Plague Writing in Early Modern England

James Shapiro writes:

Ernest Gilman’s conviction that the experience of trauma was not much different back then frees him to pass over familiar plague narratives, and he focuses instead on major works by Jonson, Donne, Pepys and Defoe that have rarely been regarded as plague writing at all. He deftly locates these literary works within a larger network of social, theological and political writing about the plague. Jonson’s poetry enables Gilman to cover the 1603 plague, Donne’s that of 1625, while Pepys and Defoe’s narratives speak to the Great Plague of 1665, when more than 100,000 died in London. His choices reveal a bias towards the confessional and autobiographical, genres in which he expects to find evidence of personal trauma that is suppressed and remains largely unspoken. This works better for Pepys and Jonson than it does for Donne. And to shoehorn Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year into this scheme, Gilman needs to argue that Defoe, writing in the early 1720s (at an anxious time – plague had reportedly broken out in Marseille), is recalling the ‘enduring traumatic residue’ of his own childhood experience of the 1665 plague. Unfortunately for this argument, Defoe’s family had fled London during that outbreak; but Gilman concludes that the flight from the city itself, along with what Defoe might have learned subsequently from his uncle Henry (who remained in London and shares the initials of Defoe’s narrator), compensates for this. Gilman is a superb close reader, which goes a long way to redeeming an often tendentious book.

(LRB 31 March 2011)

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