You might be reading this post in an unprecedented state of lockdown or at least of social isolation. But contagious diseases have been around as long as people have. Measles and, to a lesser extent, diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, and chicken pox are an important backdrop in Elsie J. Oxenham’s world and appear frequently. These highly infectious diseases are a Very Useful Plot Device for a novelist! They are more useful than, say, a heavy snowfall or a flood as these latter situations can usually be resolved relatively quickly: roads are opened and floodwaters recede. Instead, contagious diseases can uproot or close a school for a lengthy period of time; they can separate characters or cause them to have to go into quarantine and miss school. A character’s reaction to a disease can also tell us something about her. Elsie J. Oxenham’s approach to contagion and quarantine seems quaint and almost benign in our world of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, before going any further in exploring the topic, let’s give EJO an enormous bye—she was not writing treatises on contagion and quarantine; she was writing fun stories for girls and young women. Moreover, while the above contagious diseases can lead to serious consequences including death, they do not have the morbidity and mortality rate that the novel coronavirus has.
Measles is a very serious and easily-communicable virus—nine out of ten people who are not immune and who share living space with an infected person will be infected. It can cause death, particularly in young children. It is an airborne disease that spreads through coughs and sneezes, but it can also be spread through contact with mouth or nasal secretions. Wikipedia notes that symptoms usually develop 10–12 days after exposure to an infected person and last 7–10 days. As EJO relates, initial symptoms include high fever, cough, runny nose and inflamed eyes—some of these symptoms seem like a cold at first. Spots begin three to five days after the start of symptoms. Patients are infectious from four days before to four days after the start of the rash. Oxenham was unfamiliar with the concepts of an asymptomatic carrier or a super-spreader. In her stories, measles are only suspected of being spread from the beginning of the fever, and sometimes the spots appear right away.
In A06_Stowaways in the Abbey, Jen has spent considerable time with both Joy and Joan the night before they come down with fever, just as Jacky-boy has spent time with the young housemaid at her house. They are both put into quarantine the subsequent day, and quarantine will last two weeks, which is about right given that the virus incubates for 10 to 14 days. But their quarantine viewed through the eyes of our Covid-19 world is both weirdly strict and weirdly lax. We’re not talking social isolation here! No masks or gloves! There is no tracing back of contacts to others that Joy, Joan, and the housemaid might have encountered several days prior to showing symptoms but when they could still infect others. Jen is called a “measles suspect,” but she wanders freely around Abinger Hall and the Abbey, where she asks Mrs. Watson to go buy treats for her in the village, which is where the measles started in the first place. The novelist allows Jack and Jen to be quarantined together—one needs to maintain the story, after all!—without thinking that either one could have the disease without displaying symptoms yet and then infect the other. Jack’s parents are happy to have her quarantined at the Hall as this means their own house will not have to be put in quarantine; as the only young person in the house she is the only suspect. (The housemaid was packed away to the “isolation” hospital. Jack’s father is a doctor and he can’t have his house in quarantine—possibly because his office is in it.)
However, the Nurse and Mrs. Shirley, who are attending the patients, must disinfect themselves before coming down from the sick-rooms. They change their clothes and probably wash their hands with carbolic acid—we’re told that this is a lot of “bother,” but EJO doesn’t provide many other details. Jen’s notes to Joan can be delivered directly to her, but Joan’s to Jen have to be disinfected. This protocol is somewhat in contradiction to what was said in A01_Girls of the Hamlet Club when the mean girls’ costumes are in a quarantined house and apparently cannot be retrieved at all. The doctor, Sir Keith Marchwood, and other adults seem quite convinced that measles is a childhood ailment and that they are past getting it (they would in fact be immune if they had had it when younger).
So EJO’s quarantine is not our lockdown. Adults appear to be able to move in and out of a quarantined house with comparative ease. The quarantine seems to be principally about keeping the sick or the “suspects” away from other children and young people.
What did you do during a quarantine? No Zoom! No funny YouTube coronavirus songs! No late-night TV hosts broadcasting from their homes as their hair gets longer and longer!
Well, you do pretty much what you did before only you can’t leave your house and grounds. Jen and Jack play cricket and can take a long walk on the isolated hills. In The Two Form Captains, Tazy Kingston, in solo quarantine after contracting scarlet fever, wistfully watches other girls practicing English country dances on the other side of the Sanatorium fence. Fresh air and mild exercise is much encouraged for those who are recuperating as well as those who have been nursing them. There is a mention of books and puzzles, although we rarely see anyone engaged with these gentle activities. Of course, reading is not particularly adventuresome, especially in novels aimed at young readers, but Jane Austen certainly made it seem so!
Disease can reveal character: in some of the later novels that are set semi-simultaneously, Lady Joy in New York City refuses to return to England for an important event because one of her several Hamlet Club nursemaids, Queen Bee, has come down with a bad case of typhoid fever, and Joy refuses to leave her. This action shows us the good side of Joy’s character—it also serves to keep her often-difficult personality off-stage for several installments.
In A31_An Abbey Champion, Oxenham uses Jansy Raymond’s quarantining for chicken pox as a way of showing nearly fourteen-year-old Littlejan Fraser’s character and her commitment to the Hamlet Club motto and ideal behavior. Littlejan hears ten-year-old Jansy crying when the doom of quarantine is upon her. Littlejan, who has had the chicken pox, knows that Jansy’s mother, who is also caring for two younger children, one of whom is a nursing baby, will not be able to spend much time with the little girl. Despite the fact that going into quarantine will mean that Littlejan will have to give up performing the upcoming Folk Play and attending the dance school that she is so keenly looking forward to, she puts herself into quarantine with Jansy. This selfless action earns her the respect of all; the girls agree to postpone the Play and the dancing school until Littlejan can participate, and her action will lead to her being elected May Queen: Queen Marigold.
Part of Littlejan’s inspiration—beyond the Hamlet Club commitment to making the harder choice that involves sacrifice—is thinking of young Belinda Bellanne’s similar action in A28_Maid of the Abbey, when the Marchwood twins come down with measles while their mother, Lady Joy Quellyn, is in New York City. Lindy, who is immune, offers to go into quarantine with them so that singer Maidlin di Ravarati, who is in charge of the girls, can continue to give concerts. This action will earn her the reward of becoming Maidlin’s musical protegée. But a troubling aspect of Maid of the Abbey is that the measles have been brought to the house by the cook, Susie Spindle, who had had them fifteen years earlier (Abbey Time) in Stowaways. She is now a widow with a young child housed in the village. There has been an outbreak of measles, and Susie visited her baby two weeks prior to exhibiting symptoms herself. Apparently, she had thoughtlessly not taken proper precautions. (This also, most unusually, makes her a two-time measler.) Maidlin and Mary-Dorothy are very angry with her, as the twins have been treated like royalty and have never had any infectious diseases. They want to “wring her neck” and they say that Joy will never let Susie back to the house again. Susie is packed off to the hospital. As it happens many times in the series, the issue of class has been indirectly raised—reading between the lines, if Susie had been a middle-class mother rather than just “village,” she would have sacrificed her need to see her own baby in order to protect the precious Marchwood twins. We will see this principle in reverse in A29_Jandy Mac Comes Back when Jandy Mac has to choose between caring for her own unconscious daughter or galloping to the police to give them word of the movements of the kidnappers of the Countess’s baby. Of course she does the latter—that’s playing the game!
This blog series is for lovers of Elsie Oxenham’s works and for lovers of folk dance. Unfortunately for the latter, it is going to be a very long time—perhaps years—before we will dance together again. In the meantime, for both groups of readers, I recommend a visit to the Abbey! Yes, Oxenham’s world is both romantic and unrealistic—but it is oddly soothing and comforting as well. I would love to be quarantined at Abinger Hall!