Business led me out sometimes to the other end of the town, even when the sickness was chiefly there; and as the thing was new to me, as well as to everybody else, it was a most surprising thing to see those streets which were usually so thronged now grown desolate, and so few people to be seen in them, that if I had been a stranger and at a loss for my way, I might sometimes have gone the length of a whole street (I mean of the by-streets), and seen nobody to direct me except watchmen set at the doors of such houses as were shut up. (13)
Terrified by those frightful objects, I would retire home sometimes and resolve to go out no more; and perhaps I would keep those resolutions for three or four days, which time I spent in the most serious thankfulness for my preservation and the preservation of my family [. . .]. Such intervals as I had I employed in reading books and in writing down my memorandums of what occurred to me every day [. . .]. (58)
I cannot be the only person who, in these strange times of pandemic and confinement, is turning to narratives of plagues and pestilences past. Indeed, in early March it was reported that Penguin was rushing out a reprint of Camus’s La peste, while sales of novels such as Stephen King’s The Stand were similarly booming. And if these texts were once read as a species of horror, perhaps now we are turning to them for their (more or less) happy endings. At least, after all, they do finally end: their plots arc to some kind of resolution. And so, extrapolating to our current circumstances, we can be assured that this, too, shall pass.
Unlike Camus and King, Daniel Defoe does not present his A Journal of the Plague Year as a work of the imagination (though the same could be said of Robinson Crusoe), and in fact it is said to depict quite accurately the Great Plague of London of 1665 to 1666. Indeed, though it was written over half a century after the period it describes (Defoe himself was only five years old in 1665), there is some debate as to whether the text should be regarded as fiction or not.
Still, Defoe’s book does not exactly follow the template of what we now know as the novel (a genre that he himself of course helped to pioneer), even as it cannot easily be described as a “journal,” either. There is much digression and repetition, and a strange mix of conjecture and certainty, while the narrative frequently pauses to draw essayistic and even quasi-scientific conclusions, for instance about the means by which the infection spread or the role (or otherwise) of divine providence and predestination. It reads, in short, as a patchwork of styles and discursive forms. There is a surprising amount of statistics and reportage, chronicling the numbers of burials in various London parishes as the plague spread, even as Defoe tells us that the numbers can hardly be trusted: “It drove us out of all measures. Men did no more die by tale and by number. They might put out a weekly bill and call them seven of eight thousand, or what they pleased; ‘tis certain they died by heaps, and were buried by heaps, that is to say, without account” (178). There are reflections on public policy, not least about the wisdom (or not) of confining the sick and the well together in boarded-up houses.
There are also anecdotes and stories, presented either as the narrator’s experience or as what he has heard and is uncertain or doubtful as to how much credit he should give them: “It was apparent, at least to my judgement, that there was more of tale than of truth in those things” (64). One long section follows a biscuit-maker, a sailmaker, and a joiner (John, Thomas, and Richard) in their attempt to flee the city and traverse the villages of Essex in search of safety. This extended narrative might almost stand on its own account, but it opens hesitantly, after many false starts, and somewhat tails off at the end: “They got colds in their limbs, and distempers, but never had the infection; and then about December they came home to the city again” (113). Perhaps this is because, overall, the plague does not follow any particular logic: it arrives, sweeps through the city, until at last it just seems to exhaust itself. The book comes to an end, but not to any great resolution.
Indeed, and I am unsure if we should regard this as great comfort or not, Defoe’s conclusion is that ultimately not much changes once the crisis has come and gone. There is no “new normal.” However much, during the plague itself, common practices and prejudices were briefly overturned, such that (for instance) religious divides no longer weighed so heavily, by the end “It was not the least of our misfortunes that with our infection, when it ceased, there did not cease the spirit of strife and contention, slander and reproach, which was really the great troubler of the nation’s peace before” (176). Old habits all too quickly resumed, old enmities were re-established: “The quarrel remained: the Church and the Presbyterians were incompatible. As soon as the plague was removed, the Dissenting ousted ministers who had supplied the pulpits which were deserted by the incumbents retired” (177). It is as though nobody has learnt anything.
It is almost as though the plague had not happened at all. On the book’s final page, Defoe (or his narrator) quotes a man who, once the infection has passed, exclaims “’Tis all wonderful; ‘tis all a dream” (186). But the over-riding impression is that, for all the brutal reality of the pits turned into common graves into which countless bodies were dumped, it is the plague itself that is experienced as a “dream.” And this perhaps is the rationale for Defoe’s book, which repeatedly presents itself as a pedagogic text (“the history will be a very good pattern for any poor man to follow, in case the like public desolation should happen here” ): even fifty years after the event, it still had something to teach its readers. Indeed, the plague had yet to be constituted as an “event” at all.
It may be that the same question faces us now, in our present pandemic: whether Covid-19 is to be cast as an event, and if so of what kind?