1 April 2020 Susannah

Plague Literature

Samuel Pepys diary manuscript volumes

“But, ‘Lord!’ how sad a sight it is to see streets empty of people. Jealous of every door that one sees shut, lest it should be the plague, and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.”

This was diarist Samuel Pepys writing in 1665, when the plague was reaching its height. Pepys and other Londoners had no idea who would survive the terrible infection, or how long it would last, and what financial impact it would have on their world.

I think we can all relate to his words and fears in this awful situation we are currently living through. Pepys’ Diary is one of the great accounts of an “invisible enemy” in the form of an illness, but other writers have also written eloquently of pandemics. Examples include Camus’s The Plague, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders and Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Boccaccio’s The Decameron is a collection of tales told by young people sheltering outside of Florence in the time of the Black Death.

However, with the grim news in our papers and on TV each day, I doubt many of us will be turning to plague literature at this time. What’s needed is reading therapy and something much more cheerful. At the moment the brightest spot in each day for me is listening to Mansfield Park, beautifully read on unabridged audio by Frances Barber. Before that it was Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep, read by Barbara Leigh-Hunt. These are books to cheer and help get me through all the cancellations of talks and tours I’m having to face.

BREAKING NEWS: Like everyone, I am adjusting to new restrictions, and for me, that means the cancellation or postponement of all my talks. I’ve got a little surprise up my sleeve that I’ll be announcing in a few days. So please keep an eye your inbox for the details.

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Header image credit- Samuel Pepys diary manuscript volumes – H.B. Wheatley, ed, The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Pepysiana (London, 1899), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5950295
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Comments (9)

  1. Neil Kimpton

    Hi Susannah
    Strange, troubling times as we sit self isolated.

    But we can still read!!

    My bookgroup (all blokes) meeting in early March chose Love in the time of cholera as our April book.
    We won’t be meeting in person obviously but on something called ZOOM. This will be a new experience for me I am assured by others that it does work allowing some compensation for not meeting at all. I am also assured that the tradition of consuming nibbles and alcohol, albeit in isolation, must continue.
    Stay safe Susannah Warmest regards
    Neil …and Jill

    • Susannah Fullerton

      This current disaster is dragging us all into a more technological age. Good luck with your book club meeting, though I think personally I’d choose something more cheerful than Love in the Time of Cholera. I can turn on the news each night for that sort of story!
      I hope you and Jill both stay safe and well!

  2. Elisabeth Neales

    We have just had our book club meeting on zoom, and it was a great success. The book was “Where the Crawdads Sing ” by Delia Owens. I wonder if you have read it? I found it a very haunting book with a surprising ending.

  3. Susannah, there is a little novel from 1954 which is usually characterised as science fiction called “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson, and it is really most excellent! I am sure you would enjoy it, and it fits into your list. It was made into a movie 3 times, though the Will Smith version is the only really good one.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for the recommendation, Walter – sounds intriguing. I hope you are staying well in this awful time.

  4. Judith Stove

    I recently read – quite by coincidence – Old St Paul’s (1841) by Harrison Ainsworth, an historical novel about London in 1665. It’s really a page-turner! Old St Paul’s is the centre for the action, and a ‘distracted preacher’ called Solomon Eagle adds a magical-realist touch – always appearing at critical moments as London battles first the plague, then the fires. There are numerous sub-plots and romantic interests, and it’s very well constructed. Recommended!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh I loved that book when I read it as a teenager. I loved ‘Windsor Castle’ even more and I think I also read ‘Rookwood’ but cannot remember a thing about that one.

  5. Cathy Morrison

    My Bookclub met on Zoom this week, just to test it out before our proper meeting later this month to discuss “One hundred years of dirt” by Rob Moreton. For added fun we will each wear a special pair of earings and tell the story of where they are from.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      People are being so resourceful in this terrible time. I’m so glad you are not losing the pleasures of book club, and I do like the earrings idea.

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