Ironic that I should choose to read this at the same time as Robbe-Grillet’s book. Defoe achieves in the early eighteenth century a lot of what Robbe-Grillet discusses in the mid-twentieth. Defoe, of course, was making it up as he went along – in more ways than one.
To begin with, although this is the best factual account we have of the Great Plague of London in 1665, it is not a history. Presented as an eye-witness account, it contains all the horrifying facts in stark simplicity woven into a journal that plots the progress of the disease through the city. Defoe accumulated a great deal of first hand material and presents it in such a way that it is hard to remember that this is not a history or social documentary.
Interspersed amongst the facts are heart-rending personal stories, recounted with the simplicity and naivety of an ordinary person recounting their adventures. Listen to the testament of the survivors of disaster today and you will get that same mix of emotion and hard fact.
Defoe had no models for this kind of creative non-fiction. Yet he shaped the story to give it a narrative, tension, great characters (even if most are vignettes), and above all a sense of place. Because this book is as much about London as it is about Londoners. The city and its inhabitants are presented with images that are extremely vivid and touching without once becoming falsely sentimental. A terrific and thought-provoking read.