Suddenly, it seemed urgent to read one particular none-more-black item that had been on my shelf for quite some time. Not only is the subject matter super-relevant, there’s now acres of free time in which to tackle it.
Actually, it’s a quick read, told in crisp, journalistic style. It’s fanatically well-researched, sober and factual, yet despite the title, it’s not a personal record of the plague that swept London then the country in 1665; author Daniel Defoe was only a child at the time. The book lies somewhere between a historical novel and narrative non-fiction. It purports to be written by a man who elects to stay in the capital while the distemper, as he calls it, is at its height, walking the streets, observing and talking to fellow Londoners, while maintaining social distancing – people walk down the middle of the street to avoid each other.
The distemper begins in one house in Covent Garden, before spreading rapidly, area by area, to the eastern part of the city, where our somewhat opaque narrator resides (we learn very little about him personally). He watches it spread like a grim tide, eventually lapping at distant Deptford and Greenwich. Our imaginary Everyman has a keen interest in statistics, particularly the weekly ‘bills’ – announcements of deaths in each parish – and attempts to analyse how many deaths there would have been anyway, and how many are to be attributed to the plague. It’s like watching an early attempt to model an epidemic.
The moments where past and present nudge each other and the Londons of the 17th and the 21st century elide are what make the book especially striking for today’s readers. There is hoarding, and reckless mingling, and the brutal application of self-isolation, or ‘shutting up’. Sick and well family members were forcibly penned in together at home, which led to the deaths of entire households. Social gatherings were banned, the authorities ordering: ‘That all public feasting… and dinners at taverns, ale-houses and other places of common entertainment, be forborne until further order or allowance’.
There’s fake news about cures, and misgivings about touching, shopping and currency: ‘When anyone bought a joint of meat in the market, they would not take it off the butcher’s hand, but took it off the hooks themselves… the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose.’
As the infection continues, a hardening of the spirit takes place among the inhabitants. On one of his walks abroad, the narrator hears a woman scream ‘Oh! death, death, death!’ No one responds, and though chilled ‘in my very blood’, he too walks on, ‘for people had no curiosity now in any case, nor could anybody help one another.’ We’re not there yet.
The central section of the book is taken up with the adventures of three men, a joiner, a sail-maker and a baker, on their flight from the city at the height of the plague, and their harsh reception by villagers as they travelled through Essex. It’s practically a novel in miniature. There’s also the comic tale of a drunkard taken up by the dead cart, ready to be tipped in the plague pit. You can almost hear the voices of the people who must have told the adult Defoe their stories; and no doubt an urban myth or two crept in.
The frequent religious musings on the ways of Providence situate the book firmly in its era, with the narrator wondering whether attempts to cure the plague or mitigate its effects amount to subverting God’s will. Though pious, the narrator seems scientific in his approach, scoffing at others’ superstious notions. Discounting the idea of a stroke from God, the narrator understands the principle of infection. This passage in particular strikes a chill: ‘others… talk of infection being carried on by the air only, by carrying with it vast numbers of insects and invisible creatures, who enter in the body with the breath… and there generate or emit most acute poisons, or poisonous ovae or eggs, which mingle themselves with the blood, and so infect the body…’