From Publishers Weekly
The author of a history of the Great Fire of London here offers a scholarly, meticulous yet accessible analysis of the last epidemic of bubonic plague to afflict England. The scourge of 1665 killed more than 70,000 in London alone. So horrific were the symptoms, which included psychological and neurological meltdown as well as the telltale glandular swellings and dark skin blotches, that, as Porter relates, it was considered fortunate to die of another disease. Some deliberately contracted syphilis in the hope that it would confer immunity against the plague, and many more misplaced their faith in the new wonder-drug, tobacco. Porter surveys the emerging national policies designed to curb the disease, but isolating the sick, quarantining shipping and prohibiting fairs proved tragically inadequate. The epidemic left the nation exhausted and demoralized, unable to tackle the Dutch ships that strutted around the mouth of the River Thames and strangled the capital of supplies. Using the abundant statistical data provided by parish registers, as well as the sexier narratives of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Pepys and their ilk, the author demonstrates the frightening unpredictability of the plague and the cruel inequality of its impact on rich and poor. His numerical analyses may prove excessive for some lay readers, and the book tends to presuppose a familiarity with English place names (a map or two would have helped), but the 60 black-and-white illustrations, from the mass graves of the Plague Year to the later festivities on the frozen Thames, should help attract a broad readership. History Book Club selection. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
A well-documented and well-illustrated account of the bubonic-plague epidemic that struck England in 166566, killing some 20 percent of Londons inhabitants. Before examining the Great Plague, disaster specialist Porter (The Great Fire of London, not reviewed, etc.) describes the impact of earlier epidemics that had repeatedly swept across Europe in the previous three centuries, affecting not just social and economic life but beliefs, literature, and art. In London, weekly Bills of Mortality reporting the number and cause of deaths had been issued since the early 1600s to provide warning of an impending outbreak and encourage measures to check its progress: quarantining incoming ships, isolating the sick, lighting fires in the streets, fumigating houses, and killing stray cats and dogs. Many of those with the means to do so fled to the countryside; the poor, however, stayed in the city, and it was they who suffered the most. Porter shows how individuals and families endured illness, enforced isolation, and loss of employment; how London and some provincial towns suffered a ruinous loss of trade; and how the government was severely hampered in its war efforts against the Dutch by the ensuing economic recession and reduced revenues. He also depicts how rapidly London recovered, with the population returning to its former size within two years after the epidemic. While Porter's text does not emphasize individual human-interest stories, some of the 70 illustrations he has includedgrim pest-houses where the sick were confined, and dead bodies lying on the street, being loaded onto a cart, or dumped into a mass gravegive a vivid sense of the personal tragedy and horror of the Great Plague. Porter's close, clear look at one epidemic's impact on its culture will be of obvious interest to a world still threatened by the capability of biological weapons to spread smallpox or anthrax to millions. (History Book Club selection) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.