The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

While reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Ruth in connection with another project, I came across some passages that seemed uncannily apt to our own situation – the Great Fever of 2020.

As the text wends its way towards a conclusion, fever strikes, allowing Gaskell a space in which to digress on infectious disease and its effect on a community:

Old people tell of certain years when typhus fever swept over the country like a pestilence; years that bring back the remembrance of deep sorrow—refusing to be comforted—to many a household; and which those whose beloved passed through the fiery time unscathed, shrink from recalling: for great and tremulous was the anxiety—miserable the constant watching for evil symptoms; and beyond the threshold of home a dense cloud of depression hung over society at large.

There are real resonances with our own situation here: the fear of disease and the depression of social isolation. The fever spread quickly and, as today, caught people off-guard. Carers were dying and there was a shortage of staff and facilities; problems which face our own health service, advanced as it is. Ruth then volunteers to nurse the sick, again striking a chord with the volunteers who have put themselves at risk to help alleviate the pressure on our overstretched services:

Before the medical men of Eccleston had had time to meet together and consult, and compare the knowledge of the fever which they had severally gained, it had, like the blaze of a fire which had long smouldered, burst forth in many places at once—not merely among the loose-living and vicious, but among the decently poor—nay, even among the well-to-do and respectable. And to add to the horror, like all similar pestilences, its course was most rapid at first, and was fatal in the great majority of cases—hopeless from the beginning. There was a cry, and then a deep silence, and then rose the long wail of the survivors.

A portion of the Infirmary of the town was added to that already set apart for a fever-ward; the smitten were carried thither at once, whenever it was possible, in order to prevent the spread of infection; and on that lazar-house was concentrated all the medical skill and force of the place.

But when one of the physicians had died, in consequence of his attendance—when the customary staff of matrons and nurses had been swept off in two days—and the nurses belonging to the Infirmary had shrunk from being drafted into the pestilential fever-ward—when high wages had failed to tempt any to what, in their panic, they considered as certain death—when the doctors stood aghast at the swift mortality among the untended sufferers, who were dependent only on the care of the most ignorant hirelings, too brutal to recognise the solemnity of Death (all this had happened within a week from the first acknowledgment of the presence of the plague).

I became interested in discovering whether Gaskell had based her ‘plague’ on an actual incident, or whether it could have been a plausible and convenient way to end her novel. She needed some way of maintaining her sympathetic portrayal of Ruth while satisfying the need for a socially acceptable conclusion.

A victim of cholera in 1832 (Wellcome Collection Gallery)

As we know, Manchester experienced a major cholera epidemic in 1832, at the time when Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, Dr Samuel Gaskell, was working at the Manchester Cholera Hospital in Ancoats.  The disease had its origins in Bengal and the first outbreak in Britain was in Sunderland in 1831. From here, the disease spread northwards into Scotland and southwards towards London. Doctors knew the nature of the disease, but not its cause. It claimed 52,000 lives out of a population which (according to Wrigley and Schofields’ survey) stood at approximately 12-13 million. These outbreaks were not swiftly dealt with and recurrences occurred regularly; according to one source on the Victorian Web, the aftermath of the 1837-1838 outbreak saw 16,000 people become infected in each of the following four years.

Another epidemic, however, struck Britain during the mid-1840s. This was a very virulent form of typhus fever, which cut down rich and poor alike. The fever began in Ireland during the potato famine and by 1847 it had spread through England and Wales killing over 30,000 people.  During the same period, an influenza epidemic killed a further 13,000, and, of course, in 1845 Gaskell’s own son died after an outbreak of scarlet fever.  According to an article on the Victorian Web, scarlet fever ‘was responsible for over 20,000 deaths in 1840 alone’.

In a country where we take clean water for granted, it is inconceivable that such epidemics should give rise to diseases such as dysentery, but sanitation was poor and disease spread quickly.  Tracing its history, Richard Brown explains how in Soho: ‘the faeces of an infant stricken with cholera washed down into the water reserve from which the local pump drew and almost all those using the pump were infected’. Cholera and dysentery were often accompanied by influenza. Gaskell makes these points in her portrayal of the Davenports in Mary Barton and returns to them in a slightly different way in Ruth. Epidemics of varying sorts were part of these people’s lives. They have now become part of our own!  During my reading of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work, I am amazed at how relevant it is to modern society despite being written over one hundred and sixty years ago.

Diane Duffy