support,--was to take advantage of the strong excitement which the Plague at Marseilles had raised in the public mind, and which was mingled with fearful apprehensions lest the infection should again be introduced into this country. During the two preceding years, Marseilles had been ravaged by Pestilence in the most direful manner; and scarcely all the sufferings that had ever previously afflicted our own nation, could be compared with the heart-rending scenes which took place in that devoted city within that brief period.
The chief printed sources of De Foe's “ Memoirs of the Plague Years,” which is the secondary or running title at the head of the pages of his work, was the “ Collection” of all the Bills of Mortality for 1665, published under the title of “ London's Dreadful Visitation ;" the Loimologia” of Dr. Hodges; and “ God's Terrible Voice in the City,” by the Rev. Thomas Vincent, which appeared in 1667. The original edition of “ Loimologia,” which is in Latin, was published in 1672, in octavo; and again, enlarged and in quarto, in 1775: it was translated into English by Dr. Quincey, and republished in octavo in 1720.
No person who peruses De Foe's work, can avoid seeing how greatly he has been indebted to the Weekly Bills for the minute and comparative details which he continually introduces in respect to the numbers and localities of the deceased. Here, everything is in accordance with the strict facts : there is no display of imagination, and when the writer occasionally departs from the authorities before him, it is under circumstances which are strongly m favour of the correctness of his own observations.
With regard to the other works mentioned above, the following extracts will probably convince every reader of De Foe's “Journal,” that he drew largely from those sources for the more ample account of the ravages of the Plague, which he himself composed ;—and first from Dr. Hodges's “Loimologia.”
“ In the months of August and September, the contagion changed its former slow and languid pace, and having, as it were, got master of all, made a most terrible slaughter, so that three, four, or five thousand died in a week, and once eight thousand. Who can express the calamities of such times? The whole British nation wept for the miseries of her metropolis. In some houses carcases lay waiting for burial, and in others, persons in their last agonies; in one room might be heard dying groans, in another the ravings of a delirium, and not far off, relations and friends bewailing both their loss, and the dismal prospect of their own sudden departure; death was the sure midwife to all children, and infants passed immediately from the womb to the grave. Who would not burst with grief to see the stock for a future generation hang upon the breasts of a dead mother? Or the marriage bed changed the first night into a sepulchre, and the unhappy pair meet with death in their first embraces ? Some of the infected run about staggering like drunken men, and fall and expire in the streets; while others lie half dead and comatose, but never to be waked but by the last trumpet; some lie vomiting as if they had drunk poison ; and others fall dead in the market, while they are buying necessaries for the support of life.”
“I was called to a girl the first day of her seizure, who