Book of the Week: The first pandemic book

Steve Braunias on a book that studies the killer pandemic.

Stop the press, news just in from 1666. As Covid-19 continues to flatten everything in its path, and a sneeze on the breeze can bring nations to their knees, one way of imagining what’s in store for us is to imagine what happened in an earlier pandemic. It does not make for reassuring or pleasant reading but A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe’s great book about the Great Plague which laid London to waste in 1665-66, has striking parallels right now as every day, every hour contributes to the journal of our plague year.

I found the book in unlikely but really apt circumstances: in that bleak, frozen continent which foretells the apocalypse, Antarctica. It was in a hut on top of a cliff overlooking a colony of something like 30,000 screeching adelie penguins. To walk among the birds was a kind of Hell. There were demons in it: skuas, a rough, shambling bird of prey, which ate baby penguins alive and at their leisure. I loved going back to the hut and hiding there, baking biscuits for scientists, smoking on the back deck, and reading the harrowing pages of A Journal of the Plague Year. Hard to say what was the stronger evocation of death, Antarctica or Defoe’s book.

Defoe was an imaginative journalist, which is to say he reported facts and put them alongside stuff he made up. His classic Robinson Crusoe is the first novel in all literature, the first time a book was created from imagined characters and imagined circumstances,  although it was based on the adventures of a Scottish sailor. A Journal of the Plague Year, too, is a work of imaginative genius modelled on a real event. Defoe was  a child during the Great Plague. He was about 60 when he interviewed survivors and researched archives to write the Journal, in the voice of a narrator who wanders around London, recording all he sees and hears.

He saw and heard similar and even exact parallels with the situation we’ve been seeing and hearing in bulletins coming through all this week from Italy, New York, Wuhan, Auckland. Self-isolation. The rising death toll. Economic peril. Desolate streets. A ban on public gatherings. Pandemonium!

Things were worse in 1665-66. The death toll was steady, relentless. Defoe records 850 in one week, 900 the next; between August and October, 49,705 died of the plague. He visits a pit, “that dreadful gulph”, where 1,114 bodies were buried. Oh and 40,000 dogs and “five times as many cats” were put to death to reduce the flea populations which carried the pestilence.

The Lord Mayor of London issued a proclamation. Defoe reprints it. Houses with infected persons were to be shut up for a month. Their doors were to be painted with a giant red cross. Burials were to be conducted before sunrise, and after sunset; funerals were not permitted. “All plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads and such-like cases of assemblies of people are utterly prohibited.” Taverns were to close at 9pm. “No publick feasting.”

There was vast and immediate unemployment. Defoe lists the jobs that were lost, including glovemakers, hatmakers, ropemakers, and gunsmiths. In shops, money for goods was put in a pot filled with a cheap disinfectant: vinegar. Defoe writes, “The necessity of going out of our homes to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city, for the people catched the distemper [the plague] on these occasions, and even the provisions themselves were often tainted.” It was said the breath of an infected person would poison and instantly kill a bird.

Defoe records people falling dead in the streets, and corpses stacked up against walls. “And yet,” he writes, “they were always cleared away and carried off every night so that it was never to be said of London that the living were not able to bury the dead.” There are so many lurid stories of social chaos in  A Journal of the Plague Year but Defoe acknowledged other forces at work. There was order.  There was  good government. There was - triumphantly, inevitably - the civilising influence of decency and calm. London survived the worst, and began to rebuild.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (Signet, 1960 edition)

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