Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Coronavirus 2020 - A Journal of the Plague Year

When we recall the English author Daniel Defoe (b. 1660; d. 1731), it’s usually for his novel Robinson Crusoe that many of us were assigned to read as part of a school project, if we remember him at all. But if we, as writers, truly do stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, we need to take another look at Defoe in this our anno Domini 2020 and give him a tip of the hat.

Defoe couldn’t possibly have imagined our modern world 300 years into his future, even when his known world was on the cusp of exploring its own fresh horizon. The New World was discovered. Dogmas and beliefs were being openly challenged. New ideas were being expounded and explored. Established power bases and monarchies had shifted. Civilizations had collapsed and new ones were on the rise. The world was in flux.

Defoe was one of the first authors to take the new social themes and modern ideas and work them into his stories, a strategy authors still use today. His greatest talent was irony, which he used so well he was charged with seditious libel, sentenced to the pillory and thrown in Newgate prison where he wrote Hymn to the Pillory:

“Sometimes the air of scandal to maintain
Villains took from thy lofty loops in vain.
But who can judge of crimes by punishment
Where pirates rule, and laws subservient?
Justice with change of interest learns to bow,
And what was merit once, is murder now:
Actions receive their tincture from the times,
And as they change, our virtues made our crimes.”

In 1719, Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, a fictional narrative based on the real life experience of castaway Alexander Selkirk. In 1721-1722, he wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of the Great Plague of London in 1665 based on eyewitness interviews and an exhaustive search of parish death records.

“Another died in another house, but in the same parish, and in the same manner. This turn’d the peoples eyes pretty much towards that end of the town; and the weekly bills shewing an increase of burials in St. Gile’s Parish more than usual, it began to be suspected that the plague was among the people at that end of the town; and that many had died of it, tho’ they had taken care to keep it as much from the knowledge of the publick as possible. This possess’d the heads of the people very much and few cared to go thro’ Drury Lane or the other streets suspected unless they had extraordinary business that obliged them to it.”

Suddenly feeling less modern? Is any of this starting to sound eerily familiar?

“But these were trifling things to what followed immediately after. For now the weather set in hot, and from the first week in June the infection spread in a dreadful manner and … the articles of fever … began to swell. For all that could conceal their distempers did it to prevent their neighbors from shunning and refusing to converse with them and also to prevent Authority from shutting up their houses which though it was not yet practiced, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrify’d at the thoughts of it.”

Shutting up houses for 40 days versus quarantining cruise ships for two weeks. Our 2020 vocabulary now includes 'self-isolation' and 'social distancing.' Is it so very different? To my mind, The Journal of the Plague Year qualifies Daniel Defoe as a modern investigative journalist.

Defoe continued his work when in 1722 he wrote Moll Flanders, an unflinchingly realistic novel outlining the struggles of a powerless, penniless 17th century single woman that challenges gender roles and rings true to this day. He produced over 454 works on topics like politics, religion, and crime using 198 pen names.

He died in London on April 24, 1731, in Ropemaker’s Alley while hiding from his creditors. His books are still in print.


Edith Maxwell said...

Thank you for this, Martha!

Martha said...

Hi, Edith - good morning. I enjoyed this research - really went down a rabbit hole. Also discovered that during the Great Plague the abbeys and monasteries were overwhelmed with cattle and sheep because families would tithe 10% of their livestock to the church when a head of a household died. So many died, and kept dying, the church couldn't take it all in.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Martha, very interesting, especially your last factoid listed about.

I'm reading James Ziskin's Turn to Stone, set outside Florence during the 1964 German measles epidemic, using Boccaccio's Decameron as a daily story-telling frame.

Martha Reed said...

Hi, Margaret - I actually queried my friends to ask what they were reading. It was a surprise to me that most were reading post-apocalypse stories like The Road. I go the other way: I watch Mel Brook's comedies (The Producers, Blazing Saddles) to help me keep sane!

Warren Bull said...

Many great writers end up in poverty. Brrr.

Martha Reed said...

Hi, Warren, sadly I agree but our voices live on for posterity barring natural disasters, malicious intent, and a digital cloud burst.

KM Rockwood said...

Discouraging that such a writer would die penniless. I don't know if it's a comfort or an irony that his words live on.

Martha Reed said...

I can only recommend reading Moll Flanders if you haven't already. In spite of the brutal nature of society at the time, I still found a certain hopeful optimism in it, and he wrote that one relatively late in his life (plus it's a smashing great story).

carla said...

I guess this is our "plague year." Who will write it?

Kait said...

The parallels are frightening.

Martha Reed said...

Hi, Carla - I'm sure it's already being drafted as we speak.

And yes, Kait, the parallels are frightening, especially as the cruise ship quarentines were developing as I wrote the blog. The humanity of it is what I found fascinating; 350 years separate us from The Plague and yet we responded exactly the same way they did. Can we hope that maybe we've learned from this, this time?