Saturday, October 25, 2008

No Light Confection, This

One of the dangers of living in an "advanced society" is a degree of arrogance toward those who came before. I recently read a little novel about the Great Plague of 1665 in London, and I couldn't keep from wondering how we in the 21st century would react if we were faced with circumstances similar to what the Londoners faced. I have a hunch that, regardless of how "advanced" we think we are, people would react in much the same way.

The novel was At the Sign of the Sugared Plum by Mary Hooper. It's a simple, short book for relatively young readers, but I found it to be really thought-provoking. The main character, Hannah, is a young girl who is coming from the country to live in London and work in her sister Sarah's sweetmeat shop (that's a candy shop, if you find it as confusing at first as I did). Hannah is excited about the prospect of living in the big city, and her top priorities are catching up on the city fashions and finding a sweetheart. Unfortunately for Hannah, she's come to London just as the plague has -- shortly after her arrival, the Bills of Mortality are announcing the number of deaths in St. Giles' parish has doubled during the week. Then the deaths begin in other parishes, then a neighbor's house is shut up for plague, then the Bills of Mortality begin to number in the thousands each week. Hannah's obsession with fashion is forgotten as she observes piles of bodies carelessly dumped into mass graves. Hooper does a fine job of moving Hannah's character through a growing awareness of the seriousness of the times she's living in.

One reason I liked the book so much was because it was so rich in historical detail. I've read other stories in which the plague had a role, but none of them ever brought home to me the way Hooper's book did the reality of what it must have been like to live during those times. The people of London were faced with an overwhelming crisis over which they seemingly had no control, and I find it fascinating to learn about how they reacted to that crisis. They had no idea what was causing the plague or how it was moving from one person to another; as a result, a hearty market for "plague preventatives" developed. Knowing what we know now, some of the things people tried to do to avoid plague infection were laughable -- carrying a handful of flowers to sniff, smoking heavily, taking specific herbal potions made to match up with their birth sign. Other things they did are horrifying, such as forcibly barricading an entire family into their home for forty days when a single member fell ill with plague, or killing virtually all the cats and dogs in the city. I also think it's interesting to look at the "civic government" side of the issue. Can you imagine being a city official who has to figure out how to dispose of 7,000 bodies in a single week, knowing next week there may be 10,000?

All that brings me back to my original statement. We look back on how seventeenth-century Londoners responded to the crisis of their times, and with the superior knowledge of history on our side, we can laugh at the ineffectiveness of their plague preventatives or condemn their practice of quarantining victims for its role in increasing the number of deaths. But I wonder if we would fare any better if we were faced with our own crisis, and I'm afraid the answer would be probably not. Human nature being what it is, we would probably respond with the same type of irrational fear.

We do have the advantage now of understanding germs and how disease is spread; but consider the descriptions of a possible outbreak of Ebola or bird flu. We may be able to understand that the disease is caused by a virus and that it's spread by contact with air-borne particles, but would that keep us from reacting with fear if or when we came in contact with someone who was ill? In one sad scene in the book, a child of one of Hannah's neighbors has died of plague, meaning the whole family will not only have to deal with grief but with being locked up. People from the neighborhood gather around to watch the scene when the baby's body is taken out of the house, but Hannah notices no one goes forward to comfort the distraught mother or to take care of the two little boys who are left. Would we be any different today? Or would we be like the "quality" folk of London, who got their Certificates of Health and got as far away from the city as they possibly could?

I don't mean to say that I believe everyone is so callused to the suffering of others. Actually, Hooper does a good job in showing Hannah dealing with the conflict of knowing what others need and wanting to do something to help, but fearing for her own safety so much that she can't make herself do what she knows need to be done. That's humanity, I think. In the end, Hannah and Sarah do take a big risk to do something to help someone else (although, of course, they get a big benefit as well). I like to think that "our better angels" will come out -- at least sometimes. Maybe the bigger the crisis, the more extreme the conflict in our human nature appears - there is a mighty pull for self-preservation, but maybe it will be balanced by noble regard for the needs of others and courage to risk personal danger.

Did I ever say I love historical fiction?