Slowing the Spread with Daniel Defoe (An Interview)
The year 1665 saw the deadly outbreak of bubonic plague in London, England. Novelist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) wrote his A Journal of the Plague Year during the 1720s by returning to the diary entries he kept more than a half-century earlier. Defoe’s work is classified as historical fiction due to the fact that he deploys a narrator, whose initials are H.F. (Henry Foe), and appears loosely based on the author’s uncle, a saddler in the parish of Aldgate (named for the gate that once encircled the capital). A year later, in September of 1666, The Great Fire of London would further decimate the city’s population and send shock waves through Restoration England.
We spoke with Mr. Defoe via video-conference call as England’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the Prince of Wales, entered self-quarantine due to the infection, all while the global rate of casualties continued to rise.
How are you today, Mr. Defoe?
Defoe: Lovin’, Learnin’, Livin’, thank you. My wife Mary and I have just booked a two-week tour on Carnival Cruise lines. Mary found an excellent rate and continental breakfasts are included. We will stop in all of the major port-cities, from Long Beach to San Francisco, then north to Seattle. Our granddaughter Kelsie is in her medical residency, so we’d like to shadow her during her emergency room rounds. We’re life-long learners, truly. Mary suggested we make a quick stopover in New Orleans, too, before we return.
Ah. Do you think that’s wise, Mr. Defoe, given the CO-VID19 global pandemic?
Defoe: Most likely not but I’ve always wanted a proper jazz burial in the French Quarter.
An odd request for a Protestant but let’s continue. So how are you bearing up?
Defoe: Truth be told, with all of this Zooming and texting and hours spent on the Gram, I could use my own IT department. Plus, Twitter said I should clean my face-mask in a rice-cooker but the cooker overheated and I may or may not be the cause behind the Great Fire of London. My lips to God’s ears!
Regardless, after fifty years of matrimony and bearing our eight children, Mrs. Defoe and I are both the pictures of health. Mary found a wonderful YouTube channel that guides us through a Cross-fit challenge. A very fine-looking trainer with a ponytail. Gold lycra shorts! I’ll stop there.
I finally have the time, too, to binge-watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” What a fascinating spectacle. Those gals are fierce, as the kids like to say. Mary informed me, as I’m sure you already know, but there are gentlemen under there! And don’t even get me started on “Joe Exotica.” Strange days, strange days!
How else are you making use of your time? A sequel to Robinson Crusoe? That has series written all over it…
Defoe: Let’s see…hmm. I’ve taken up transcendental meditation and virtual falconry. Oprah Winfrey’s podcasts keep me on the spiritual path and a healthy weight! Samuel Pepys keeps zoom-bombing, by the way, and he’s always pantless. It’s frightful.
That’s great to hear. You and Mrs. Defoe are practicing social distancing, then?
Defoe: Intensely so, yes. It’s amazing the things you can do with cellophane. Plus, I practically invented social distancing! Robinson Crusoe, anyone? It’s sometimes called the first novel in English but it’s really an instruction manual. Crusoe is the patron saint of D.I.Y. projects: a wheelbarrow made out of wicker? A lamp made from goat tallow? Wild pigeon recipes, anyone? I mean, you have yours truly to thank for that: you’re welcome.
Again, we are grateful for –
Defoe (interrupting): I mean, the stranded-on-a-desert-island motif is 100% Defoe! “Castaway?” Defoe. “The Martian,” which is basically Robinson Crusoe on Mars! Defoe! Lord of the Flies? Twenty plus years of “Survivor”? Defoe, Defoe, Defoe! Where are my royalty checks? I’ll tell you where: nowhere! [Incoherent yelling here.] Mary, call my lawyer!
We are deeply grateful, Mr. Defoe, for your ingenuity and your long legacy. But back to why we phoned you: Last night I read your A Journal of the Plague Year before bed, which wasn’t the wisest decision as it contains some nightmarish images. There are half-naked men raving in the streets, prophesizing doom, while bodies go unburied.
Defoe: All true. You can’t even imagine the stench, and this was well before Febreze.
You go on to write that the distempered man was as “well diseased in his brain as in his body” and, left unconfined, would roam the streets like a “mad dog runs on and bites at everyone he meets.” Another man pushed his nurse aside and jumped into the Thames to quell his febrile blood. All of this gave me such a fright; it’s like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch landscape.
Defoe: Really? I was going for more of a Thomas Kinkade aesthetic. Now that’s an artist! Man oh man, if I could paint like Thomas Kinkade. Hashtag Jealous!
You write: “The apprehensions of the people were likewise strangely increased by the error of the time; in which, I think, the people, from what principle I cannot imagine, were more addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales than ever they were before or since.” Book, in particular, inflamed what you call “hypochondriac fancies” and visions of a flaming sword in the clouds with its tip directed at London.
Defoe: It was just the tip, to be exact, so there’s no reason to be so alarmed. Want to know what’s worse? The new James Bond installment has been postponed. I knew things were about to go from bad to worse with that postponement. I’m such a mad fan of Agent 007, you know.
Indeed. Then, there are what you call “plague pits” and “death-carts.” This imagery really rattled me and kept me awake for hours. I even regressed into bed-wetting.
Defoe: My God, dear boy, get a grip on yourself! Even a literary genius such as myself needs to wind down with a little “People” magazine or some Sudoku. That’s very soothing.
Pardon me, I misspoke earlier: a “bearer” carries corpses to the plague pits at night while the “burier” is a gravedigger. There is a third kind of worker: a bellman who, by ringing a bell, alerts those holed up inside that the carts are approaching to carry away their dead.
Defoe: Goddammit, man! I don’t need the grimmest part of my work read back to me! People are born and people die; in between, there are shovel-ready jobs. Mary and I are happy, head-in-the-sand optimists. How else could I be 360 years old? It’s not a daily multivitamin or a gluten-free biscuit, I can tell you that much!
We were also ordered to drown all domestic cats and dogs because of contagion. I have pet allergies, however, so it was no great loss and those sticky pet-hair-rollers don’t do a damn thing. You know and I know it! Don’t pretend.
I see. I’m sorry to upset you, Mr. Defoe.
Defoe: Dan the Man, please.
Speaking of pretenders, Dan the Man, another question: Throughout your chronicle, you personify the plague as something that “preys upon” people, especially the poor in the more populous parishes. But there’s another threat that you describe in vivid detail. You write that Londoners, due to their fear and confusion, were particularly vulnerable to charlatans, or what you term “all sorts of pretenders, and by every mountebank.”
Defoe: Sad but true, and this is centuries before Trump University, Trump Steaks, and Trump Vodka. That’s a super pairing, by the way: college and vodka.
While we’re on soulless autocrats, not long into the plague, King Charles II and his court vacated the city. Isn’t this the abandonment of his royal duty as the people’s protector and deliverer?
Defoe: The people’s protector? You must be one of these utopians of the Thomas More ilk. The only thing the royals want to deliver is three, possibly six, meals straight to their fat faces. If that comments lands me in the pillory again, so be it. Call it Providence but, during his flight from London, King Charles hit a bump in the road and returned home.
Meaning, the King felt remorse for his actions?
Defoe: The royals, remorse? Who are you kidding? The king hit an actual bump in the road, somewhere outside of Oxfordshire. Worse, the carriage carrying his Majesty’s most prized possessions, chiefly his wig and scepter, overturned.
One last question, if you have the time…
Defoe: Where am I going?! I have all the time in the world. My Uber driver is immune-compromised, so I’m stuck indoors and on the phone with you. My man Friday and I are planning a Zoom happy hour. My son Willem Defoe may join. Thank God, it’s Friday, as I like to say! Has quite a ring to it, doesn’t it?
Splendid. I wanted to ask you about the experience of being flogged, in public, and in the streets of London. While you were already imprisoned for The Shortest Way with Dissenters, which offended the High Tory establishment, you further defied the Crown by publishing Hymn to the Pillory in 1703. Was that a real humiliation to be pilloried as a public person?
Defoe: My fellow Londoners threw flowers at me rather than the usual: rocks, dead cats, decayed vegetables, and offal.
That sounds awful.
Defoe: It wasn’t offal. I just said told you that! They pelted me with roses and daisies. “Long Live Defoe, they chanted! Dan the Man for King!” Ha. Good times, good times.
Since you survived an epidemic, I was hoping you might impart some inspiring words for our readers, something Churchillian to keep our spirits up.
Defoe: In the words of your president, “that’s a nasty question.” Rallying the troops isn’t my area of expertise but [a long pause] ah, yes, I do have some words of wisdom, which are “Don’t go chasing waterfalls.” This is from another up-and-coming band called TLC. Just brill, eh? Surely Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’s genius. They go on, if you’ll allow me: “Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”
Could this be a recommendation for social distancing?
Defoe: For that, I would refer you to Dr. Fauci. I’m from the seventeenth century, so my idea of modern-health care involves powderizing the turd-pellets of a goat for nausea and boiling a sheep’s head with hollyhocks to cure a sore tooth. What the hell do I know? I may sound like a thoroughly modern man but I have one foot in the 1600s and one foot in the 2000s.
Last night, I boiled the bile of a rabbit and a hen’s egg to make a soporific. Or maybe it was an aphrodisiac. Either way, Mary and I slept well. The goat did not.
Look, son, have gratitude. Feeling gratitude means saluting the garbage man. Mary soaped up our car window: “Thank the Truckers.” My other advice would be to pray your ass off and pray your ass off good. Is that Churchillian enough for you?
In these frightful times, we’ll take it.
Thank you for your time, Sir. In these desperate times, we will take what we can get. In the coming weeks, I will be speaking with other plague-era writers such as Albert Camus, Danielle Steele and Mary Shelley.
Stay healthy & stay hopeful!