Saturday 9 May 2020

Defoe's Plague Year was written in 1722 but speaks clearly to our time

From sluggish bureaucracy to empty streets and paranoia, this account of contagion in London could hardly be more relevant

Reading A Journal of the Plague Year, the first uneasy jolts of recognition come on page one. The narrator tells us that he and his neighbours heard that the plague was “return’d again in Holland” at the beginning of September 1664. We are told the government were given warnings but kept their private counsel; that the people began either to forget this foreign problem, or to regard it “as a thing we were very little concern’d in”.

As I write this in May 2020, the parallels with our initial response to a problem far off in China are so striking that it feels almost ridiculous to point them out. And so it goes: turn the page, and we get the first report of the “weekly Bills” showing the increase in deaths in each parish in London, which are obsessively noted by our narrator throughout his account. The tallies provide their own grim commentary on the terror of the sickness, just like the death tolls we’ve been receiving every day for weeks.
Everyone is jumpy … a Victorian illustration of London in the Great Plague of 1664-5. Illustration: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Then we find out that these tallies may not be reliable. The authorities’ figures are always low: “The next Bill was from the 23rd of May to the 30th, when the Number of The Plague was 17: But the Burials in St Giles’s were 53, a frightful Number! Of whom they set down but 9 of the Plague.” Later it was discovered at least 20 more “were really dead of the plague”, but had been “set down of the Spotted-Feaver or other Distempers, besides others concealed.” In 1665 as in 2020, the figures for excess deaths give a more useful insight than the number of deaths actually attributed to the infection.

The parallels continue. The narrator notes that the measures necessary to contain the outbreak were taken too late:

I often reflected upon the unprovided condition that the whole body of the people were in at the first coming of this calamity upon them, and how it was for want of timely entering into measures and managements, as well public as private, that all the confusions that followed were brought upon us, and that such a prodigious number of people sank in that disaster, which, if proper steps had been taken, might, Providence concurring, have been avoided, and which, if posterity think fit, they may take a caution and warning from.

That’s hard to read, here in posterity. Elsewhere, there are haunting passages about the emptiness of familiar streets, “for when the people came into the streets from the country by Shoreditch and Bishopsgate, or by Old Street and Smithfield, they would see the out-streets empty and the houses and shops shut, and the few people that were stirring there walk in the middle of the streets.”

We can all now recognise his wonder that London should be so quiet. I also felt a queasy recognition of my own habit of walking down the middle of roads to avoid people.

Defoe is also fascinating on self-isolation. We haven’t yet got to the stage of painting red crosses on the doors of infected houses, or posting guards outside so that the people starving and dying inside can’t escape. Nor have we imposed the 40-day isolation period that gives “quarantine” its name. But any reader today will recognise the fear and pity with which the narrator talks about the people who have the disease and may transmit it, especially those who do so unwittingly:

By the well I mean such as had received the contagion, and had it really upon them, and in their blood, yet did not show the consequences of it in their countenances: nay, even were not sensible of it themselves, as many were not for several days. These breathed death in every place, and upon everybody who came near them; nay, their very clothes retained the infection, their hands would infect the things they touched.

Breathed death! Unsurprisingly, everyone in Defoe’s London is jumpy. And it’s not just people they have to fear. There’s little mention of the rats whose fleas transmitted the plague – but there are familiar worries about household pets. Horrifyingly, Defoe notes, “a prodigious number of those creatures were destroyed. I think they talked of 40,000 dogs, and five times as many cats.”

The correspondences are so clear that it feels strange to remember that Defoe was describing events 355 years ago – and that A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, is not even a firsthand account. But in that, at least, there’s hope. It may often feel like Defoe is writing about our present, but this is a book set in the past tense. “A dreadful Plague in London was,” he writes at the end. And this too, shall pass.

(Source: The Guardian)

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