Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What a Great Plague Year

Samuel Pepys' diary, the last entry of 1665.  His opinions on events of the year seem to suffer somewhat from distorted emphasis:

The great evil of this year, and the only one endeed, is the fall of my Lord of Sandwich, whose mistake about the prizes hath undone him, I believe...
A dreadful thing, I suppose - his father's cousin Sandwich packed off to Spain by his enemies at court.  Oh ho what a downfall.  Apparently not, in Mr. Pepys' estimation, any comparison to the Great Plague of London, an epidemic disaster in his hometown that carried away one out of every five Londoners, including some of his relatives:
My whole family hath been well all this while, and all my friends I know of, saving my Aunt Bell, who is dad, and some childrn of my Cosen Sarah's, of the plague. But many of such as I know very well, dead. Yet to our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to open again. Pray God continue the plague's decrease - for that keeps the Court away from the place of business, and so all goes to wrack as to public matters, they at this distance not thinking of it.
Can it be that a wealthy man like Samuel found he and his so little affected by this plague - the shops?  He describes it almost as an economic disaster, not a human one.

Perhaps I am being unfair.  Seeing signs that life was returning to normal must have been encouraging for many people.  London as a ghost town for that dreadful summer of 1665 must have put many people out of sorts.  From the same entry:
It is true we have gone through great melancholy because of the great plague, and I put to great charges by it, by keeping my family long at Woolwich, and myself and another part of my family, my clerks, at my charge at Greenwich, and a maid at London. But I hope the King will give us some satisfaction for that. But now the plague is abated almost to nothing, and I entending to get to London as fast as I can, my family, that is, my wife and maids, having been there these two or three weeks.
Or maybe I am not being unfair:
I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time...and great store of dancings we have had at my cost (which I was willing to indulge myself and my wife) at my lodgings.
People respond to crises in different ways - and sometimes the same ways.  People do tend to seek forgetfulness in dreadful times.  Indeed, long before Pepys dancing and death were coupled together most alarmingly:

Danse Macabre

This is really on the nose, as is this.

I'm also reading Daniel DeFoe's dramatized account of the plague year, and it reads very differently that Pepys'.  It should; it is about the plague and nothing else, and tried to draw the dimensions of the last great bubonic disaster of the Anglo Saxon world.  Pepys was content to concern himself with the plague only about as much as the plague concerned itself with him, which as we see was not very much.

No comments: