'A Journal of the Plague Year' is Fiction, But Not Untrue

Before we even began reading A Journal of the Plague Year together, it felt like an obvious choice as we try to find our way through this pandemic. That feeling only grew when we began, and I saw its many parallels to our current situation.

But it also seems strange that this particular book should have been preserved by history – not least because, as a historical account, it’s pretty dubious. Most now think of it as fiction, despite the frontispiece’s claim that the book was “by a CITIZEN who continued all the while in London”.

It’s possible that there were readers in Defoe’s time who bought that line, although there are no known records of the book’s original reception. Later editions of the book were presented as history and it was cited as such throughout the 18th century in other books about the plague. There’s also evidence that people took it to be serious reportage on into the 19th century, even after Defoe’s authorship of the book had been established. In 1809, Edward Wedlake Brayley wrote in his book The Beauties of England and Wales that the Journal was “a genuine piece of history” and doubled down in 1835 when he edited the Journal and claimed it was “emphatically not a fiction”. As late as 1919, Watson Nicholson wrote in his book The Historical Sources of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year that “there is not one single statement in the Journal, pertinent to the history of the Great Plague in London, that has not been verified”, and that it should be regarded as “authentic history”.

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