What can we learn from Robinson Crusoe writer's 1722 plague book?

By Vincent Dowd
Arts correspondent, BBC News

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An illustration of London in the Great PlagueImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
An illustration of London in the Great Plague with a door marked where people were ill

More than 300 years ago London was in the grip of the Great Plague. Robinson Crusoe writer Daniel Defoe's account about this time - A Journal of the Plague Year - was an early example of faction, which was written afterwards but based on detailed research. And its story of self-isolation and social distancing feels familiar to us right now.

When the Great Plague broke out in 1665 Defoe was just a child. The book he wrote as an adult was a blend of research, personal memories, imagination and possibly of stories told by an uncle who'd stayed in London throughout. Yet it's become the classic account, with scenes and observations which ring true for readers in 2020.

Today's commentators have pointed out how different our experience of Covid-19 would have been before the social media revolution. In 1722 Defoe reminded his readers that when he was a child newspapers barely existed.

But his skill as a writer gave them a detailed picture of the effects of bubonic plague on a community without health services working to support it.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A house in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire which isolated itself when it too saw cases of the plague

Early in the novel Defoe writes: "The face of London was now indeed strangely altered... The voice of mourning was truly heard in the streets."

Defoe was a stranger to the two-metre rule. But the practicalities of his narrator's daily life feel all too familiar.

Dr Paula Backscheider of Auburn University in the US is a Defoe expert. She says his writing was so impressively researched that it remains vivid three centuries later.

"It's what New Journalism gave us in the 1970s, with people like Tom Wolfe. There's the unusually deep research and a wealth of anecdote with interviews and the human interest stories which history so often ignores."

She suggests a parallel between Defoe and those who warned the world wasn't prepared to fight something like Covid-19.

"His book came out in 1722 and there had been a terrible plague in Marseilles just before that with at least 40,000 deaths. He was using the lessons of the 1660s to warn his own day."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A house in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire which isolated itself when it too saw cases of the plague

The book starts with a basic question frequently asked earlier this year - where has this disaster come from?

"...it was brought some said, from Italy... others said it was brought from Candia (Crete); others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came...," writes Defoe.

Defoe records how each house which contained a plague victim was sealed up, with a red cross painted on the door. In theory the family there wasn't allowed out but Defoe records instances where guile or violence or bribery allowed them to escape.

And the question soon arises of self-isolation for even the healthy.

"And finding that I ventured so often out into the streets, he (a friend) earnestly persuaded me to lock myself up and my family and not to suffer any of us to go out of doors," writes Defoe, continuing, "but as I had not laid in a store of provisions it was impossible that we could keep within doors entirely..."

Defoe also anticipates our contemporary concern with asymptomatic carriers.

"One man, who may have really received the infection, and knows it not, but goes abroad and about as a sound person, may give the plague to a thousand people, and neither the person giving the infection nor the persons receiving it know anything of it," he says.

And he describes how shopkeepers devised a 17th Century form of contactless payment.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Daniel Defoe showed a social conscience unusual for his era

"The butcher would not touch the money, but had it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose. The buyers carried always small money to make up any odd sum, that they might make no change. They carried bottles for scents and perfumes in their hands."

Dr Backscheider says most historians accept Defoe's picture of the nightmarish effects bubonic plague had on London.

"I think he was much more a journalist than a novelist and he never exaggerates. He's not setting out to chill the blood - the reality was frightening enough. Sociologists and epidemiologists quote him as a source."

And she thinks one of the reasons the book speaks to us in the current crisis is that Defoe took science seriously.

"An author from the Renaissance would have said what had happened was God's work. But the narrator in the book - who's only ever known as HF - is obsessed with observing and recording in a scientific way.

"In the story he knows he should leave London but, as with Defoe, there's an intellectual engagement and a need to know what had caused the plague.

"The writing feels modern and the book had things to say to us even before what has happened this year."

Almost all we learn of HF is that he's a well-off, middle-class saddler. Defoe shows a social conscience rare for his era in suggesting that working class people were the most likely to suffer.

"It must be confessed, that though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage... Scarce did they use any caution, but ran into any business they could get employment in..."

Towards the end of 1665 the death count diminished, reducing erratically but then almost to zero.

Defoe is too honest a writer to supply an easy explanation to end his story with: it would be many decades before plagues began to be understood.

But he'd written a brilliant account of the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Britain - and it can still educate readers three centuries later.

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