We've been looking for someone who could elegantly describe the hard-wired human reactions to plague using parallels between Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year published in 1772 and our own, apparently endless Plague Year.
This guy David Roberts did pretty well. If you haven't seen The Conversation, it's a solid new magazine with a semi-anarchist economic model not unlike ours. Great minds. Not such great human societies.
In 1722, Daniel Defoe pulled off one of the great literary hoaxes of all time. A Journal of the Plague Year, he called his latest book. The title page promises “Observations of the most remarkable occurrences” during the Great Plague of 1665, and claims it was “written by a citizen who continued all the while” in London – Defoe’s own name is nowhere to be found.
It was 60 years before anyone twigged. From oral testimonies, mortality bills, lord mayor’s proclamations, medical books and literature inspired by the 1603 plague, Defoe had cooked the whole thing up.
And yet this extraordinary book lies like the truth. It’s the most harrowing account of an epidemic ever published – and it really leaps off the page now in the era of COVID-19.
HF is appalled by those who opened up taverns and spent their days and nights drinking, mocking anyone who objected. At one point he confronts a group of rowdies and gets a torrent of abuse in return. Later, exhibiting one of his less appealing traits, he is gratified to hear that they all caught the plague and died.