How the Great Plague might change your writing

For a writer, no experience is worthless, however bad. No more immune from tragedy than the rest of us, writers can at least share that experience with readers, hoping that by doing so they may dull their pain, or that of others. Shakespeare lost his only son and in her enthralling novel Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell suggests it inspired him to write his greatest play, Hamlet.

Not long before Covid hit, I was reading another historical novel set during London’s Great Plague outbreak in 1665. Growing up in the UK I had learnt in primary school of the bare facts, the date, the Great Fire which followed in 1666, but it had no particular emotional significance for me. And reading that novel in the heady days of 2019, the worst outbreak of bubonic plague since 1348 was no more than an interesting backdrop to a murder mystery. I shuddered at gruesome and heart rending facts, thrown in as historical colour- the mass burials, the nailing up of doors of infected houses, condemning the healthy to die with the sick. But it had happened so long ago in another world. Nothing lingers in British folk lore other than (perhaps) a grim glimmer of memory filtering down the centuries through the prism of the nursery rhyme “Ring a ring of roses”.

And now, in the stark light of this 2021 day? I picked up my first novel The Welsh Linnet recently and reread the sections on “camp fever” (probably typhus) in 1643 Oxford.

“Stanley’s small and gloomy room stank of sickness… I would not have recognised Matthew … His eyes were immense in his face with the fever. There were tell- tale purple spots on his chest and arms. He felt very hot to the touch... As it began to grow dark, … the sick man spoke his first coherent words. “Nicholas, don’t die. Hold on, I’m here.” 

The Welsh Linnet by AJ Lyndon

The deadly sickness brought by armies to Oxford during the civil war was a convenient tool I used for development of the characters’ personal relationships, but if I were writing the book now, I believe those nursing the sick would be more fearful; and would spend time brooding on the random nature of the pestilence and praying for its end.

Perhaps it is natural that the reality of outbreaks of dangerous contagion, common throughout the world until discovery of vaccines, should have been forgotten by most people, even those born before the last polio epidemic in the 1950s.

Somehow I doubt that when this war against the 21st century plague is over, those of us who lived through it and survived will spend time reminiscing about the “good old days” of Covid. But for those of us who write fiction, whether we choose to omit any reference to these events from our fictional worlds or include them as a backdrop to thriller or romance, I do not think our stories will mirror those we might have penned in that parallel universe where Covid-19 did not exist.

It’s not only memories of diseases which disappear from collective memory. I have often wondered why the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, the usual subject of this blog, have been forgotten more completely than Plague or Fire, almost as if airbrushed from history. They killed a greater percentage of the British population than the First World War.

Was it fear that dredging up any talk of the recent conflict might reignite the smouldering embers of discontent and revolution? Might bring back the days of daily fears – that today would be the day that brought death or starvation to their town or village in the shape of marching troops from either side. Or was it relief that with the Restoration of Charles II it was all over and best forgotten? An “enemy” had been defeated, but it was an enemy within and a brief flirtation with republicanism – the short-lived English Revolution which preceded those in America and France by a hundred years, had failed.

A literary critic, writing during the Franco era, dismissed George Orwell’s passionate account of the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia with the comment that “the Spanish are a fine people” and it did not do to dwell on the past. That patronising comment made me cringe. Yet I think I am a little more able to understand than I was 18 months ago, why those in England, Wales and Scotland who lived through the horrors of brother killing brother and friend friend, wanted only to resume whatever remained for them of “normal” life. Why they kept their memories to themselves and did not pass them down the generations.

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