Pandemic-2020

An Excerpt from Daniel DeFoe

Cover of A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel DeFoe


Business led me out sometimes to the other end of the town, even when the sickness was chiefly there; and as the thing was new to me, as well as to everybody else, it was a most surprising thing to see those streets which were usually so thronged now grown desolate, and so few people to be seen in them, that if I had been a stranger and at a loss for my way, I might sometimes have gone the length of a whole street (I mean of the by-streets), and seen nobody to direct me except watchmen set at the doors of such houses as were shut up, of which I shall speak presently.

One day, being at that part of the town on some special business, curiosity led me to observe things more than usually, and indeed I walked a great way where I had no business. I went up Holborn, and there the street was full of people, but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or other, because, as I suppose, they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses, or meet with smells and scent from houses that might be infected.

The Inns of Court were all shut up; nor were very many of the lawyers in the Temple, or Lincoln’s Inn, or Gray’s Inn, to be seen there. Everybody was at peace; there was no occasion for lawyers; besides, it being in the time of the vacation too, they were generally gone into the country. Whole rows of houses in some places were shut close up, the inhabitants all fled, and only a watchman or two left.

Daniel Defoe

The Project Gutenberg EBook of
A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (unpaginated)
Release Date: December, 1995 [EBook #376] [Most recently updated: April 3, 2020]

Kindle version
EPub version
Plain Text version 

But it was fiction. DeFoe, who wrote two of the first English novels (Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders), was known as a journalist. However, as one article says:

“…John Hersey wrote, the sacred rule for the journalist (or the memoirist, or indeed for any nonfiction writer) is: Never Invent.

That’s what makes Daniel Defoe, the founder of English journalism, such a thorny shrub. The hoaxers and the embellishers, the fake autobiographers, look on Defoe as a kind of patron saint. Defoe lied a lot. But he also hated his lying habit, at least sometimes. He said the lying made a hole in the heart. About certain events he wanted truth told. And one event he really cared about was the great plague of 1665, which happened when he was about five years old.…”

—Nicholson Baker, The Columbia Journalism Review (2009) For those interested, the full article explains more here.

“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. We feel what it was like to walk up a main thoroughfare with no one else about. We read of the containment orders published by the government, and how people got round them. We share the distress of families denied proper funerals for their loved ones.”

—David Roberts, The Conversation (2020), an Australia online (academic-journalistic) journal. Roberts’ article compares DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to our pandemic times at this link.



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