Smallpox and the Literary Imagination, 1660-1820

By Mulvey-Roberts, Marie | Philological Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Smallpox and the Literary Imagination, 1660-1820


Mulvey-Roberts, Marie, Philological Quarterly


Smallpox and the Literary Imagination, 1660-1820 by David E. Shuttleton. Cambridge U. Press, 2007. Pp. xiii + 265. $91.

The writing of this review coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the last fatal case of smallpox, which occurred in Birmingham, England, in 1978. Janet Parker was a medical photographer, who had been working in a room above the smallpox laboratory at the University Medical School. The Abid strain of the virus traveled up a service duct into the room and infected her. She developed spots, which were mistaken for a benign rash. Later Mrs. Parker was diagnosed as having contracted variola major, the most lethal type of the disease. The vaccination she had received twelve years earlier was not recent enough to protect her and so she died over two weeks later.

During the twentieth century, this deadly disease was responsible for at least 300 million deaths world-wide, yet it was during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that it reached epidemic proportions in Europe, having overtaken the plague, leprosy and syphilis as the predominant killer disease. In 1771, smallpox was responsible for 17 percent of deaths in London. The pestilence is now assigned to medical history and the literary imagination since the virus, known as the speckled monster, remains under lock and key in two high-security laboratories, in America and Siberia. The tale of when it roamed the earth is one of a Gothic monstrosity that remained unleashed for well over a millennium. In the first substantial book on the literary representation of smallpox and its victims, David Shuttleton focuses on the period from the Restoration through the rise of inoculation up to 1820. He shows how the corporeal reality of smallpox need not detract from it as a category of the imagination. Even while it roamed freely around Britain, the disease still retained a hold on popular imaginings.

In his opening chapter, "Contagion by Conceit," Shuttleton shows how some believed that smallpox could be triggered by fear, which is redolent of folklore beliefs in "the malevolent power of a bewitching, contagious gaze" (xi). The sight of an afflicted person may be summed up by Steven Connor's description of the eighteenth-century "bodyscape" as "the nauseating phantasmagoria of rotting, eruptive and squamous skins" (3). Smallpox clashed with the ideology of the beautiful death, rendering "prematurely putrescent loved ones," in the words of popular versifier Isaac Watts, "Now loathsome and unlovely" (94-95). The smallpox victim was a living memento mori, who embodied both the sight and smell of the grave. The patient's progress towards either death or disfigurement was inscribed on the skin by the hieroglyphics of lesions, vesicles, and pustules. By sometimes erasing features, smallpox could alter identity to the point where the face would become a veritable tabula rasa. The face of a young man with confluent smallpox, a particularly virulent variety that caused blisters to merge into sheets, was described by Dr. Thomas Dale as "nothing but one continuous Crust, resembling a kind of Parchment, or rather a white Wall" (157).

The reference to parchment, which had traditionally been made from animal skin, is a reminder of the link between the body, writing, and smallpox, whose indelible signature is signed upon the face. The rise of smallpox coincided with the rise of the novel and it was used as a plot device, which could evoke both melodrama and pathos. The challenge for the poet, particularly during the neoclassical period, was how to reconcile poetry with pus. As medical historian Genevieve Miller pointed out, the "Age of Reason" could also be labelled the "age of Smallpox" (2). In his verse "Upon the Death of Lord Hastings" (1649) from Lachrymae Musarum, John Dryden transforms "weeping pustules" into "tears of repentant rebels" (69), thereby turning somatic insurrection into a metaphor for rebellion against the body politic. …

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