Daniel Defoe’s 1722 work of fiction about the Great Plague in London still has much to teach us as we struggle today, writes Daniel Carey
Pandemics of the past have taken on fresh interest as we find ourselves confronted by a novel virus in Covid-19. Daniel Defoe’s 1722 work of historical fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year, describes the Great Plague that afflicted London in 1665-66 and claimed upwards of 100,000 lives, offering remarkable insight into public health and the psychology of infectious disease.
Defoe (famous for his novel of isolation and self-reliance, Robinson Crusoe) wrote in a time when the cause of the plague remained an object of speculation – it wasn’t understood until the 19th Century that infected fleas borne by rats were responsible – but the challenges that confronted a major city in the midst of an outbreak have some striking parallels with our own situation.
In Defoe’s work, stories shared among Londoners indicated that the plague had reached Holland after starting out in Turkey, spreading its way via shipping – just as Covid-19 has made headway through cruise ships and other forms of international travel.
After suspicious deaths in London, the authorities investigated and pronounced it to be plague following examination of the bodies and noting “evident tokens of the illness”. Defoe’s narrator (known only as “HF”) points out the difficulty of separating authentic reports from rumours that circulated as the disease took hold. In our time, text-messaging and forms of social media have served as their own engine of rumour. How many of us have received ostensibly “accurate” reports about cases occurring nearby?
As fear gripped London, people’s first reaction was to secure their goods and then to flee. For us, the territorial spread of Covid-19 makes absconding fairly pointless (if it were it an option, we would quickly see further evidence of social and economic inequities), but there is nonetheless a strange sense of desertion of city streets. Meanwhile, the impulse to protect person and possessions has been registered in the US by a spike in sales of guns and ammunition.
Despite the dire circumstances described by HF in the novel, he observes that some of those who stayed behind indulged in “levities and debaucheries”. Here, the closure of pubs has deprived would-be revellers of an outlet, with the UK only following suit with a ban announced on Friday.
Living in denial evidently constitutes one of the stock responses to the emerging crisis. In the US, a certain percentage of people have engaged in magical thinking before reality belatedly set in, believing the virus would be kept at bay. US President Donald Trump said earlier this month that the coronavirus would “go away. Just stay calm”.
That kind of misplaced optimism applied to the Great Plague, as Defoe wrote: “People had for a long time a strong belief that the plague would not come to the city, nor into Southwark, nor into Wapping or Ratcliff at all…many removed from the suburbs…into those eastern and south sides as for safety, and, as I verily believe, carried the plague amongst them there.”
The best way to mark the disease’s progress in the 1660s, as the book explains, was by consulting “bills of mortality” – weekly registers of deaths that indicated mounting casualties by parish, with peculiar causes of death listed alongside plague, including such things as “teeth” and “surfeiting”.
Each locality published these digests, and, by studying them, the narrator describes the uneasy sense of the disease closing in. We find ourselves in a similar situation, waiting for news of Covid-19 cases reaching the county, the city or town, and, as things progress, the neighbourhood and possibly the nearest street.
Defoe also reveals that managing public health takes place by analysing statistics and judging probabilities (even while acknowledging inaccuracy and under-reporting) – looking at how the disease moves geographically, calculating percentages of people affected, and attempting, as much as possible, to achieve a lockdown in order to contain the epidemic.
In the novel, set mainly in the City of London (now the financial district east of the Strand and Holborn), we learn that watchmen guarded houses where suspected cases of the plague had been identified. They also ran errands on behalf of confined families, securing food and medicine as required, or calling for the dead-cart when a person inside succumbed. Those intent on breaking free would use these temporary absences as their chance to escape, even though doors were locked against them.
As Defoe describes, some scrambled across the roof tops, others came out of windows or clambered over garden walls. Those with the requisite funds could bribe their way out, and in one extreme case a guard was attacked with a makeshift charge of gunpowder. Even as houses became de facto prisons, it was impossible for a single jailer to prevent escapes by people “made desperate by the fright of their circumstances, by the resentment of their usage, or by the raging of the distemper itself”.
We can only wonder how well people will respond to confinement here, especially if we receive instruction to remain entirely indoors. The Dáil is debating new powers that will allow the State to confine people to their homes and detain anyone with the virus who won’t self-isolate. The New York Times has reported instances of at least 15 patients escaping from hospitals in India, most of whom have been tracked down and placed back in quarantine. The same happened with a man in Kentucky. In France and Italy, police and army are out on the streets and governments have employed or proposed legislation to allow them to detain people suspected of carrying the disease.
In a situation of uncertainty in 17th-century London, people gave themselves over to wild speculation, sustained by “prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales”. Our equivalent is the recourse to conspiracy theories, with various stories now making the rounds.
One candidate for office in the US, a would-be Republican member of Congress from California (Joanne Wright), tweeted that Covid-19 “is a man-made virus created in a Wuhan laboratory. Ask @BillGates who financed it”. She later deleted the Tweet. Republican senator Tom Cotton has alleged that the Chinese government is behind it, claiming that the virus began as a bio-weapon. A Chinese foreign ministry, meanwhile, said that it came to Wuhan thanks to the US army.
Opportunists in the era Defoe describes sold quack cures and earned a tidy profit from the gullible. He mentions a bustling market in “pills, potions, and preservatives” that supposedly acted as antidotes, while noting with grim satisfaction the high death toll among mountebanks who proffered them. (HF does admit that a substance called “Venice treacle” provided him with valuable resistance against contagion.)
The profit-making strategy has not disappeared. The US televangelist Jim Bakker is being sued by the state of Missouri for allegedly selling a fake coronavirus cure on his website, while the perennial conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has trumpeted a fake remedy that can have the unfortunate side-effect of turning a person’s skin “permanently blue”.
The narrator of Defoe’s book defies the advice of his brother to leave London. Not only that, but he also refuses to engage in self-isolation, and his description is based on a wilful determination to assess the situation for himself, including a memorable visit to a plague pit in Aldgate. He approached it at night and saw bodies sliding from the cart and buried “promiscuously”, much to his horror. A grieving man, attending his stricken family, “cried out aloud, unable to contain himself”. The grisly image is a reminder of the challenges facing those who must contend today with the body count. In Bergamo, Italy, funeral homes are overwhelmed, according to the Guardian. In Iran, satellite images appear to show mass graves of Covid-19 victims in the city of Qom.
The novel reveals an intriguing pattern of what keeps the social order in place. The king and the court removed to Oxford, leaving the City of London as a largely self-governing entity, from the lord mayor to alderman, wardens, and church officials. Those in what we now call the public sector carried on with their jobs despite the risk. Parish officers “did their duties in general with as much courage as any, and perhaps with more, because their work was attended with more hazards…it must be added, too, that a great number of them died; indeed it was scarce possible it should be otherwise”.
We may have greater knowledge of microbiology and epidemiology, advanced health care facilities, and equipment for treating disease, but Defoe’s account reminds us of some basic patterns of human interaction. As our own plague year progresses, we face many of the same challenges, relying on public officials, health care workers, and caring citizens to see us through.
Prof. Daniel Carey is director of the Moore Institute at NUI Galway
Daniel Carey, MRIA, is Director of the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Studies at NUI Galway and Professor of English in the School of Humanities. He was Chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance 2014-16.