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Book Burner #2 – Daniel Defoe’s Table Manners

I’ve spent the last three years writing essays as a university undergraduate. Every fortnight on this blog I’ll be burning off a little bit of that stock-pile, those bits and pieces that might interest the general or semi-academic reader, edited and formatted into short blog posts. Follow the ‘Book Burner’ posts for the full series.

Historically corroborable facts, figures, places named, proper nouns and meticulously researched historical events are all features of Defoe’s version of realism. This can be seen in his use of tables. The table is a structure that makes its way into Defoe’s prose from his journalistic work and keen study of economics. It figures both time and space in a form so inherently non-fictional that it must be indicative of a realistic mode.

But this does not mean to say that that realism can be readily trusted. For example Defoe gives us a table in Essay Upon Project in the section ‘On Seamen’.[1] It charts the costs that the navy will pay for various injuries that sailors might contract. The first column of numbers is the price for a one off payment, the second for an annual payment option:

An Eye            25           2

Both eyes        100         8

One leg            50           4

Both legs         80           6

Right Hand      80           6

And so on through another five items before a centralised explanatory note details such things as the maintenance paid to wives if their husbands should be: “Kill’d or Drown’d, 50 l.”

The list is so much of a curiosity for Defoe because of the odd and troubling collision of debilitating injury with formally stringent commodification. The narrator describes the system’s pragmatic function:

the claims to be Enter’d into the office, and upon sufficient Proof made, the Governors to Regulate the Division, and Publish it in Print

The language that Defoe employs very subtly exposes the dangerous lack of sentimentality of the table. What is “sufficient Proof” that one has lost a leg? The whole exercise is one that demands quantification where it does not rightfully belong. Note also the pun on “Division”, which is about division of money where division of limb from body would be more emotionally prominent (to say the least).

This is the framework in which a reader must tackle the abundance of tables in novels such as A Journal of the Plague Year. Here are the figures for the plague as it reaches its height over August and September:

                    Of all Diseases.    Of the Plague

Aug. 8 to Aug. 15   ——   5319   ——-   3880

                        to 22    ——   5568   ——-   4237

                        to 29    ——   7496   ——-   6102

Aug. 29 to Sept. 5   ——   8252   ——-   6988[2]

The table continues through five more periods of time, the death toll rising and then falling again by the middle of October.

The effects of the table are paradoxical: at once it demonstrates the scale of the crisis and the extent of a tragedy that would otherwise be confined to personal incidents. But at the same time the use of number is somehow reductive. The conversion of time and quantity to a table figures on the page in a space that artificially confines it.

What is the difference between the “5319” at the top of the first column and the “8252” three lines below it? On the page, very little. They have the same number of digits and broadly have the same effect on the reader. Grief does not escalate in proportion with the numbers. One does not feel roughly one and a half times as grieved at the number “8252” against “5319”. Yet roughly one and a half as many people have died from one period to another. The difference is two thousand, seven hundred and thirty three. Within the reality of the novel, each one of those people has lost their lives – and they each have their real life analogue in the horrific events of the real plague.

Tables are, in the end, analogous with the novel’s mass graves in which the dead are buried. They cannot accommodate them all and the bodies spill over onto the ground and into the surrounding prose.

[1] An Essay Upon Projects ‘On Seamen’ in Selected Writings Of Daniel Defoe Ed. James T Boulton (Cambridge, 1974)

[2] Defoe A Journal of a Plague Year Ed. Cynthia Wall (Penguin, 2003) p96


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