As the Coronavirus pandemic changes all of our lives, John Mitchinson reflects on how the observations of humanity revealed in such moments of crisis transcend time and place.
In March 1722, Daniel Defoe published his A Journal of the Plague Year. Variously a failed tradesman, government spy, pamphleteer, satirist and author of well over three hundred books, Defoe was in his 60s in the middle of miraculous five-year period in which he would lay down the basis for the literary form that became the novel.
Beginning with Robinson Crusoe in 1719 (the most translated book ever written after the Bible), he produced Moll Flanders, Captain Singleton and Roxana, as well as the hugely influential A Journey thro’ the Whole Isles of Great Britain (which some claim founded the genre of autobiographical travel writing). It’s hard to think of any English writer – even Dickens – who produced so much, so quickly, of such quality and importance.
A Journal of the Plague Year appears bang in the middle of this purple patch and people have argued ever since about whether it should be counted as history or fiction. It’s clearly both and neither.
Like all great works of literature, it creates its own genre – one can hear its echoes in works of modern practitioners of ‘imaginative non-fiction’ such as Truman Capote or W.G. Sebald. It wasn’t the most obvious book for an investigative reporter like Defoe to have written – the Great Plague of 1655 happened when he was five years old – but the resonances of it, and the fire that followed in 1666, must have formed part of the collective memory of every Londoner. More urgently, in 1721 plague had returned to mainland Europe and the threat of its spread was real enough for the British Government to embargo ships from the Mediterranean. This restriction on trade annoyed London’s merchants and the Government was accused of over-reacting (ring any bells?) Some scholars have even suggested that Defoe was secretly commissioned to write his book as a timely reminder of the horrors that threatened.
Propaganda or not, the form Defoe chooses to tell his story was the ‘journal’ – but the book is no Pepys-style diary: instead, he uses the first person narrative of someone he calls H.F. (a saddler by trade), who he can send all over the city like a fictional drone, observing, recording and – most crucially – responding emotionally to what he witnesses. It remains as powerful an evocation of a city in the grip of a catastrophe as any written.
I first read it last year in preparation for an edition of the Backlisted podcast, and it impressed me for the contemporary immediacy of Defoe’s storytelling and its similarities to the Zombie genre. Re-reading it now, it feels more like an instruction manual for survival.
The grim creep of the numbers in his “bills of mortality” are matched by our exponential graphs; the flight of the wealthy from town leaving the poor to continue their employment “with a sort of brutal courage”; the emptiness (“the great streets within the city… had grass growing in them”); the social distancing (“I went up Holborn, and… they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or other”); the closure of “taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars”; the irresponsibility of those who defied the closures with “revelling and roaring extravagances”; the quiet heroism of physicians and parish officers, who made it their priority to look after the poor and did their duties “with as much courage as any”; the pervasive feelings of anxiety about leaving the house (“this necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city”) and the general toll on the spirit (“sorrow and sadness sat upon every face”). It all feels horribly familiar.
Such comfort as we can derive from Defoe’s book lies in the fact that London survived. Perhaps a quarter of the population – 100,000 people – perished, but the the plague burned itself out and never returned. By spring 1666, life flowed back to the city in a glorious tide of hope and goodwill:
“It is impossible to express the change that appeared in the very countenances of the people that Thursday morning when the weekly bill came out. It might have been perceived in their countenances that a secret surprise and smile of joy sat on everybody’s face. They shook one another by the hands in the streets, who would hardly go on the same side of the way with one another before. Where the streets were not too broad they would open their windows and call from one house to another, and ask how they did, and if they had heard the good news that the plague was abated. Some would return… and would cry out, ‘God be praised’ and would weep aloud for joy… I could almost set down as many extravagant things done in the excess of their joy as of their grief; but that would be to lessen the value of it.”
John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.