Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and the Current Pandemic

by John Batchelor

D aniel Defoe (1660-1731) is now considered one of the founders of the secular literary form which would become identified as 'the novel'.

The two world-famous texts underpinning this view are Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722) but he published many other works of fiction.

Defoe was an extraordinarily prolific creative writer, journalist, political activist and firebrand. He was a religious dissenter who often got himself into trouble, but he also had powerful friends who found him a useful publicist.

Plague had existed in England since the Black Death of 1348 (part of a European pandemic). After 1665 plague in Europe diminished, possibly because efficient quarantine conditions were imposed on shipping.

Defoe's book about the Great Plague in London of 1665, A Journal of the Plague Year, which was published in 1722, can itself be seen as a work which hovers between fiction and reportage. It fits no literary genre neatly.

Defoe was a child in 1665, but was able to draw on the memories of both his father and his uncle, Henry Foe (the 'HF' who is the narrator of Defoe's Journal). HF ought to leave the city to protect himself, but as a Dissenter who bases his actions on scripture (as against the teachings of the established church ) he seeks 'direction from Heaven' by opening his Bible. It opens at Psalm 91 which urges him to defy 'the pestilence that walketh in darkness.' So he stays, and witnesses all the horrors of the plague.

Plague sufferers had two separate sets of symptons, either bubonic plague (agonising swellings) septicaemia, or both. It was believed that the disease was spread by dirty air, or 'effluvia' (the poorer parts of London stank, so the association of bad smells and fatal disease is not surprising).

Some of the reporting in HF's narrative resembles the current warnings against the corona virus: the infection came into the houses of the citizens 'going necessarily thro' the Streets into Shops, Markets, and the like, it was impossible, but that they should one way or other, meet with distempered people, who conveyed the fatal breath into them, and they brought it Home to the Families' (plague infection was in fact spread by fleas living on rats: the infection sequence was rat-flea-human).

The wealthy left the city as soon as they could, and those who became infected and stayed at home in London were in effect sentenced to death by the authorities who closed their houses to prevent them from spreading the infection.

The deaths rose with frightening speed, and the 'bills of mortality', drawn up by the parishes and published weekly, were bleak evidence that the plague was out of control. The recorded deaths in London were about 68,000, but the real number of deaths was probably 120,000 or more. London had about 460,000 people and the total population of England in 1665 before the plague was about 5 and a half million. Obviously the poor and unhygienic parts of London suffered most from this kind of infection.

As a dissenter and a political radical Defoe gives short shrift to authority, secular or lay, and he was particularly contemptuous of Charles II's court, which had moved out of the city and settled in Oxford. The Court showed no 'Token of Thankfulness, and hardly anything of Reformation.' Their 'crying vices' in his view 'might, without Breach of Charity', be said to have gone far in bringing that terrible Judgment of the plague 'upon the whole Nation.'

Clearly our current pandemic is not a judgement, but in other respects it bears comparison with The Great Plague.

SEE ALSO by John Batchelor:
• The Tipping Point
• Tennyson's Lady of Shalott
• Alice in Lockdown
• Summer's Gardens and The Poets
• Poetry and Crisis: Edward Thomas
• Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and the Current Pandemic

John Batchelor is a resident of the village of Kidlington, Oxfordshire.

Formerly a Fellow of New College, Oxford, John is also Emeritus Professor at the University of Newcastle. His books include biographies of Mervyn Peake (1974), Joseph Conrad (1995), John Ruskin (2000), Ruskin's close friend Lady Trevelyan (2006), and Alfred Tennyson (2012). His other books have included critical studies of H G Wells (1985) and Virginia Woolf (1992).

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