Reference has been made during the current coronavirus crisis to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year – published in 1722. It may be as well to know a little more precisely what Defoe’s book is and what it is not.
Defoe was an extraordinarily prolific writer – and is sometimes called the ‘first journalist’. But the Plague Year (for short) is not journalism. It is more like a history of events in 1665. But it is actually faction – the Everyman Library edition announces it squarely as ‘Fiction’.
Defoe was about six years-old in 1665 (the exact year of his birth is unknown). To write Plague Year, he mined first hand accounts and lots of documents. And intent on persuading readers of its absolute veracity, he writes his narrative in the first person.
The full title of his book includes: “Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made public before.” He certainly knew the value of the ‘exclusive’ tag and of ‘I was there…’ journalism.
Plague Year begins: “It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard, in ordinary discourse, that the plague was returned again in Holland…” It was the sort of trick he had used before – his Robinson Crusoe was first published with the hero named as the author.
There are of course vast differences between 1665 and the present in terms of scientific knowledge, the treatment of ill health and the part played by the state. The situation in 1665 London was grim indeed and Personal Protection Equipment was unheard of for those recruited to undertake dreadful tasks.
But lets look briefly at a few of the clear echoes between Defoe’s Plague Year and our COVID-19 crisis. It has, course, tables of numbers of those dying of the plague or other diseases.
Defoe tells how work and trade ceased in London: “…the master-workmen stopped their work, dismissed their journeymen and workmen, and all their dependants…all the tradesmen usually employed in building or repairing of houses were at a full stop…”
This was not on the orders of government or Lord Mayor, but because trade into London had stopped, so many people had fled and ten thousand houses had been shut up. The Lord Mayor eased the suffering of those with no income by employing some of them to guard these houses.
With no treatment available, those with the plague were simply locked into their houses. The Lord Mayor employed ‘Examiners’ to find out “…what persons be sick, and of what diseases…” If the Examiners did not like the work, they could be sent to prison.
He also employed ‘women searchers in every parish’: “…to make due search and true report to the utmost of their knowledge whether the persons whose bodies they are appointed to search do die of the infection, or of what other diseases, as near as they can.”
There were also ‘nurse-keepers’: “If any nurse-keeper shall remove herself out of any infected house before twenty-eight days after the disease of any person dying of the infection, the house shall be shut up until the said twenty-eight days be expired.”
Defoe includes a lengthy and colourful confrontation between a man, John, who is leading a band of Londoners fleeing to the countryside, and a local constable:
John: Why do you stop us on the king’s highway, and pretend to refuse us leave to go on our way?
Constable: We are not bound to tell you our reason, though we did let you know it is because of the plague.
John: We told you we were all sound and free from the plague, which we were not bound to have satisfied you of, and yet you pretend to stop us on the highway.
Constable: We have a right to stop it up, and our own safety obliges us to it.
The Constable then tells John it is not the highway but a ‘way upon sufferance’ and they have to pay a toll… John wore the Constable down so efficiently that he eventually agrees to supply John and his band with food – providing they agree to social distancing:
Constable: “You must oblige yourself, too, that none of your people shall come a step nearer than where the provisions we send you shall be set down.”
The book is an extraordinary if distressing read. One delight is its somewhat round-about and prolix style. Though the echoes with today’s ‘plague’ may be more contrasts than parallels, we should not leave it without relating Defoe’s horrified reaction to the ‘snake oil salesmen’ and ‘quacks’ who were fleecing Londoners with hoax treatments and pills. That is something that has emerged briefly in our present crisis – both here and in the White House.
Defoe did find one slightly more positive side to this scandal: “Abundance of quacks too died, who had the folly to trust to their own medicines, which they must needs be conscious to themselves were good for nothing, and who rather ought, like other sorts of thieves, to have run away, sensible of their guilt, from the justice that they could not but expect should punish them as they knew they had deserved.”
FOOTNOTE: Five years after he published his Journal of the Plague Year, the first volume appeared of Defoe’s lengthy A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain – after Robinson Crusoe, his second most popular and profitable publication. In this he described the Marlborough Mound, which he says “stands in the Duke of Somerset’s garden, and is, by that means, kept up to its due height.” Now, of course, it is in the grounds of Marlborough College.
Defoe has this to say about the town:
“This is an ancient town, and, at present, has a pretty good shop-keeping trade, but not much of the manufacturing part. The river Kennet, lately made navigable by Act of Parliament, rises just by this town, and running from hence to Hungerford, and Newbery [sic], becomes a large stream, and passing by Reading, runs into the Thames near the town.”
Let us hope that when our present ‘plague’ is past, Marlborough will still have ‘a pretty good shop-keeping trade’.
At Marlborough, and in several villages near, as well as on the downs. there are several of those round rising mounts, which the country people call barrows, and which all our writers agree, were monuments of the dead, and particularly of soldiers slain in fight. This in Marlborough, stands in the Duke of Somerset’s garden, and is, by that means, kept up to its due height. There is a winding way cut out of the mount, that goes several times round it, ’till insensibly it brings you to the top, where there is a seat, and a small pleasant green, from whence you look out over great part of the town.
This is an ancient town, and, at present, has a pretty good shop-keeping trade, but not much of the manufacturing part. The river Kennet, lately made navigable by Act of Parliament, rises just by this town, and running from hence to Hungerford, and Newbery [sic], becomes a large stream, and passing by Reading, runs into the Thames near the town. This river is famous for craw-fish, which they help travellers to at Newbery; but they seldom want for price.