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.
People tend to make an anachronistic mistake of assuming that their times are more culturally and socially superior to their previous generations’ times, whereas forty years on an evolutionary scale amounts to a million second on a twenty-four-hour clock, the amount so infinitesimal that it makes you smirk. What makes us set apart from the predecessors of our human civilization is not how they looked but how they looked at the landscapes surrounding their everyday lives, which led to the creation of the ethos of society peculiar to the different historical periods of time. This Thucydidean approach to history as a branch of social science as well as humanity strikes the chords with Ian Mortimer’s perspectives on his Elizabethan ancestors in his scintillating book, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England.
Rich in details and splendid in descriptions that successfully and naturally resurrect the period, Mortimer’s vividly atmospheric accounts of the era transform the people and the landscapes of Elizabethan England from one-dimensional textual elements to animated figures in his engagingly vivacious narrative that strut in the mind’s theater of the reader, commanding attention in every chapter in a way that looks virtually real, evoking a phantasmagorical display of the periodical images. Mortimer is a knowledgeable and witty guide well versed in the English Renaissance with a practical sense of reality, which makes him something of Dr. Who, who pitchforks his wide-eyed volunteer reader to the subject time and then materializes when the reader is in a pickle. He shows the reader both the beauty and the beast of the Elizabethan society at its core with his wealth of knowledge drawn upon extensive research on the period and general erudition without putting a supercilious air of a highly learned man and stands in awe with the reader of the cultural and social progresses of Elizabethan England that began to define the “Englishness,” with which we tend to associate when the name “England” chimes the bell of literature, religion, and geography, all in the collective image of being “English.” Mortimore does this wonderfully with his engaging narrative skills that will not make you bored and skip a page.
Mortimer as a literary Dr. Who aims to bring the gaps of time and space between the reader and the populace of Elizabethan England to elucidate his stance on the truth about unchanging human nature wrapt in a periodical costume; in fact, history is a branch of literature made by artificers and artists with stories full of events, persons, and places that are woven into a tapestry of time, which also reflects how we have become what we are. In light of this, Mortimer is a cross between Herodotus with his entertaining narrative skills and Thucydides with his objective analysis of the historicity of society and culture. At the end of the book, the reader will find William Shakespeare, one of the most notable figures of Elizabethan England, holding up “a mirror to Mankind and shows people what they really are.” This is a cracking read packed full of interesting tidbits on the ways of life in Elizabethan England which he relates with wonderfully lucid insights into the turbulent but magnificent era that marks an indelible landmark in the history of England, and ultimately, of the world.
I have recently read an article about popular instapoets from one of my subscription magazines and been appalled at the author’s dyspeptic raillery on the poems of the known poets and brazen-faced mockery on the literary merits of the works by playing a role of agent provocateur following the instapoets just to mock their works with malice.
Just because one does not like another’s work doesn’t ipso facto endow the person with right to desecrate the work and to insult the author by putting him/her in the pillory and, thus dispiriting the mind and the heart that are indeed “noble” and respectful. As a hobbyist writer of my blog who has the temerity to write in English, I am now indeed in more sorrow than in anger that there might be agents provocateur or double agents in hides of followers intent upon deriding my amateurish but sincere writings.
The instapoets, bloggers and anyone dabbling in the craft of writing are the cult of Knut Vonnegut’s maxim: “To practice any art, how well or badly, is to make your soul l grow. So do it.” I hope the author and his likes will understand it with magnanimity of the learned literati who will not use their learning to reason against these noble spirits.
Seraphina Rabbite, the habitual reader, believes in the power of reading. It generates pleasure peculiar to the literary medium of communication, the magical realm of make-believe reality, the alchemy of imaginativeness and sensuousness, all in the artistry of the literary cunning folk called writers, casting spells on the readers to pass over to the minds of the creators and of the characters. She believes that writer and reader engage in a magical ritual of connectedness through vicarious experience in the moments of empathy, the epiphany of the Eureka moments when the third-dimensional wall between the writer and the reader tumbles down. That is why Sally thinks that all writers, professional and amateur, are in one way or another possessed of certain supernatural feats of spurring their restless spirits on writing.
That said, Sally has scribed the effects of reading in a form of her self-professed credo as follows:
Reading is both entertainment and stimulation of mind.
It is in their appeal and in their power to bestow pleasure, self-satisfaction and the joy of mental growth to readers.
It takes readers from the humdrum existence, the rut of life, to stimulate the minds to fresh endeavor, to give them a new viewpoint upon existential problems, to enable them to get a fresh hold upon themselves.
It intends to show the progress of the human race within the historical times as depicted in books.
It is an active force toward the sound mental equipment of reading people.
It takes readers out of the rut of life in the town they live and makes them citizens of the world.
Readers understand the minds of the writers by passing over to the inner world of the writers.
Shakespeare said of reading thus: “This is true; there’s magic in the web of it.” If writing is akin to a literary witchcraft, reading is a voluntary intoxication of the witchery elixir in expectation of crossing over to the liminal zones, the in-between zones of our reality and imaginary world. The best summation on books and its effects comes from our contemporary Stephen King: “Books are a uniquely portable magic. You experience magic every time you read without knowing its influence on you. Go for it.
Throughout human civilization, prostitution has been arguably something of a necessary evil, intentional or unintentional, an institution of erotic bartering between a client and s prostitute for wants of flesh and fortune. For a client, it’s all about releasing his rapacious libido in a brothel, whereas for a prostitute offering a pleasure of the flesh can be a means to a social mobility in a period when women’s place was confined by biological determinism. But that social mobility would be possible with the intervention of Goddess Fortuna. ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ follows a life of an unfortunate prostitute named Mary through the eyes of William Hogarth, an English painter and social critic renowned for choice of his subjects crossing the strata of the social class system for inspirations.
The painter Hogarth chooses Mary as his unofficial muse for various paintings depicting modern moral subjects as a series of picturesque statements of social criticism on the oppressed conditions of the poor whose lives are already determined by their biological and social statuses. Likewise, Mary’s downfall from a beautiful courtesan to a common, over-the-hill backstreet slut is already a foregone conclusion for the nature of the profession. Besides, she’s not exactly cut out for a fine prostitute with artful plans to forward her rank and condition; she has a pride but no courage. She yearns for a polite society, but her frailty of character prevents her from advancing in her career to a mistress of a high-birth man. In other words: Mary chose a wrong job that ruined her life.
The film is said to be based upon a true story with references to the famous figures of William Hogarth and his friend Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones. It gives the veracity of the event with a charge of authority, rendering the story of lachrymose life of Mary emotionally powerful and factually unchallenged in the veneer of historicity. Yet, in terms of objectivity of the stance that the film takes, its view on prostitution in the 18th century London is clearly askew on the side Mary because she is cast as being a victim of the social evil with her purity of the soul torn apart by men’s rampant animalistic sexual desires as presented by all uniformly unattractive and perverted men on screen. In fact, the only pitiful character in the film seems to be Mother Needham, who is mercilessly abused on the pillory for three consecutive days and nights of stoning, defiling, and cursing from the public who were once or twice her clients and neighbors. The sight is sufficient to incite pathos because of her plea for life authentically delivered by the excellent performance of actress Geraldine James.
No one can throw stones at Mary for her life of “sin and depravity” because there’s no one who is immaculately cleared of guilt and sins to judge her character as arbitrator of morals. But then she is responsible for her own life with her own free will to choose to be a harlot. For not all destitute women driven by abject economic conditions are succumbed to the trade of the flesh. Nonetheless, this film is a good period drama that resurrects the ethos of the time with the parlance, habits, and costumes of different classes peculiar to the 18th century, well executed by a cast of classically-trained fine thespians.