It must surely be one of the most remarkable coincidences in modern publishing that Chen Chung-jen (陳重仁), an associate professor at National Taiwan University, should come up with a book on 19th century English epidemics and their treatment by Victorian novelists a mere three months before the coronavirus burst so unexpectedly on the contemporary scene.
“We still live in the shadow of Victorian contagions, our lives shaped by the fear they inspired and the ignorant, arrogant and prejudiced responses with which they were met,” he writes. “Victorian contagions are also our own.”
He can hardly have had an inkling of how prophetic his words would become.
In reality, though, Victorian Contagion doesn’t deal with epidemics as such, but more with the measures taken for avoiding them, such as the movements for ventilation, sanitation and fresh air in the habitations of the poor. Charles Dickens was at the forefront of this development, highlighting the squalid homes of London’s very poor in his second novel, Oliver Twist, following the largely comic concerns of his debut, Pickwick Papers.
Dickens dominates this book. Elisabeth Gaskell, who had researched poverty in Manchester rather than London, has her place, but George Eliot (the pen-name for Mary Ann Evans) isn’t dealt with at all, probably because she wrote about rural and provincial life rather than that of London, which had by her time become the biggest city in the world.
As for Gaskell, the author points out by reference to two of her letters (on which he lays great emphasis) that when she first met her fellow novelist Charlotte Bronte, whose biography she was to write, her emphasis was on the order and cleanliness of her home rather than her personal appearance.
Dickens was active on many levels, and not only because he believed the novel could change social conditions as well as expose them. He worked, for instance, to set up Urania Cottage, a home for reformed prostitutes, though this was an area he felt he couldn’t write about explicitly in his novels.
Instead, he wrote about fresh air. This was related to the concept of a “miasma,” bad and infectious air that was believed to hang over places such as garbage heaps, that was thought to be the medium through which disease was transmitted. When Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, died of typhoid in 1861 it was believed he’d been the victim of an improbable lack of ventilation in the wing of Windsor Castle where he lived, not from contact with infected people.
And in Dickens’s Bleak House the High Court of Chancery is shrouded in fog and has an atmosphere of airlessness, as well as producing decayed properties endlessly awaiting its decisions through the length and breadth of the land.
Cleanliness was next to godliness, the Victorians believed. The mid-century movement for better sanitation was pioneered by Edwin Chadwick, whose Report on an Enquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Laboring Population of Great Britain was published in 1842 (at his own expense). Henry Mayhew’s London Labor and the London Poor also contributed to enlightening the middle classes as to the conditions surrounding them. It came out in 1851 in three volumes, following serial publication in the 1840s.
The older idea had been that disease was the result of immoral or deviant behavior. The theory of contagion, however, was of a “social network which subversibly connects us all.” Simultaneously, “germ theory”, which held that every disease had its own particular germ, began to replace “miasma-theory.” And of course germ-theory was the correct analysis.
In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s last completed novel, London is depicted as a city characterized by dung-heaps, or “dust heaps” as the Victorians called them. “Dust” was the Victorian term for garbage or trash, hence the term, still current in the UK, of garbage collectors as “dustmen.”
Epidemics struck where living conditions were worst, reformers such as Dickens believed. Reformed sanitation thus became the reformists’ cry. And it’s no accident that even today coronavirus deaths in the UK are reported to be twice as high in deprived areas as in prosperous ones, exactly as Chadwick found 170 years ago. Cholera, incidentally, was the main scourge in those days, with typhoid and tuberculosis not far behind.
Dickens had other concerns, of course. In Hard Times he rails against an education based solely on scientific facts, so that a school pupil, Sissy Jupe, who has spent her life alongside circus horses, is unable to comprehend her teacher’s references to “herbivorous quadrupeds.” Dickens went to Preston in Lancashire in 1854 to observe industrial conditions there, and then re-named the town as “Coketown” in his novel.
Parallels with the coronavirus are seen in a public notice from Gateshead in north-eastern England where residents are warned against intemperate habits such as the consumption of “spirituous liquors,” and urged to attend to “the cleanliness of the house.” Free and continued admission of fresh air to all parts of the house and furniture was judged as “most essential.” There’s no mention of social distancing, but the basic idea that living conditions equate with vulnerability is nevertheless ever-present.
Chen opts to make out that all this was related to an increase in social control as a whole. This may or may not be the case. It’s hard to imagine Dickens as a proponent of increased government authority, though grand schemes for the improvement of sanitation such as Joseph Bazalgette’s plans for, and achievement of, the construction of London’s first major sewer would surely have had his approval.
This is a clearly-written book, with no hint of academic jargon, and it is in addition well-organized and thought-out. The detail will probably prove too much for the ordinary reader, but academic libraries might consider acquiring a copy, though at US$155 it’s disgracefully expensive.
Victorian Contagion:Risk and Social Control in the Victorian Literary Imagination
By Chung-jen Chen
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