I have a memory of reading about a lot of women looting a warehouse full of fancy hats.
If you read a book in 1960, and then read it for the second time in 2020, is it the same book? What have memory and time and context done to your relationship with the book? I read The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe in 1960, as part of my study of the development of the English novel. This second time round, I was completely immersed in it in a way that I was not, in my innocence, in 1960.
There they were, the looting women ‘coming across the yard with hats on their heads and under their arms’. This time I was expecting them, and the shock of recognition was thrilling.
Way back when, I had no access to any reference for the style of those hats. In fact it probably would not have occurred to me then to go looking. I could have checked out page 106 of my Cole’s Funny Picture Book. I did this today, and I think woman number 24 is probably wearing the kind of ‘high-crowned’ hat the women were stealing.
Google didn’t prove particularly helpful, but in my copy of A Concise History of Costume, published in 1969, there is a painting of Rubens and his wife from 1620 where the woman is possibly sporting the kind of hat in question. Google is, however, forthcoming with images and information about other details from the text, and can make the reading experience a particularly rich and different one. This is often possible because Defoe provides lots of London place names, and the old buildings are still there.
The high crown is the only real clue Defoe gives as to the appearance of the hats, but somehow, in active, lively, persuasive writing that tells of the narrator walking out to his brother’s house ‘one morning about eleven o’clock’ to find all this going on, the reader’s imagination can take over and colour in those women and their hats.
The anecdote of the hats comes right after an account of a boy going to a house to collect a debt for his master. A man came to the door in ‘breeches or drawers, and a yellow flannel waistcoat, no stockings, a pair of slipped-shoes, a white cap on his head’. This man instructed the boy to ‘go by at Cripplegate Church, and bid them ring the bell’. The bell would mark a plague death, and indeed, the man with no stockings went upstairs and died. The narrator says ‘This the young man told me himself, and I have no reason to believe it’. For the story is at this point explaining that there are many false tales going about. Sounds familiar. The narrator himself constantly reinforces his own credibility with his careful use of fine detail, and the occasional confession as to the truth of his own recollection. Some things happened ‘so long ago’ that he is ‘not certain’. He ‘ cannot call exactly’ to his mind.
There it is, the name of the place. St Giles Church, Cripplegate is in the book and on the internet. And so it is with so many of the place names. A reader can follow the narrator all over London as the dead carts rumble on and the bodies are tipped into mass graves. I particularly revelled in the names of inns such as The Pied Bull, The White Horse, The Angel Inn.
It is interesting, I think, that Defoe wrote the fictional journal fifty-five years after the year of the plague. He was born in 1659, the plague was in 1664-65, and the journal was published in 1722. The narrator is never named, but is known as HF, which is possibly a reference to Defoe’s cousin, Henry Foe who lived through the plague, and probably provided some of the detail.
In the hands of Defoe, the detail has a magic of its own. Yes, this time round I was transfixed. The subject is grim and horrifying; the writing is a gift. Hats off to Daniel Defoe.