Bleak House, Dickens, Inspector Bucket and the Beast, Old Testament, Smallpox, Susan Sontag, The Book of Job
“That stinking child! Look what she did to me. Look!” He began to rub at his cheek where he had been perspiring, and, as the cakes of paste seemed to fall away, he slowly uncovered a face terribly lined and pocked with smallpox scars. “Look at me! Look at me!” he shouted. Everyone in the whole room looked at him with fresh distaste.
(Inspector Bucket and the Beast, Dahliapublishing.co.uk)
In life, as well as in literature, the idea of being struck down by disease always seems to have had a moral implication. Here, in this quotation from my ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’, once the malevolent Beast is unveiled it is clear that his ugly character is matched by his true ugly and “distasteful” appearance – in this instance caused by smallpox. I confess, now that I have read some of it, that I am perpetrating the wrong described by Susan Sontag (in her essay ‘Illness as Metaphor‘) of using disease as a metaphor for character. The correlation is clear: if you are wicked you will be punished with an affliction. I am not, of course, alone in doing this sort of thing. We can see this attitude to disease, for example, in the earliest reactions to AIDS, which was widely seen, I remember, as the ‘gay disease’ – in other words AIDS was considered by some to be some sort of moral judgement on and punishment for the ‘sin’ of being homosexual.
Disease as moral punishment starts as long ago as (and no doubt before) the Old Testament. For example, because the pharaoh wouldn’t let The Israelites go free, therefore disobeying God’s will, Egypt was punished with ten plagues, the sixth of which was “boils”
“And the LORD said unto Moses and unto Aaron, Take to you handfuls of ashes of the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it toward the heaven in the sight of Pharaoh. And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 9:8)
I’ve always wondered why God didn’t just spring the Israelites himself, rather than forcing Egypt to undergo all the unnecessary horror of dispensing TEN Plagues. But let’s leave that to one side for a moment. God seems to have had a thing about boils and sores and tumours. Skin complaints of all kind actually:
“The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.” (Revelations 16:2)
“But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them.”(1 Samuel 5:9)
It’s clear already that disease is to be seen as the direct result of disobeying the Lord’s strictures.
And as it is in theology so it will be in history.
“…. there came the death-dealing pestilence, which through our own iniquitous doings, (was) sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God …”—Giovanni Boccaccio
According to William Blake, it was “boils” that Satan smites Job with, not the pox (neither the grand – syphilus – nor the small version) and not the plague. But it seems, in actuality, that the Hebrew term used in the Bible at this point in Job’s seemingly interminable sufferings was (apparently) non-specific. Satan, theoretically I suppose, had every disease in the universe available to him (past, present and future). He could have applied any chronic disease that took his fancy. Chief culprit as far as biblical scholars is concerned, it seems, is leprosy. (1)
But in the 17th and 18th centuries physicians and pamphleteers wondered(2) if it mightn’t have been smallpox after all that Job had been afflicted with, for surely (they thought) there must be some biblical precedent for such a terrible scourge. It is no wonder that they saw smallpox as something that surely must have had cosmic antecedents for it was the cause of such epic and widespread carnage. According to one calculation made in 1760, smallpox is said to have accounted for one-tenth of all mortality during that period. It affected approximately three quarters of all living people in the 18th century. If true, this is a remarkable statistic. (it was still killing vast numbers of people a year worldwide in the early 1950s(3) and though eradicated by 1977 is still rumoured to be extant and possibly obtainable by terrorists.)
By the latter part of the 17th Century, data from the Bills of Mortality (2) indicated (according to the statisticians) that smallpox had supplanted the plague as Great Britain’s biggest killer, as well as the biggest scourge on those who survived it – for its consequence, if not death, was blindness and disfigurement. As Ben Jonson(3)said smallpox could “nullify a face.”
Despite the beginnings of vaccination, Smallpox was an ever-present feature of life in the 19th century too, as I try to show in my own novel. In the following quotation the child killer, finally tracked down by Inspector Bucket, wonders aloud if Bucket’s own child, like the Beast himself, might not have suffered from the dread disease:
“I believe the one child you and your wife … spawn(ed) died of some disease,” he taunted. “What was it, Inspector, what was it? Influenza? Cholera? Or was it the smallpox?” He paused, pondering. “I might have died of that too.”
The literature of the 19th century generally, it might seem, treated smallpox as so much part of the fabric of life that, as in George Elliot’s ‘Daniel Daronda’, its consequences might be used as a commonplace comparison with feelings of rejected love. For one character (Alex) we are told, “… the disappointment of a youthful passion has effects as incalculable as those of small-pox …” Similarly In ‘The Sad History of the Reverend Amos Barton’ (‘Clerical Lives’) Amos has, “a narrow face of no particular complexion – even the smallpox that has attacked it seems to have been of a mongrel, indefinite kind.” So prevalent were smallpox scars throughout this period that Wilkie Collins too, like Elliot, refers to smallpox almost casually in his depiction of characters’ features. In two of his sensationalist novels, for example, (‘Poor Miss Finch’ and ‘No Name’ ) several characters are described as having faces “pitted” or “deeply pitted with the smallpox.” The implication is often that the smallpox sufferer is at heart a wicked person or, as in the case of Amos Burton, judged by others to be so.
Of course the righteous, or the noble and the beautiful, are, on the whole, content (at least philosophically) to see disease as a judgement on the wicked and the irresponsible poor, but smallpox was different in that it was egalitarian in its attacks. That is, the wealthy and the noble were as likely to be smitten by it as the poor and disreputable.This was very unlike the plague, which seemed to deliberatly select the poor and spare (certainly in terms of numbers affected) the rich because (presumably) they could retreat to their country estates and generally they had a standard of living which (relative to the state of the poor) protected them from the sources of infection. Nobody, it was felt, could suspect a lady to die of the plague(!) But, apparently, smallpox wasn’t quite so class-conscious as its sister scourge.
Queen Anne, for instance, suffered a severe attack from smallpox (and her son died of it, putting paid to the future hopes of the Stuarts).The son and daughter of Charles 1st died of it too, as did Queen Mary. The plague was seen very much as a judgement of God for wickedness. But when the victims of smallpox seemed to be everybody, the pure and the angelic as well as the wicked and the ugly, the simplistic notion of divine punishment for sin perhaps needed to be modified (that is if the well off wanted to continue to maintain their faith in a benign Creator.)
Job’s afflictions are not, of course, the consequence of his wicked behaviour either (though his friends and relatives, like the parishoners of Amos Barton, quickly jump to this conclusion). Job’s sufferings are, it seems, rather a test of his faith – of his inner beauty and steadfastness, rather than merely (!) an attack on his outward appearance.
My inspiration for ‘Inspector Bucket and The Beast’ is, of course, from Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ and it is in this novel that we see the character of Esther Summerson famously afflicted by smallpox. Esther is clearly a ‘good’ even an ‘heroic’ person, if often (it must be said) overwhelmingly sentimentalised. And yet she too, falls prey (by common critical agreement) to smallpox (though like Job the illness is never actually specified). She survives but is (temporarily) made blind by it. Dickens is clearly using smallpox, as well as the other ‘infections’ in the novel such as cholera and money and the law and legal system) as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of society. Lady Dedlock’s love affair with ‘Nemo’, now an impoverished document copier, links her with the poor classes and the likes of Jo the crossing sweeper – from whom Esther, by way of Charley, contracts her smallpox (because of her many acts of selfless care.) In turn she could have infected the wards of Jarndyce, Ada and Richard, but, selflessly again, shuts herself off from them. The upper, the middle and the poor classes are connected by a chain. Esther’s ultimate reward is that Allan Woodcourt, the stalwart surgeon, who, like her, is connected to and cares for people in all classes, marries her and sees only beauty in her. Dickens is here showing (unlike my poor effort in ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’) that the uglness of smallpox (and by extension any disease) may reveal the beauty and moral strength of the person within.
Just as it did in the end with Job.
(1) J. E Hartley,’‘Book of Job’.
(2) R.A. Anselment ‘Smallpox in Seventeenth Century English Literature
(3) According to the W.H.O. factsheet, 50000 worldwide a year
(4) An Epigram to the Smallpox