Daniel Defoe tells us about an earlier pandemic

June 8, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Since the pandemic happened upon us in March, many references have been made to Daniel Defoe’s “non-fiction novel,” A Journal of the Plague Year.

Rightly so. The book was published in 1722 and concerns the plague that hit London in 1665, when Defoe himself was only about six years old. The book does not recount his own experience. Rather, it is a carefully researched account of what happened to those left in the city of London after the wealthiest had fled to other parts of England or to the continent.

And the story that Defoe tells has some striking similarities to what is happening today, as Michael Robinson writes in an article on LitHub.com:

As described by Daniel Defoe in his nonfiction novel A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), the epidemic, rather than cutting a broad swath through London society, spared the wealthy and targeted the city’s hardest-pressed and least powerful—the workers serving the merchants and government officials whom the city quarantined and isolated. Bound to the middle-class households they served, these workers could hardly flee in the style of the care-free narrators of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353),a classic of plague literature that little resembles Defoe’s account. Source: Great Plagues Always Hit Workers the Hardest | Literary Hub

Robinson draws parallels with today when the lowest paid workers are without the resources to isolate themselves or their families and then are exploited by employers who do little to protect their welfare.

Dafoe is best remembered for his novels, Robinson Crusoe first and foremost, but also for Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, Memoirs of a Cavalier, and Captain Singleton. But Dafoe was a careful and prolific journalist and pamphleteer whose political stances were not always in agreement with the authorities during the turbulent times of his life (1660 – 1731).

Dafoe had a continued interest in economics, particularly the political structures that enforced a class system and the rise of the modern middle class in the England of that era. The role of the government in economic policy, such as tariffs, was something that fascinated Dafoe, and his writings did not always comfort the wealthy.

Dafoe wrote in a simple, straight-forward, and readable style, as exemplified by these two paragraphs in chapter 2 of Robinson Crusoe:

It was my lot first of all to fall into pretty good company in London, which does not always happen to such loose and misguided young fellows as I then was; the devil generally not omitting to lay some snare for them very early; but it was not so with me.  I first got acquainted with the master of a ship who had been on the coast of Guinea; and who, having had very good success there, was resolved to go again.  This captain taking a fancy to my conversation, which was not at all disagreeable at that time, hearing me say I had a mind to see the world, told me if I would go the voyage with him I should be at no expense; I should be his messmate and his companion; and if I could carry anything with me, I should have all the advantage of it that the trade would admit; and perhaps I might meet with some encouragement.

I embraced the offer; and entering into a strict friendship with this captain, who was an honest, plain-dealing man, I went the voyage with him, and carried a small adventure with me, which, by the disinterested honesty of my friend the captain, I increased very considerably; for I carried about £40 in such toys and trifles as the captain directed me to buy.  These £40 I had mustered together by the assistance of some of my relations whom I corresponded with; and who, I believe, got my father, or at least my mother, to contribute so much as that to my first adventure.

Dafoe is another of those authors whom you probably read at some point in your life and whose work is worth revisiting, particularly in this year of our plague.

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