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From cholera to coronavirus

A forgotten novel offers insights into living with a deadly and dehumanising pandemic

The Covid enquiry began in June 2022 to examine “the UK’s response to and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.” The enquiry is divided into six modules and Baroness Hallett, may report on the first this summer. The glacial pace of proceedings has frustrated those who suffered most from the epidemic. 

And don’t we already know what its conclusions should be? That the UK needs a better-funded NHS and a Government led by honest, scientifically literate politicians. The public should not be bewildered by U-turns. The police shouldn’t be hampered by legislation and guidance that change so often that the rules become opaque.

Published in 1839, this is one of the great forgotten novels of the 19th century

Pandemics are not new. So, while we wait, we can always learn from literature. As coronavirus cases began to spread through the UK, columnists began alluding to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. (Though it’s part-fiction, the tables numbering the dead are all too real.)  Camus’s La Peste also gained a number of mentions. 

But nobody thought to mention Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook.

Published in 1839, this is one of the great forgotten novels of the 19th century. Possibly Deerbrook was overlooked because Martineau is better known as a social theorist. Or because many of its themes were taken up thirty years later in George Eliot’s better-known Middlemarch. Both books look at provincial life during the same era. Both have a doctor as their hero.

The opening of Deerbrook may lull us into a (false) sense of familiarity. It resembles Pride and Prejudice in reverse. Two sisters arrive in a village whose inhabitants decide they are in want of husbands. But while Jane Austen’s focus is on courtship, Martineau includes the wider community. Even before illness breaks out, in the third volume of the novel, the reader becomes aware there’s something sickly about Deerbrook. It’s like some early Twitter-sphere, a place in which words and actions are obsessively scrutinised, where malign ideas spread.

When Hope, the newly arrived physician, supports the “wrong” candidate in a local election, his medical skills become irrelevant. Deerbrook’s influencers take against him. He is cancelled effectively as any 21st century writer with “hateful” opinions. Fortunately for the village, which is about to be subjected to a succession of calamities, he refuses to be driven away. 

The first disaster relates to the economy.

Hardship was complained of throughout the country. The prices of provisions were inordinately high.

The rural poor are driven to desperate action, which includes poaching, burglary, and theft.

 … deep was the enmity between the large proprietors and the labourers around them… Mr Jones’s meat-cart had been stopped on the high-road, by two men who came out of the hedge, and helped themselves to what the cart contained.

The second misfortune involves contagion. Martineau doesn’t name the sickness, but the narrative is probably based around the UK’s first outbreak of cholera in 1831. (This was regarded as a form of alien invasion and known as “Asiatic” cholera.)

Hope’s attempts to treat his patients are not evoked in detail. Even as progressive a writer as Martineau felt unable to describe acute diarrhoea. But, as with Covid two centuries later, physicians were hampered by their lack of understanding of a new illness. (Coronavirus was initially assumed to behave like flu. For decades cholera was thought to result from “miasma” — decaying organic matter.)

What does feel entirely contemporary is Hope’s immediate understanding of the relationship between ill-health and austerity. As infection spreads. he reflects:

It is difficult to imagine a place better prepared for our destruction than our pretty village is just now, from the extreme poverty of most of the people, and their ignorance, which renders them unfit to take any rational care of themselves.

Martineau also points out how — then as now — misfortune can be exploited for gain. With the onset of disease “conjurors” and “fortune-tellers” and “quacks” appear in Deerbrook. They prey upon the community’s poorest inhabitants. Meanwhile those who are better off are equally anxious to protect themselves.

The better-off have better access to the media of the day. The prosperous Mrs Grey decides that although she was previously, “just paying so much a-week for  no good to anybody… we must take (the newspaper) in again, really to know how this fever goes on.”  She also tries to make use of her social connections. There’s a kind of black comedy in her attempts to elicit definitive information from Hester, Hope’s wife:

“Do you hear what sort of fumigation he would recommend in case of such a fever as this showing itself in the house?”

“Indeed, I have not heard him speak of fumigations at all…”

“I should just like to know; for Mrs. Jones told me of a very good one; and Mrs Howell thinks ill of it. Mrs. Jones recommended me to pour some sulphuric acid upon salt — common salt — in a saucer; but Mrs. Howell says there is nothing so good as hot vinegar.”

Hester’s reply is frustratingly vague. In Hope’s opinion, “the safest way is to go on as usual, taking rational care of health, and avoiding all unnecessary terror.” (Surely a Victorian version of “Keep Calm and Carry On.”)

And yet Martineau’s narrative seems designed to evoke terror. Her next chapter is entitled “Deerbrook in Shadow.” We learn that “whole families were prostrated by the fever in the labourers’ cottages, and it was creeping into the better sort of house.” Hester walks to church in an eerily quiet village.

There were no voices of children about the little courts; no groups of boys under the churchyard wall.

Hardships can create a sense of togetherness, but they may also set people apart from one another. In a meeting with Dr Levitt the clergyman, Hope talks of a divided Deerbrook.

 I own myself disappointed … in finding among our neighbours so little disposition to help each other… The apathy of some and the selfish terrors of others, are worse to witness than the disease itself.

Dr Levitt points out that we expect those in power to lead by example. But Deerbrook’s squire is hardly a role model.

Sir William Hunter and his lady are enough to paralyse the morals of the whole parish… They keep their outer gates, locked…. Every article left at the lodge… is fumigated before it is admitted before it is admitted … neither the gentleman nor lady will leave the estate… they would have left home altogether, if they could have hoped to be safer anywhere else.

Those without a walled estate adopt alternative strategies. Mrs Grey’s husband writes a letter to Hope:

He and all his family were to leave Deerbrook… The first object was to get away, the epidemic being now really too frightful to be encountered any longer. They should proceed immediately to Brighton.

People in humbler circumstances have more limited choices. Despite the faith that the shopkeeper Mrs Howell places in hot vinegar, she becomes seriously ill. This terrifies her companion, Miss Miskin.

All attempts to bring Miss Miskin to reason, and induce her to enter her friend’s room, were in vain. She bestowed abundance of tears, tremors, and foreboding on Mrs Howell’s state and prospects, but shut herself up in a fumigated apartment.

Perhaps our own awareness of the isolation of old people during lockdown, makes Martineau’s account of Mrs Howell’s fate especially poignant, Hope’s sister-in-law Margret assists the dying woman, returning home to describe how:

Miss Miskin came trembling … She would not approach nearer than the doorway…. and so remained… ‘in case’ as the poor soul again said, ‘of my getting worse, so as to be in any danger.’

As final attempts are made to revive Mrs Howell, “Miss Miskin drew back into the passage, shut the door and made her escape.”

Martineau opts for a “feelgood” ending. Hope’s virtuous behaviour during the epidemic strengthens his marriage and returns him to favour. The plague also enables Margaret to be reunited with an estranged suitor.

It is possible that Martineau’s early readers were convinced by this ending

In the final paragraphs, Margaret looks forward to a time when Deerbrook’s next generation will be found “telling their little ones all about the pestilence that swept the place at the end of the great scarcity.” She imagines herself returning “grey-headed” to “hear over again…. those good old days of ours, as we shall call them.”

It is possible that Martineau’s early readers were convinced by this ending. Though the late 1830s saw significant epidemics of influenza and typhoid, nobody anticipated that there would be further outbreaks of cholera in the years ahead. One could also argue that Martineau, having gone into unsettling fictional territory — felt a return to the more stable world of Jane Austen was in order:

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

Yet even as Martineau appears to close the narrative down, she opens it up in a new way. She foreshadows TS Eliot by pointing out that none of us “can bear very much reality.” Even her most high-minded characters, the ones who did not shrink from the sick and the dying, turn from the “brown and bare” graves in the churchyard. They want to rewrite the script, banish dystopia, and invent a greener, more pleasant land.

Perhaps our only certainty is that novelists — past and present — need to bring in disruption. What, we might ask, could be more disruptive than a pandemic? The Sir William Hunters of our time huddle with their SPADs in Downing Street. The contemporary Grey family is off to Barnard Castle. Meanwhile Baroness Hallett’s — our modern Martineau — will produce a work that runs to dozens of volumes. 

And the rest of us? 

We must aspire to “tolerable comfort”. We can remind ourselves — repeatedly — that terror is “unnecessary”. We insist that, despite our under-resourced NHS, we shall still take “rational care of health.”

 Currently Deerbrook is out of print, but it can be obtained via Kindle.

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