Thoughts on the Plague Year, the Actual Book
By John Affleck
The pestilence came from across the sea. Planning for it was fitful, based on incomplete information. People by the thousands fled the city, which went on lockdown but still sustained a horrifying number of deaths.
I’m speaking, naturally, of London in 1665, as described in the semi-journalistic novel “A Journal of the Plague Year,” by Daniel Defoe. He also wrote “Robinson Crusoe.”
“Plague Year” has been bedtime reading for me lately. An odd choice, perhaps, but I’ve been fascinated by previous dips into the wealth of pestilence literature, from Albert Camus to Barbara Tuchman’s recounting of the Black Death in “A Distant Mirror,” to Samuel Pepys writing about the same London outbreak in his diary.
Also, some part of me wanted evidence that a line I’ve heard over and over since March just isn’t true. That message, with slight variations, has been in emails, on voicemail, even announcements at the grocery story, and goes something like this: “Hope you are well in this unprecedented time.” I’m cool with the well-wishing. But the reporter-editor in me didn’t buy the “unprecedented.”
Sure enough, Defoe’s work has enough parallels to our time to launch a fistful of PhD theses, and to show what we’re living through now isn’t so much a new season as a rerun we haven’t watched in a while.
Per modern introductions to “Plague Year,” it was published in 1722 as another outbreak loomed over England. Defoe, who was a young boy when the plague hit London more than 50 years earlier, mined available archives and his own experiences to make the work both historically accurate, and for it to stand as a warning to his readers.
A few points of connection with this spring are particularly striking.
Defoe’s narrator tells us as the book opens that letters from merchants in Europe advised the plague had taken hold in Holland in 1663 and ‘64.
The narrator also says, “it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour (sic) died off again, and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in …”
That seems a bit far-fetched. Any reasonable government would react more strongly, no?
In any event, by the spring of 1665, the plague had crossed the North Sea and was devastating parishes in and around London. People of means were generally fleeing the city — noting here that I’m one of about 400,000 to abandon New York since March — with the poor left behind to take the brunt of the contagion’s fury.
As London emptied out, new rules and regulations came into play. Their echoes can still be heard.
No large gatherings were allowed, including “all plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads … or such-like causes of assemblies of people.”
Two watchmen were posted at homes where people were known to be infected with the disease, “one for every day, and the other for the night; and these watchmen have a special care that no person go in or out of such infected houses whereof they have the charge, upon pain of severe punishment.” Defoe also describes how people inside those homes bribed and even attacked the watchmen to get out. Everybody had a good reason to be an exception.
Burials were handled after dusk or before dawn, and with bodies often dropped into pits dug to handle the overflow. No family allowed.
There are no medicines or vaccines for COVID-19, yet. So says a page on the FDA’s website posted last month to warn consumers about a load of fake cures.
Defoe remarks that it is “scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.: ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.’ … ‘The only true plague water.’”
It’s real. Or, it was real.
By October 1665, the weekly death toll from the disease had declined noticeably, and Londoners were ready to get out and about, despite warnings from doctors who, “gave out printed directions, spreading them all over the city and suburbs, advising the people to continue reserved,” the narrator says.
“But it was all to no purpose; the audacious creatures were so possessed with the first joy and so surprised with the satisfaction of seeing a vast decrease in the weekly bills (the lists of total deaths by parish), that they were impenetrable.”
Defoe then passes along the story of a barber and his family of 10, nine of whom died in this particular period. The National Archives of Britain estimates that more than 100,000 people in all perished over the course of the outbreak.
OK, so this well-researched novel about the 17th century sounds oddly like today.
Who cares? Is it my point to say that plagues have been around forever, in fact they’ve been worse, so shut up?
No, trivializing misfortune, especially with historical comparisons to someone else’s bad breaks, doesn’t make anyone feel much better.
It’s more about a couple of realizations.
One is that, in the face of an incurable pandemic, whether it happens in the 14th, 17th or 21st century, there really are only a limited set of human responses. We have range, but not that much range. What we see may be new to us, may be unprecedented to us, but not to our species.
And that gives us a chance to make a rare connection to our ancestors, and to each other. Because, in the end, we were and are just trying to survive on a planet that presents us with fantastic danger.
Or, as Defoe put it, “A plague is a formidable enemy, and is armed with terrors that every man is not sufficiently fortified to resist or prepared to stand the shock against.”