Saturday, 23 June 2012

A Lesson on the Plague

I was looking for the meaning of 'Messrs' and I landed at a website for Online Readers under Project Gutenberg. There are so many old online books for reading (for English classes), for school holidays and stage plays. I like this particular critic on Robinson Crusoe of 1719, and the biography of the secret life of its author, Defoe. I have included the critic on The History of the Plague in London which should be a useful read.


Of the two hundred and fifty odd books and pamphlets written by Defoe, it may fairly be said that only two--"Robinson Crusoe" and the "History of the Plague in London"--are read by any but the special students of eighteenth-century literature. The latter will be discussed in another part of this Introduction. Of the former it may be asserted, that it arose naturally out of the circumstances of Defoe's trade as a journalist. So long as the papers would take his articles, nobody of distinction could die without Defoe's rushing out with a biography of him. 
In these biographies, when facts were scanty, Defoe supplied them from his imagination, attributing to his hero such sentiments as he thought the average Londoner could understand, and describing his appearance with that minute fidelity of which only an eyewitness is supposed to be capable. Long practice in this kind of composition made Defoe an adept in the art of "lying like truth." When, therefore, the actual and extraordinary adventures of Alexander Selkirk came under his notice, nothing was more natural and more profitable for Defoe than to seize upon this material, and work it up, just as he worked up the lives of Jack Sheppard the highwayman, and of Avery the king of the pirates. 
It is interesting to notice also that the date of publication of "Robinson Crusoe" (1719) corresponds with a time at which Defoe was playing the desperate and dangerous game of a political spy. A single false move might bring him a stab in the dark, or might land him in the hulks for transportation to some tropical island, where he might have abundant need for the exercise of those mental resources that interest us so much in Crusoe. The secret of Defoe's life at this time was known only to himself and to the minister that paid him. He was almost as much alone in London as was Crusoe on his desert island. 
The success which Defoe scored in "Robinson Crusoe" he never repeated. His entire lack of artistic conscience is shown by his adding a dull second part to "Robinson Crusoe," and a duller series of serious reflections such as might have passed through Crusoe's mind during his island captivity. Of even the best of Defoe's other novels,--"Moll Flanders," "Roxana," "Captain Singleton,"--the writer must confess that his judgment coincides with that of Mr. Leslie Stephen, who finds two thirds of them "deadly dull," and the treatment such as "cannot raise [the story] above a very moderate level."
The closing scenes of Defoe's life were not cheerful. He appears to have lost most of the fortune he acquired from his numerous writings and scarcely less numerous speculations. For the two years immediately preceding his death, he lived in concealment away from his home, though why he fled, and from what danger, is not definitely known. He died in a lodging in Ropemaker's Alley, Moorfields, on April 26, 1731. The only description we have of Defoe's personal appearance is an advertisement published in 1703, when he was in hiding to avoid arrest for his "Shortest Way with the Dissenters:"
"He is a middle-aged, spare man, about forty years old, of a brown complexion, and dark-brown colored hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, gray eyes, and a large mole near his mouth."


In the years 1720-21 the plague, which had not visited Western Europe for fifty-five years, broke out with great violence in Marseilles. About fifty thousand people died of the disease in that city, and great alarm was felt in London lest the infection should reach England. Here was a journalistic chance that so experienced a newspaper man as Defoe could not let slip. Accordingly, on the 17th of March, 1722, appeared his "Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the most Remarkable Occurrences, as well Publick as Private, which happened in London during the Last Great Visitation in 1665.
Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made public before." The story is told with such an air of veracity, the little circumstantial details are introduced with such apparent artlessness, the grotesque incidents are described with such animation, (and relish!) the horror borne in upon the mind of the narrator is so apparently genuine, that we can easily understand how almost everybody not in the secret of the authorship believed he had here an authentic "Journal," written by one who had actually beheld the scenes he describes. 
Indeed, we know that twenty-three years after the "Journal" was published, this impression still prevailed; for Defoe is gravely quoted as an authority in "A Discourse on the Plague; by Richard Mead, Fellow of the College of Physicians and of the Royal Society, and Physician to his Majesty. 9th Edition. London, 1744." 
Though Defoe, like his admiring critic Mr. Saintsbury, had but small sense of humor, even he must have felt tickled in his grave at this ponderous scientific tribute to his skill in the art of realistic description. If we inquire further into the secret of Defoe's success in the "History of the Plague," we shall find that it consists largely in his vision, or power of seeing clearly and accurately what he describes, before he attempts to put this description on paper. As Defoe was but four years old at the time of the Great Plague, his personal recollection of its effects must have been of the dimmest; but during the years of childhood (the most imaginative of life) he must often have conversed with persons who had been through the plague, possibly with those who had recovered from it themselves. He must often have visited localities ravaged by the plague, and spared by the Great Fire of 1666; he must often have gazed in childish horror at those awful mounds beneath which hundreds of human bodies lay huddled together,--rich and poor, high and low, scoundrel and saint,--sharing one common bed at last. His retentive memory must have stored away at least the outline of those hideous images, so effectively recombined many years later by means of his powerful though limited imagination. 
 * * * * * 
Defoe had the ability to become a good scholar, and to acquire the elements of a good English style; but it is certain he never did. He never had time, or rather he never took time, preferring invariably quantity to quality. What work of his has survived till to-day is read, not for its style, but in spite of its style. His syntax is loose and unscholarly; his vocabulary is copious, but often inaccurate; many of his sentences ramble on interminably, lacking unity, precision, and balance. Figures of speech he seldom abuses because he seldom uses; his imagination, as noticed before, being extremely limited in range. That Defoe, in spite of these defects, should succeed in interesting us in his "Plague," is a remarkable tribute to his peculiar ability as described in the preceding paragraph.


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