There are a few writers believed to be the fathers of the English novel; Daniel Defoe is one of them. His novel Robinson Crusoe is heralded by many as the first example — and the epitome — of survival literature. Defoe was a trader, journalist, pamphleteer, spy and a prolific writer — more than 300 works are attributed to him — but the only other novel of his that has withstood the test of time is Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, when he was around 61 years of age.
The story is set in 1665, when the bubonic plague swept through London and decimated nearly a quarter of the city’s population in a little over a year. Defoe wrote the book as a warning, because in 1720 — 57 years after the outbreak in England — the plague had broken out in Marseille, France, and there were fears it would return to British shores.
In the pantheon of contagion literature, Journal of the Plague Year is, hands down, still considered the best. No other piece of factual or scientific writing or fictional novel can match this harrowing and haunting journal of epic proportions. With the advent of Covid-19, it is once again being circulated. The state of New York, where I reside, is the epicentre of Covid-19 in the United States. As a physician and the mother of children who battled Covid-19 not only as doctors, but also as its victims, it was only natural that I should pick up this book.
Journal of the Plague Year is a historic, expository novel. Readers in the past were unfamiliar with this form of writing and some were convinced it was a personal account, for Defoe wrote it as a first-person narrative. We see and hear everything through the protagonist’s eyes and ears but, in 1665, Defoe was only five years old. His writing was based on research, contemporaneous accounts, the archives of London’s Bills of Mortality — weekly lists that, on one side, noted the number of deaths occurring in the city and on the other, the causes of those deaths — and other plague ephemera. The book reads best as a historical novel that mingles fact and fiction.
Reading the novel in New Rochelle, in the state of New York — where Patient Zero, a ‘super-spreader’, resided — gave a whole different flavour to Defoe’s masterpiece. On February 27, when Patient Zero went to see the doctor for his worsening cough and was admitted to New York Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital until March 3, after which he was transferred to Columbia University Hospital and diagnosed with Covid-19, New Rochelle residents and denizens of the greater New York area were completely unaware of the silent killer that was already living and multiplying in their very bodies.
Amazing similarities between London of 1665 and New York City of 2020 are evidenced in Daniel Defoe’s classic book documenting an epidemic
It seemed as though one minute we were hearing about Covid-19 in our midst for the first time and the next, a circle of containment was being drawn around New Rochelle, which soon switched to a state-wide lockdown. New York City, where close to four million people mill about on an average weekday, came to a grinding halt. The number of patients hospitalised went from two to 15 to hundreds to thousands.
Overnight, the city’s hospitals were inundated with dying patients. Refrigerated trucks serving as makeshift morgues appeared in their parking lots. Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and sick and dying doctors and nurses made headlines. A country that put a man on the moon watched helplessly, unable to produce PPE, as its healthcare workers, wearing garbage bags, took care of the dead and dying.
New York City, the centre of world finance, art, culture, fun and frivolity, went silent. Shops and restaurants were shuttered, theatres darkened, museums and opera houses closed. It became a ghost town with empty streets, the eerie silence broken only by the wail of ambulances.
The wealthy, the powerful, the middle-class and whoever else could, fled the city. The homeless lay asleep in empty, rattling subway cars, or huddled in the darkened doorways of million-dollar apartment buildings. Had humanity ever faced such an apocalyptic calamity before? Was there no end to this unbelievable, horrific nightmare? I wasn’t just reading a journal of the plague year, I was living it. Or was Defoe writing about New York? London in the 1660s, after the restoration of the Stuart dynasty and the coronation of Charles the second, had shed its austere and puritanical past to become a hub of fun, frivolity, finance, trade, theatre, art and culture — much like New York today. Concurrently, the population of London had grown exponentially, in both numbers and diversity.
Defoe writes how the lights, laughter and gaiety of this glittering, crowded metropolis faded away, to be replaced with deserted streets. The city smelled of death and decay, everything came to standstill, its life snuffed out by the plague.
Defoe’s writing has a sense of immediacy, a breathless, urgent quality. The writing fluctuates between an accurate, journalistic record of the history of the plague, giving us insight into how — when news of the plague was received in London — counsels were set, preparations were made and ships coming from Amsterdam were refused disembarkment and forced to quarantine. It meticulously follows the path of the spread, the number dying weekly. Defoe writes correctly that the initial deaths of two Frenchmen were in Long Acre, in the parish of St Giles; he also gives the human stories of heart-wrenching suffering. As the novel progresses, showing the spread of disease and death, the mental effect upon the narrator becomes feverish — he writes in a heightened, emotional way, his book taking on the quality of a Gothic horror story.
Charles the second, along with his courtiers, had already abandoned London; they were soon followed by all those who could scrape together enough to escape. Our protagonist procrastinates, ignoring his brother’s advice to leave, and soon finds himself trapped in a dying city. London is placed in lockdown, attempts are made to sequester patients in their homes, a large red cross is painted on their doors with a prayer beneath it and official guards are stationed outside to ensure the infected don’t venture out and infect others.
Despite all efforts, however, people escape by jumping out of windows, breaking through walls and bribing the guards. The magistrates and the Lord Mayor — to their credit — stay behind, trying to manage the city and its inhabitants. At first, they issue health certificates to throngs of citizens desperate to leave the city, then begin denying them, and finally impose a lockdown. Arrangements are made to supply provisions. Doctors and “searchers” — women trained to identify signs of the plague and report them — keep count of the dead. There are daily “dead-carts” and daily mass burials.
The final death count during London’s Great Plague was placed at 100,000, but many believe it was double that. In the US, as of writing this, the official count of the documented dead is 145,000, although the real number is probably double that.
In six months, the novel coronavirus has brought the world to the brink of an apocalypse. A virus that jumps species cannot be eradicated; it can only be prevented and contained. Epidemics are driven by human behaviour. Cursed by our ignorance and selfishness, betrayed by the ineffectual and weak response by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), mismanaged and abandoned by leaders obsessed with profits and financial growth, we turn in bewilderment towards literature to understand ourselves, our fears, confusion, acrimony and denials and our hopes for a pandemic-free tomorrow. Defoe stands alone as a warning of our human failings and a hope for a future; bearing witness and acknowledging the apocalypse we are facing now.
The reviewer is a physician, the granddaughter of Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai and author of the short story collection Her Mother’s Daughter and Other Stories
Journal of the Plague Year
By Daniel Defoe
Penguin Classics, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 31st, 2020