Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Novel Streets: The Rebuilding of London and Defoe's 'A Journal of the Plague Year.' (English Novelist Daniel Defoe)(Making Genre: Studies in the Novel or Something like It, 1684-1762)

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Novel Streets: The Rebuilding of London and Defoe's 'A Journal of the Plague Year.' (English Novelist Daniel Defoe)(Making Genre: Studies in the Novel or Something like It, 1684-1762)

Article excerpt

As the Fire the succeeding Year, spread itself and burnt with such

Violence, that the Citizens in Despair, gave over their Endeavours to

extinguish it, so in the Plague, it came at last to such Violence that the

People sat still looking at one another, and seem'd quite abandon'd to

Despair; whole Streets seem'd to be desolated, and not to be shut up

only, but to be emptied of their Inhabitants; Doors were left open,

Windows stood shattering with the Wind in empty Houses, for want of

People to shut them.

--Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)(1)

We resolve that all Streets cannot be of equal breadth, yet none shall be

so narrow as to make the passage uneasy or inconvenient.

--His Majestie's Declaration To His City of LONDON, Upon

Occasion of the late Calamity by the lamentable FIRE, 1666

Although Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year is carefully set in the year before the Great Fire of 1666, the spatial desolation to come haunts the streets of this text, as it haunts much of Restoration and early eighteenth- century literature.(2) The Fire in September had destroyed four-fifths of the ancient commercial and topographic center of London within three days. The literary and cultural ramifications of the sweeping loss of what had--at least in retrospect--seemed long known, settled, and familiar included a new and intense interest in resurrecting and redefining among other things the streets of the city as not only the spaces of traffic and the spaces between buildings, but also as marked territories of both the old and the new spaces of the rebuilt City. With Charles II's proclamation reopening and rehierarchizing the streets, London's streetspaces underwent a profound physical change that found its cultural expression in the various topographically obsessed forms of Restoration and early Augustan literature. The streets which the Fire had emptied of meaning and filled with rubbish were, over the decades of rebuilding, gradually emptied of rubbish and reinvested with meaning. The City planners ordered the recovery of the streets; the cartographers traced the lines and resurrected the names of even the most obscure alleys, courts, closes, and yards; more and more the literature of the streets moved from the poems, ballads, epigrams, and coney-catching pamphlets of the Renaissance and early seventeenth century to the longer prose narratives of Richard Head, Edward Ward, and Daniel Defoe.

Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, like his other urban novels, responds directly and with generic innovation to the changed boundaries and significances of London's urban spaces after the Great Fire and during the, decades of rebuilding, using fictional narrative itself to redefine and imaginatively reoccupy the new strangenesses of the city. After a brief historical recontextualization of London's streets, I will consider how A Journal of the Plague Year offers a 1720s reading of the experiential and narrative power of' streets as more than simply separations or routes between buildings, but as spaces in their own fight, suggesting topographical meaning, offering experiential boundaries, and supplying imaginatively reinhabited urban space.

Contextualizing Streets

After the Fire only two new streets were added, and there is a sense in which, in spite of ambitious baroque plans offered by Christopher Wren and John Evelyn to geometricize the City's streets, London was rebuilt along its old tangled lines. Yet the Fire and the rebuilding did occasion some distinct changes (which T. S. Reddaway claims were "almost unbelievable") in London's City streets.(3) Before the Fire, the streets within the City walls were dark, narrow, twisting, their houses built of timber, with projecting storeys that often met overhead. Their spaces were crowded with sheds and stalls; except for major . …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.