Coronavirus: Defoe’s account of the Great Plague of 1665 has startling parallels with today

A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners.
Wellcome Images, CC BY-NC-SA

David Roberts, Birmingham City University

In 1722, Daniel Defoe pulled off one of the great literary hoaxes of all time. A Journal of the Plague Year, he called his latest book. The title page promises “Observations of the most remarkable occurrences” during the Great Plague of 1665, and claims it was “written by a citizen who continued all the while” in London – Defoe’s own name is nowhere to be found.

It was 60 years before anyone twigged. From oral testimonies, mortality bills, lord mayor’s proclamations, medical books and literature inspired by the 1603 plague, Defoe had cooked the whole thing up.

Unreliable memoir: Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)
National Maritime Museum, London.

And yet this extraordinary book lies like the truth. It’s the most harrowing account of an epidemic ever published – and it really leaps off the page now in the era of COVID-19. We feel what it was like to walk up a main thoroughfare with no one else about. We read of the containment orders published by the government, and how people got round them. We share the distress of families denied proper funerals for their loved ones.

We learn of the mass panic as people tried to understand where the disease came from, how it was transmitted, how it could be avoided, what chance you had if you caught it, and – most modern of all – how fake news and fake practitioners multiplied answers to all those questions.

Then and now

Bubonic plague was, of course, far nastier than coronavirus. In its ordinary form – transmitted by fleabites – it was around 75% fatal, while in its lung-to-lung form, that figure went up to 95%. But in the way it was managed – and the effect it had on people’s emotions and behaviour – there are eerie similarities amid the differences. Defoe captured them all.

His narrator, identified only as HF, is fascinated by what happened after the lord mayor ordered victims to be locked in their homes. Watchmen were posted outside front doors. They could be sent on errands to fetch food or medicine and took the keys with them, so people contrived to get more keys cut. Some watchmen were bribed, assaulted or murdered. Defoe describes one who was “blown up” with gunpowder.

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year.

HF becomes obsessed with the weekly mortality figures. They charted deaths by parish, giving a picture of how the plague was moving around the city. Still, it was impossible to be sure who had died directly of the disease, just as in the BBC news today we hear people have died “with” rather than “of” COVID-19. Reporting was difficult, partly because people were reluctant to admit there was an infection in the family. After all, they might be locked in their homes to catch the disease and die.

HF is appalled by those who opened up taverns and spent their days and nights drinking, mocking anyone who objected. At one point he confronts a group of rowdies and gets a torrent of abuse in return. Later, exhibiting one of his less appealing traits, he is gratified to hear that they all caught the plague and died.

He is a devout Christian, but the stories that worry him most are the ones that still shock everyone today, regardless of their beliefs. Is it possible, he asks, that there are some people so wicked that they deliberately infect others? He just can’t square the idea with his more kindly view of human nature. Yet he hears plenty of stories about victims breathing into the faces of passers by, or infected men randomly hugging and kissing women in the street.

Discriminating disease

When Prince Charles and Boris Johnson fell ill recently, we were told the virus “does not discriminate”. HF has something to say about that. For all his uncertainties, he is adamant about one thing. Plague affected the poor disproportionately. They lived, as they do now, in more cramped conditions, and were more susceptible to taking bad advice.

They were more likely to suffer ill health in the first place, as now, and they had no means of escape. Near the start of the outbreak in 1665, the court and those with money or homes in the country fled London in droves. By the time the idea had occurred to the rest of the population, you couldn’t find a horse for love or money.

‘Lord, have mercy on London.’
Contemporary English woodcut on the Great Plague of 1665.

Throughout the journal, HF tells us he hopes his experiences and advice might be useful to us. There’s one thing in particular governments might learn from the book – and it’s tough. The most dangerous time, he reports, was when people thought it was safe to go out. That was when the plague flared up all over again.

Plague literature is a genre in its own right. So what draws writers and readers to such a grisly subject? Something not entirely wholesome, perhaps. For writers, it’s the chance to explore a world in which fantasy and reality have swapped places. We depend on the writer as heroic narrator, charting the horror like the best news reporter.

For readers, it’s the feeling that you might sneak with him to the very edge of the plague pit and live to tell the tale. For his closing words, HF hands us a doggerel poem that sums up his feelings and ours:

A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away: yet I alive!The Conversation

David Roberts, Professor of English and National Teaching Fellow, Birmingham City University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Robinson Crusoe 300 years on: Defoe’s unreliable narrative set up enduring colonial myths

Currier and Ives 1875 print of Robinson Crusoe and his companion Friday.
Everett Historical via Shutterstock

Daniel Cook, University of Dundee

A major new series on 100 Novels that Shaped Our World has been launched in the UK by the BBC. The wide-ranging journey through English literary history takes as its starting point the publication of The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), which has been hailed as the first English novel.

Despite an error-ridden plot and numerous structural quirks, Robinson Crusoe – which tells the story of a shipwrecked mariner – has had a profound impact on global literature (and the modern world at large) for the past 300 years. Despite the wealth of prose narrative that existed beforehand, some scholars believe that Daniel Defoe’s book was the first to combine all the elements that have become the hallmarks of the novel.

Fiction masquerading as fact, it is so much more than a novelisation of the true-life misfortunes of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish mariner who spent four years and four months as a castaway at sea after being marooned on an island by his captain. Daniel Defoe’s novel is a gritty survival story with genuine threat. But it’s also a thought-provoking parable of Christian sin, a critique of capitalist individualism, an expose of imperialist paranoia, and even a tale of the triumph of the human spirit.

From the point of view of the natives, it’s a myth of invasion – Crusoe is a sunburned demon who imposes European belief systems on them. There’s no getting beyond the fact that Friday, a man the narrator “saves” from the hands of the cannibals and takes under his wing, is cloyingly subservient to the unkempt foreigner, which upholds a racist ideology of white supremacy (whether it’s Crusoe’s or the author’s own). But we might think of Friday as the true hero. His humility and grace under pressure can serve as a compelling model for anyone in any culture. And his apparent feebleness is the only logical response to seeing for the first time the explosive effect of a fully loaded gun.

Then there’s Xury, a cheerful and charming lad whom Crusoe casually sells to a Portuguese captain (on the apparently agreeable grounds that after ten years of service, and a conversion to Christianity, the boy will be freed). Prior to that, Xury had faced his own terrible choice: subject himself to Crusoe’s will or be tossed overboard. This all happens shortly before Crusoe is shipwrecked. Instant karma, perhaps?

Daniel Defoe (1659-1731). Engraved by J.Thomson and published in The Gallery of Portraits encyclopedia, United Kingdom, 1834.
Georgios Kollidas via Shutterstock

Defoe is certainly the master of visual motifs – and Crusoe’s gun is an especially potent one: it at once demonstrates the technological superiority of the Europeans, while signalling their moral deficiencies. After all, warfare does not a true civilisation make.

Seven years later Jonathan Swift spoofed the motif in Gulliver’s Travels, where the miniature protagonist ludicrously boasts of Britain’s prowess in modern weaponry to an astonished audience of gentle giants. Like Gulliver, Crusoe embodies the failings of his home society, even when stranded in strange lands.

Big footprints

The most terrifying moment in Defoe’s story, however, occurs when no one is around. Crusoe stumbles across a footprint in the sand on his seemingly deserted island. The footprint causes a profound crisis of consciousness. Who left it: a friend or foe? Man or monster? Will he be saved or brutally attacked? He’s never more alone than when the threat of uncertain human interaction looms. It’s a scene that has been retold throughout world culture for centuries.

Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1980 short story collection, China Men, a densely woven tale of the lives of Chinese immigrants in America, features a story about a sailor named Lo Bun Sun, who is seized by a debilitating fear when he stumbles across a human footprint on a beach. Even after the wind and rain had worn away the footprint, he continues to be haunted by it – it’s a poignant parable about the ceaseless emotional turmoil of an immigrant’s experience, perhaps, or even an ironic take on colonial exclusionism.

The scene is replayed for laughs in Willis Hall’s children’s book Vampire Island. Count Alucard, Skopka the wolf, and Peppina the parrot lazily loll on a marooned island – until they discover an unfeasibly large bootprint in the sand, which, we eventually learn, belongs to Frankenstein’s monster.

‘Robinsonades’: a cult is born

Defoe’s story of the 17th-century shipwrecked sailor is so famous it has led to the creation of a large and loose genre known as the “Robinsonade” – to which authors as diverse as James Gould Cozzens and John Maxwell Coetzee have contributed. A quick definition might call it a narrative in which a sole protagonist (the notional “Robinson” after whom the genre is named) is suddenly isolated from the comforts of civilisation, usually on an inhospitable island or planet.

But a Robinsonade does not have to be a novel: the principal characters, themes and settings of Robinson Crusoe have always been reworked into non-fictional genres, poems, plays, pantomimes, films, advertisements, and material culture at large.

Outside of literature, the most famous modern example is Cast Away, the 2000 movie starring Tom Hanks as Chuck, a hands-on FedEx executive. Stranded on a deserted tropical island for four years, Chuck desperately seeks to return home to the arms of his girlfriend Kelly (played by Helen Hunt) who, heart-wrenchingly, has mourned and moved on.

Chuck could not be more different from the workshy Crusoe who – despite claiming to be a keen advocate of the Protestant work ethic that shaped England’s economic progress – had rejected the cautions of his wise and grave father in the pursuit of adventure. Paranoid, guilty, hypocritical, and much more besides, Crusoe is not a hero. But he established the model of the flawed protagonist that remains so central to English culture.The Conversation

Daniel Cook, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Dundee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Not My Review: A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, by Daniel Defoe (1727)

The link below is to a book review of ‘A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain,’ by Daniel Defoe.

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Not My Review: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

The link below is to a book review of ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ by Daniel Defoe.

For more visit: