This is the second time I have read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The first time was when I was a young man (late teens? twenties?) and was only the second book by Defoe I’d ever read (true to this day; the other being his book of the English Civil War, Memoirs of a Cavalier; incidentally, the use of ‘a’ rather than ‘the’ is interesting; I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, wherein the use of the indefinite pronoun and the implied rejection of a certain authorial omniscience makes the works feel more trustworthy).

The first time was not, as it is now, a plague year in the United States (or, leastways, not for me; I don’t want to dismiss the damage being done to gay men and oft ignored by straight men in the 80s and 90s by AIDS). However much I might have loved the book before, I could not have understood the frightening prescience of his writing.

From complaints about the government withholding information (I’m looking not just at the president, but also at the governor of Florida), especially in the early days of its reaching our shores (I forgot to note that Defoe is writing an account of the bubonic plague outbreak with struck England, and especially London, in 1665, arriving, the narrator believes, from Holland); to the ways in which the wealthy were able to ignore the rules and insulate themselves; to the suffering of families forced to quarantine separately from one of more members. Towards the end, there is even an anecdote about a merchant who saw things getting better, to so ended his family’s social distancing (they were waiting things out in the country) and brought them back to London, opened his shop, and threw himself back into normal life. Then the whole family got sick and died. So, yeah… let’s reopen the country! 

As cabin fever kicks in, I find myself envious of the peripatetic narrator. Taking most reasonable precautions known at the time (a writer from the first half of the 18th century, writing about about an event from the second half of the 17th century which he knows about from foggy childhood memories and, apparently, much research into what we would now call primary sources), he walks London and comments sympathetically in the travails of those sick with the ‘distemper’ and calls out the MAGA trolls of the day who ignored safety guidelines (which included congregating in large groups and social distancing). My own feelings of confinement are intense and I long to be a more active observer.

Which also makes his descriptions of the breakdown of safety measures pertinent. People became inured to the smells of death and the bodies being carted out and began to crowd churches. I won’t claim to be very religious, but during these times, the inability to take the sacraments is something I feel very keenly, to the point it becomes painful, and I am sympathetic to the desire, if not to the reckless pastors and parishioners putting communities at risk (I also feel a certain chauvinism; if you don’t believe the Eucharist is real, how urgent is it for you to attend services?). But the sort of faith people felt then is a driver in a way it is not now, even if the desire for societal connections denied by the plague played a role equal or greater than religious fervor.

Finally, the book is also a reminder that the 18th century was a time of beautiful and often very clear (to contemporary ears) writing. If you can make your way past certain spelling conventions, Defoe, Johnson, Hume, Addison, Gibbon, Burke, etc. are all easily understood and appreciated by the modern reader.