Mr. Sangsby and Jo from Dickens's Bleak House (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The fear of the fever: how we are now living the authentic Victorian experience

Covid-19 is bringing us closer to the Victorians more than any recreation of an 1830s London townhouse ever could

Last Saturday, the Dickens Museum in London opened for the first time since lockdown. The house that Dickens lived in for two and a half years in the 1830s remains a world-class museum dedicated to the life and work of the venerated author, as well as curating thousands of Dickens-related artefacts. It is a beautiful recreation of an early-Victorian domestic house. It has opened with reduced hours to match the anticipated reduced footfall – and expects reduced revenue. The museum’s director Dr Cindy Sughrue told the BBC “We’re expecting our admissions in summer to be 25% of what they were last year. I anticipate it will take at least a year to rebuild visitor numbers.”

Entry is staggered, at fifteen minute intervals and, I’d imagine, masks will be mandatory. The museum is planning to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s death with an exhibition of colourised photographs. Perhaps visitors will have their temperature taken by an out-of-work actress dressed as a Victorian housemaid. Won’t that be fun! It would be more fun than having a fever in Dickens’s time. A visit to Doughty Street would be like a trip to another world, wouldn’t it? A brief look into any mid-Victorian novel reveals how little we have to worry about the four big diseases that dominated Victorian London. Typhus, scarlet fever, cholera and tuberculosis have now been rendered curable or obsolete. Until December 2019 the fear a sudden high fever could bring could only be brought home to us by reading the well-thumbed pages of Victorian novels.

Linking death with viral fever was so much a part of everyday life as to become impossible to divorce from the Victorian mindset

In Dickens’s novels, fevers have a narrative function. When a character falls ill with a fever the only three outcomes are disfigurement, destruction or moral salvation. The pathological fear that a high fever incited was exacerbated by the absence of any empirical understanding about what germs were, or how viruses mutated. Linking death with viral fever was so much a part of everyday life as to become impossible to divorce from the Victorian mindset.

There is something distinctly other-worldly and mysterious about fevers in Dickens’s novels. Fever dreams allow characters to discover never-before felt depths of feeling through delirium (often called ‘brain fever’), indulge in the Victorian preoccupation with hysteria and ramp up the melodrama to push forward plot development. The fever becomes the disease, not a precursor to it. In a time where accurate disease diagnosis is often not possible, let alone any understanding of immune responses, there is a vagueness as to what characters are suffering from. Dickens does not make it clear what Little Nell dies of in The Old Curiosity Shop, other than her bones are painful, which may indicate rheumatic fever. Perhaps it is not important what she dies of, only that she has to die. “Consumption” did not always refer to tuberculosis, for example, but was often used to describe a whole host of coughing, wasting and Covid-like diseases.

As the delirium and the temporary loss of one’s conscious mind are seemingly impossible to fathom, the mid-Victorian mind envisaged a feverish episode as the soul leaving the body and going somewhere else. Feverish children, whether they die of fevers or survive them, always have a connection to heaven. In Oliver Twist, a novel Dickens wrote while in residence at Doughty Street, Oliver has a high fever and slips into a space between life and death. He thinks he sees his dead mother. The sick room ‘brought into the boy’s mind the thought that death had been hovering there’. When the illness finally leaves him he feels cheerful and happy: “The crisis of the disease was safely past. He belonged to the world again.’ Unlike many of Dickens’s child characters who become ill, Oliver is denied the mawkish deathbed scene, leaves the world of the dead and is returned to earth.

Dickens lets adults off less lightly. They are not allowed to feel cheerful and happy. If they survive a fever they must experience a redemption, often an entire repointing of their moral compass. Once the fever is gone, they behave completely differently. Instead of being “out of character” the suggestion is that they are an entirely new character, the fever dream not being the mental fog we have been warned Covid can carry in its wake, but the opposite : a moment of revelation and clarity. They are made anew. In Great Expectations, Pip’s delirious fever dream forces him to confront his wasteful ways, and his recovery brings repentance, and the desire to live with less profligacy. Dick Swillett’s fever in The Old Curiosity Shop heralds his decision to stop being a pointless layabout and help a man wrongly accused of a crime. What are Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Eve visitations of hallucinations and ghosts if not a feverish dream?

With so little rational knowledge of viruses available, Dickens’s characters have no choice but to offer themselves to fate. There is a distinctly Dickensian fatalism going on in his later novels, in particular in Bleak House, where mid-century fears surrounding contamination and circulation are represented by the presence of contagious smallpox fever. It rips through the character list, exposing the connections that some of its characters have worked decades to conceal, oblivious to class privilege, gender or social standing. It is the most socially mobile agent in the novel. Interestingly, although Bleak House was written ten years before Louis Pasteur carried out his investigations of the links between germ theory and infectious disease, an instinctive understanding of how to avoid infection– what we would call social distancing – is evident. When Jo the crossing sweeper becomes feverish, close contact is prohibited, vinegar is sprinkled on the floor and the patient is kept in a separate attic room which must be regularly aired.

A century of germ theory and virology has meant we don’t know how to cope with the unknowability of a fever

There are chronic fevers, continued fevers, wasting fevers, tramps fevers, hectic fevers and putrid fevers. The word fever bled into the culture: Wilkie Collins, Dickens’s friend and associate, coined the phrase ‘detective fever’ to describe the feverish excitement of a detective story. He wrote most of his late-1860s output whilst suffering feverish episodes, claiming that he took so much opium to anaesthetise himself during a bout of rheumatic fever that he could not remember writing the end of The Moonstone.

A century of germ theory and virology has meant we don’t know how to cope with the unknowability of a fever. We now have a visceral, embodied feeling of the fear of fevers, just as our great-grandparents did. The blank space where the pathology of Covid should be is filled with our own fatalistic assumptions and paranoid fears. Just because we have replaced sprinkles of white vinegar and roaring fires for hand sanitiser and Dettol wipes does not mean we are any less Victorian than our ancestors.

In our feverish terror of this unmappable pandemic we are all unleashing our inner Dickensians. I wish the Dickens Museum the very best of luck for its socially distanced reopening, but I imagine footfall will be down. No one needs to visit Doughty Street for the authentic Victorian experience when we already have one.

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