Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A Journal of the Plague Year

Almost three hundred years after Daniel Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year, we’re having a plague year of our own. His book was published on 17 March 1722.

The plague of which he purported to give a first hand account “happened in London during the last great visitation in 1655. Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made public before.”

There is some uncertainty about the date of Defoe’s birth, but we know that in 1655 he was at most six years old. His account of the plague is the product of research, not memory. His persona is a fiction. Everything else is fact presented as lived experience. History as anecdote. Fact as fiction.

Defoe was as painstaking in his research as modern novelists are in theirs, but while a novelist represents fiction as fact, Defoe invents nothing but the person he pretends to be.

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.

Beginning in this way, he goes on to list some of the other stories that were going round at the time, but reaches only one firm conclusion.

It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.

The history of Coronavirus could begin in much the same way. All agreed that it began in China.

Defoe goes on to point to the role that the media will come to play in the future, as it does now every day.

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since.

The parallel with our own experience of pandemic continues page by page.

But it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent it coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour died off again, and people began to forget it, as a thing we were very little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true, till the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664, when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane.

Defoe tells the tale in the character of an ordinary man, conversationally. His narrator pays as close attention to the mortality bills which are published every week as we do to our scientists’ statistics.

This increase of the bills stood thus: the usual number of burials in a week, in the parishes of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St Andrew, Holborn, were from twelve to seventeen or nineteen each, few more or less; but from the time that the plague first began in St Giles’s parish, it was observed that the ordinary burials increased in number considerably.

Excess deaths, a term which has become familiar to us as one of the measures used by statisticians to estimate the impact of the virus, comes very early in Defoe’s account.

The second week in June, the parish of St Giles, where still the weight of the infection lay, buried 120, whereof, though the bills said but sixty-eight of the plague, everybody said there had been 100 at least, calculating it from the usual number of funerals in that parish, as above.

The statistics were common sense, as was getting out of London for anyone who had the means to do so.

The richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry from the west part of the city, thronged out of town with their families and servants in an unusual manner… coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away.

The exodus was hastened by the increasing threat of what we call ‘lockdown’.

This hurry, I say, continued some weeks, that is to say, all the month of May and June, and the more because it was rumoured that an order of the Government was to be issued out to place turnpikes and barriers on the road to prevent people travelling.

The conflicting demands of health and the economy were felt as strongly then as now.

I had two important things before me: the one was the carrying on my business and shop, which was considerable, and in which was embarked all my effects in the world; and the other was the preservation of my life in so dismal a calamity as I saw apparently was coming upon the whole city.

In the first place, lack of transport forces him to stay.

My brother, who had already sent his wife and two children into Bedfordshire, and resolved to follow them, pressed my going very earnestly; and I had once resolved to comply with his desires, but at that time could get no horse; for though it is true all the people did not go out of the city of London, yet I may venture to say that in a manner all the horses did; for there was hardly a horse to be bought or hired in the whole city for some weeks.

In the end, he puts his trust in God and stays in London, though his decision could also be seen as the author playing God, the narrator’s remaining in the city and his survival there being essential to the narrative’s completion.

The narrative has something on almost every page that chimes with our own experience of the Covid pandemic.

It was a most surprising thing to see those streets which were usually so thronged now grown desolate.

All the plays and interludes which, after the manner of the French Court, had been set up, and began to increase among us, were forbid to act; the gaming-tables, public dancing-rooms, and music-houses, which multiplied and began to debauch the manners of the people, were shut up and suppressed.

As soon as any man shall be found to be sick of the plague, he shall the same night be sequestered in the same house.

That no company or person be suffered to remain or come into any tavern, ale-house, or coffee-house to drink after nine of the clock in the evening.

It is true people used all possible precaution. When any one bought a joint of meat in the market they would not take it off the butcher’s hand, but took it off the hooks themselves. On the other hand, the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose.

At first indeed the cries of the poor were most lamentable to hear, though by the distribution of charity their misery that way was greatly abated.

I saw it under the hand of one that made as strict an examination into that part as he could, that there really died an hundred thousand people of the plague in that one year.

They had no way to converse with any of their friends but out at their windows.

The infection was propagated insensibly, and by such persons as were not visibly infected.

Removing the sick will not do it, unless they can go back and shut up all those that the sick had conversed with, even before they knew themselves to be sick, and none knows how far to carry that back, or where to stop.

Finally, after so many similarities between Defoe’s plague and ours, we might hope that its aftermath will be the same too.

There never was known such a trade all over England for the time as was in the first seven years after the plague.

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2021 by in History, Literature and tagged , , .
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