The biblical cyclicity of history proclaims that what is happening now happened before because there’s no new thing under the sun. In this regard, the ways the civic administration and people response to the current Covid-19 pandemic don’t seem to be a novelty in comparison with the similar precedence of epidemic phenomena as vividly depicted in Daniel Defoe’s nonfiction novel A Journal of the Plague Year, a classic 1722 account of the Black Death that devastated England from 1664 to 1665. In this story of the seismic bubonic plague written in the first-person narrative, Defoe’s recounting of the plague successfully resurrects the spirit of the epoch as his narrator guides the reader to the places and scenes of the seismic event in the capacity of a charitable and knowledgeable guardian of posterity, making them surprisingly similar to those of ours.
The journal is narrated by an intelligent Londoner named “H.F,” a merchant of hosiery and a man of Christian principles and analytical mind, who decides not to take refuge in some remotely safe area away from the pest-ridden city, and instead to take pen to paper as a witness to the human tragedy for posterity. It is a literary eye-witness account of what happened during the resurgence of the bubonic plague that had ravaged Europe hundreds of years earlier in the semblance of a nonfiction narrative. Although it is asserted as fiction by many, the narrative reads all the more truthful because of the verisimilitude of the conditions of the plague in the context of the realistic descriptions of the symptoms of the disease and the subsequent influences on the lives of the people surrounding his daily lives.
Despite the fact that Defoe was only five years old when the plague swept England, in the peculiar alchemy of literature doubled with his vivid imaginations, his fictional narrator feels very real and the account telltale as though it had been written it in the spirit of Veni Vidi Vici. So much so that the story seems more veritable than the counterpart of Samuel Pepys whose narrative feels comparatively prosaic without the personal charm of the narrator. The reader will also learn that the 17th-century modus operandi of dealing with a pandemic is not that far from the current 21st-century preventive measures of social distancing, personal hygienic disciplines, and other relevant systematic societal restrictions.
Defoe holds up a mirror to his posterity that shows what it was like during the epidemic scare and what the people from days of yore did to sail through such calamity as a wise and warm advisor to our current global pandemic situations. In fact, while I was reading the book, I was surprised by how similar the cautious measures decreed by the authority were then to our own now. In this regard, I opine that this book should be a must-read instead of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, the famed officialized book related to the epidemic phenomena, because of its authority of truthful narrative drawn on empirical oral accounts of the plague and its power of reality rendered so close to the lives of the ordinary folk that we can relate to this day.
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was something of a daring noble rebel. If the name does not ring a bell to you at first blush, the name “Robinson Crusoe” will dawn on you with the popular images of the character and his faithful servant Man Friday constellated in film and animation firmaments. Defoe’s timeless classic Robinson Crusoe popularized the form of English novel along with Samuel Johnson’s epistolary novel Pamela in the canon of English literature. A writer conscientious as well as prodigious, Defoe did not hesitate to put his credo into actions by wielding his pen across paper. His bounteous works were in fact used as his arsenal of intellectual arguments against the ills of the society he did not fail to notice in all aspects of everyday life, such as the mistreatment of women, the poor, and those whose beliefs did not conform to the Church of England in his time. Defoe was neither an intellectual snob nor a hypocrite; in fact, he was not afraid of speaking his mind in a most poignantly cogent way as manifested in this short prose “Charm School for Women” from his essay on The Education of Women (1719) in which Defoe pillories canonical discrimination against women as grave injustice against humanity.
Defoe believes that it’s a lack of education that makes a woman proverbially turbulent, clamorous, and uncouth by comparing the soul in the body to a rough diamond that must be polished to its most naturally brilliant luster in order that its true beauty is manifested, just as the soul is thus distinguished from nondescript melee or even brutes. Defoe criticizes that men make women brutes by preventing them from being made wiser by dint of denying them the advantage of education because of the fear that the new enlightened womanhood will vie with the manhood in their improvements. Defoe then suggests that women be taught languages, especially French and Italian with a special focus on a subject of history so as to make them understand the affairs of the world and how they swing and thus wise.
In my point of view, such emphasis on the study of history strikes the chords with John Milton’s provident observation that: “Poetry makes us witty, but history makes us wise.” Knowledge of history enables you to realize a commonality between the bygone eras and our time in the discovery of truth of human nature across a great divide of time and space, so that we may learn from the past and use the knowledge as to better the world in our time, which will be an ongoing cultural enterprise so long as the human race exists. The universality of truth in satisfaction of reason and the cyclical nature of human affairs have been manifested in the Holy Writ as follows: “There is no new thing under the sun” and “Old things are become past; and lo! All things are become new.”
Defoe’s viewpoints of women’s education is far from patronizing or condescending in the capacity of a sympathetic or lenient master deigning to address to his maids. On the contrary, he speaks as an altruistic, eager academic who feels for the pathetic states of women deprived of the privileges of education that will do a world of wonder to womanhood if equitably given. He avers that proper education will teach women the proper management of their natural wits, so that they will prove to be very sensible and retentive. Therefore, to withhold women from the crown of education is injustice itself, which in my opinion also goes against Christian charity in terms of sharing what you already have with those who do not in order to double the joys and cut the misery in halves. Moreover, the refined women’s souls as a result of education are the grist to the mill of society with more culturally refined and publicly civil-minded individuals. In light of Defoe’s provocatively humanistic perspectives on the education of women that does not smack of flagrant political ideology to gain popularity of womankind and his beautiful allusion of a woman’s soul to a rough diamond in its primordial form, this brief treatise on the importance of education of women is an illuminating read worth the noting with a nod.