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A plague on all your books: great works written in isolation


By Adam Douglas, senior specialist at Peter Harrington

Many writers need isolation to get their creative juices flowing. Virginia Woolf reckoned that women writers of her generation simply needed a room of their own. She didn’t specify that the streets outside that room should be deserted and shops running low on supplies, but she might have liked it that way.

The starting point for the great literature of self-isolation must be the Decameron of Boccaccio, inspired by the outbreak in Italy of the Black Death of 1348 and completed by 1353. Fleeing from the plague-ridden city, a group of self-isolating Florentines while away the hours by telling each other stories. An English version of Boccaccio’s Decameron was first published in London in 1620. Many have assumed that the translator was the celebrated John Florio, who died five years later, a victim of a later recurrence of the plague.

Geoffrey Chaucer adored Boccaccio. His Troilus and Criseyde is directly based on Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, and he adopted the Decameron’s story-frame structure for his own Canterbury Tales. As a child, Chaucer had escaped the Black Death, but in his adulthood lived an isolated life. He and his wife lived apart, she in a castle, while he held down a boring job in London, stamping duty-paid on bales of wool passing through London docks. His grace-and-favour apartment in Aldgate was a tiny garret above the busy city gates, through which he would have heard Essex peasants thundering on their way to burn John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace in 1381. The Peasants’ Revolt was another indirect consequence of the same Black Death that led Boccaccio’s storytellers to flee their city.

Isolation is not always a direct result of pandemic. Chaucer was also a fan of the Roman senator and philosopher Boethius, whose De consolatione philosophiae he translated. Boethius had been sentenced to death, unjustly in his opinion, and spent his final year trying to find the consolations of philosophy in his terrible situation. Boethius stands at the head of that closely related genre: great literature written in prison.

The Black Death probably reached Europe and the Near East along the Silk Road, borne on fleas living on the black rats that travelled on Genoese merchant ships. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo had been plying his trade along the Silk Road for almost thirty years, seeing many things previously unknown to Europeans. In 1295 he returned home to find Venice at war with Genoa. He was thrown in prison, where he recounted his travels to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello da Pisa, who compiled them into the seminal travelogue now known as The Travels of Marco Polo.

Another intrepid traveller-turned-prison writer, Sir Walter Ralegh, was one of several European would-be colonists who introduced all manner of pathogens to the pre-Columbian natives of the Americas. After his repeated failures to find the fabulous treasure of El Dorado, Ralegh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he set about writing a monumental History of the World. He’d written no more than a million words before he was sent to the executioner’s block.

The golden age of Elizabethan theatre also happened to coincide with repeated outbursts of plague in London. A fresh episode reportedly began in Lisbon in 1599 and spread to Spain and elsewhere on the Continent, reaching London by February 1603. The London playhouses were closed, and many actors set out to earn their crust touring plays round the provinces. Not Shakespeare, though, who stayed behind to help present a series of command performances for James I. He also found the extra spare time to sit down to write Macbeth and King Lear.

The plague continued to haunt the imagination of writers. In 1722 Daniel Defoe published his Journal of the Plague Year, representing it as a true account of the climactic year 1665, when the bubonic plague struck London for the last time. While some think Defoe based his work on his uncle’s papers, many critics have seen the book as purely imaginative fiction, similar in technique to his earlier Robinson Crusoe, another classic text of enforced isolation.

No pandemic confined Anna Sewell to her writer’s desk, merely a sequence of misfortunes that began at fourteen, when she tripped while running home from school in the rain, injuring both her ankles. The injury never fully healed and she led a life of periodic invalidism until, from 1871 to 1877 at a time when her health further declined and she was confined to the house and her sofa, she wrote Black Beauty. She lived just long enough to get an early hint of what would prove to be her novel’s extraordinary success.

One of the most famous literary invalids of the nineteenth century was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose various serious illnesses started at about the same age as Sewell’s (though some have thought that her greater debility was the lack of opportunity she experienced as a woman in an isolated setting, with no access to higher education). The romantic version has it that she was rescued from her sickbed by Robert Browning, who awoke her poetic creativity and whisked her away from her doting but tyrannical father, the legendary Mr Barrett of Wimpole Street.

Which brings us back to Virginia Woolf, who chose to retell that romantic legend as seen through the eyes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush, leading up to his later days in a bucolic Italy, in Pisa and Florence, the very city whence Boccaccio’s self-isolators had fled.

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