Funny how you just accept certain phrases - Sweet Fanny Adams, who was Fanny Adams? (And no, it's not just a euphemism for something rather more strongly worded). How about Kilroy, who is always 'ere? What about Gordon Bennett? Or Typhoid Mary?

Mary Beth Keane's novel, Fever, tells the story of "Typhoid Mary", actually Mary Mallon, and her partner, Albert; and follows the horrendous story of her life. Mallon was an Irish immigrant to New York in the late nineteenth century. Brought up to be a laundress, Mallon had aspirations to make a better life for herself. She was determined to be a cook, and ended up cooking for some of the top New York families. Typhoid and other diseases were endemic in the overcrowded streets of the Big Apple in the late nineteenth / early twentieth century, but after some particularly nasty bouts of typhoid, a Dr. Soper, a sanitary engineer, who was in the vanguard of new approaches to health did some investigation, and realised that the common link was Ms Mallon.

Mary was unlucky in that she was an asymptomatic carrier, so she had no knowledge that she was a carrier of typhoid, but unfortunately she was able to pass the disease on through her handling of food. Apparently it is known today that asymptomatic carriers are not particularly unusual and they continue to pose a problem. 

Mary was incarcerated first in a hospital, and then on an island in the East River, near the notorious Riker's Island. During this time she was given no access to a lawyer, little care was taken of her own health (she ended up in an isolation hospital for consumptives), she wasn't even allowed to communicate with her friends and family. Later there was some degree of freedom, and she was eventually allowed back home on condition that she didn't cook.

For a while she kept a low profile, and started to work as a laundress again; but whether it was because Mary genuinely loved cooking, the money was too good to turn down, or she believed that medical opinion was wrong (or even as some would believe with malice aforethought), she returned to cooking; and there was soon an outbreak of typhoid in a maternity hospital, where several people died. Mary was cornered and taken back to North Brother Island, where she died on November 11th (the day I finished the novel!) 1938.

Keane tells the story with great humanity, she doesn't judge Mary, and she also points out the double standards of the day. Several other asymptomatic carriers were also known, but they were treated far more humanely than Mary. The men were allowed to keep their jobs, with some minor adjustments, and they were certainly not slammed into isolation, or forced to have humiliating, and sometimes pointless, medical procedures performed on them. Keane argues persuasively in her novel that much of the attitude towards Mary was because of discrimination to her sex, her class (a washerwoman who can write? How is that possible?), her nationality, and perhaps most of all her determination as a woman to stand up for herself.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. It's a stunning evocation of a period, and a place, and for that alone it should be applauded. As far as Mallon herself was concerned, I wasn't altogether persuaded by Keane. The earlier outbreaks Mary was certainly innocent, in that she didn't know the danger that she was inadvertently putting other people into. And Dr. Soper, undoubtedly sounds a most unpleasant character, who is determined to milk the person who has made his name. However the story of Mary's return to her life as a cook, and the terrible climax at the Sloane Maternity Hospital, made for difficult reading. I'm still not sure whether Mary was rather more stupid than Keane would like to believe, or was indeed malicious. Perhaps we can't altogether blame her for any malice in view of the inhuman treatment she had received during an earlier outbreak. Ultimately, of course we will never know for sure Mallon's reasoning, but Keane portrays her central character, and her flawed drugged partner, Alfred, with great humanity, and brings these difficult characters brilliantly to life.

I loved Fever, and it's well worth reading. Discrimination against those with an illness is still with us today. Fever makes salutary reading.


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