Monday, 30 January 2017

The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald

 
published 1948
 



 

On January 6th the charge nurse invited me to the Pines moving picture show, but the invitation [was] thickly encased in rules.

She said in part: “You are on the list to go to the movie tonight. You may wear makeup, if you wish, but you may not talk or laugh. You are to be ready by 7 o’clock, in your robe and slippers. You will be called for by a male [attendant]… but you are not to speak or to laugh with your escort. Your temperature and pulse will be taken as soon as you return to bed and if your temperature or your pulse has increased you will not be allowed to go to the next moving picture show.”…


After supper I was so excited my heart pounded like a jungle drum … I smeared on lipstick, wet my hair with drinking water and thought “This is living!”

I thought the picture itself rather a tactless choice for the joyous entertainment of patients in a tuberculosis sanatorium. It was Greta Garbo in Camille.





 
commentary: Two major pointers made me read this book. I have recently read Dark Circle by Linda Grant, and Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, both set among TB patients – and then my good friend Lissa Evans talked about this book in a Guardian feature about funny books. (By chance, Lissa’s new book, the excellent Wed Wabbit,  was on the blog last week.)

And now, excitingly, I think this may be the first book ever that Lissa and I disagree on! It is an amazing, gripping book, and one I found hard to put down, but I did not find it funny, I found it terrifying and affecting and sad and desperate, but only occasionally did it make me laugh.

This is what Lissa said in the Guardian:
Hovering between loneliness, terror and utter boredom, MacDonald writes about her seclusion in a way this is painfully, barkingly funny… Her style is completely her own, the sprawling sentences packed with anecdote, incident, bang-on simile and throwaway wit -it’s like hearing a conversation between someone who keeps forgetting to breathe and another who keeps asking ‘what happened next?’
And that is an excellent description. MacDonald has lightly fictionalized her own experience in a sanatorium near Seattle in the late 1930s, writing it as a memoir. As I had learned from the other two books, these hospitals created their own worlds in their attempts to help, with their own rules and bizarre & Byzantine systems.

When MacDonald first arrives she is on complete bedrest, and that means she can’t talk, laugh, sit up, wear makeup, read, write or ‘get excited’ or interact with the opposite sex [the extract above is when she is a long way on the road to recovery]. The staff enforce the rules rigidly – which is fair enough as they believe they will cure or at least help the patients. But there is a Kafka-esque feel to it – no-one keeps the patients informed, it is thought best that they don’t know what is going on with their prognosis and treatment except moments before any change.

It’s like a giant old-fashioned boarding school, but without even the vestige of fairness you might find there, with a touch of Maoist China: everything is described in terms of rewards and punishments, so, as above, if your temperature or pulse changes you are ‘in trouble’. And of course the right results do not necessarily go to the ‘nice’ people: everything is quite random. The patients are constantly reminded that if they don’t keep to the rules they should go home and leave their bed free for someone who IS worth helping. MacDonald is forever being told off for her attitude, for asking too many questions, for ‘talking French’ (a discussion of cookery terms).

To some extent she believes that the staff are right. ‘The Medical Director… said constantly that people with TB were ungrateful, stupid, unco-operative and unworthy’ she says, while explaining that he was in fact incredibly kind and helpful to the patients.

I found the book riveting, and felt it documented something that has gone now completely. And there were funny moments – I loved the ‘fat little woman who wore pink-flowered sleepers [pyjamas] and looked like a piggy bank.’

But if I want to be amused I will re-read one of Lissa’s books.

Betty MacDonald wrote a massive bestseller in 1945, The Egg and I, about her life on a chicken farm in a rural spot in Washington State – it IS a very funny book, and one I should write about sometime. I lived in Seattle at one time, so both Egg and Plague had a very welcome familiar feel. My daughter and I also enjoyed Betty MacDonald’s children’s book Nancy and Plum – blogpost here.

Small pictures from a sanatorium brochure. Text advert from a different brochure. The poster is part of a WPA Art Project from the late 1930s, from the Library of Congress.

The book La Dame aux Camellias is here on the blog.



















31 comments:

  1. I remembered another sanatorium book for you, but it's barely in the book - in "Further Adventures of the Family from One End Street" three of the children come down with measles at the very beginning of the book, and end up having to go to a sanatorium, but this is only for the first chapter or so, afterwards the two younger children are sent to the country for recuperation with Kate to look after them.

    What's interesting about this is that I think it's set in the 1930s, so before the NHS, but it DOES sound like there was some kind of institutional arrangement....

    There's not really much san stuff, but there are interesting details....

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    1. Is it not the fever hospital they go to with the measles? My copy is (I think) in my parents' loft. There are some excellent Clothes Panics in those books - Kate's uniform in the first book and the bridesmaids dresses in Further Adventures. I remember being very impressed by Mr Ruggles' ingenuity about providing white sandals!

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    2. I haven't read it in a LONG time! And yes, excellent clothes panics in said books - and I remember a lovely imagined visual of a very posh old lady rolling about in hay....

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    3. I am so going to have to get hold of a copy of this! I read it so many years ago... Thanks both for your memories.
      I think there were charitable ways that poor children could be sent out of town. In the Betty MacD book there's an interesting statement by one of the patients - she says they're lucky they are being treated free, charity cases. She says that if she was paying for her own treatment she would never allow herself to be pushed around by the staff, and probably wouldn't obey the rules, and thus wouldn't get better...

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  2. Wonderful blog, as ever, but we'll have to stay on opposite sides of this one - bits of The Plague and I still make me almost cry with laughter (Eileen, Minna and Kimi, SEX! coming to the ambulant hospital, the occupational therapist who churns out toecovers and won't let people go to the toilet...). I agree there is a (literally) chilly undertone, with death consistently stalking the corridors, but for me, Betty manages to transcend it. Incidentally, have you read 'The Rack', by AE Ellis, the most riveting but desperately traumatic account of a TB clinic in literature? One of those books I've never forgotten, but could never re-read.

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    1. No, it's definitely the parting of the ways on this one, I was too upset by everything that was happening. though yes, all those scenes are wonderful. No, not even heard of the Ellis, and am going to be wrung out all over again I can tell, am going to have such a collection of TB lit...

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  3. Oh, yes, Moira! I remember reading The Egg and I! I remember liking it very much, too. But I didn't know she's written this one, as well. It sounds like such a - well, you described it best - Kafka-ish sort of place. And yet, you can't say it's inconsistent with the views of the times. Still!!

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    1. I think we're lucky - she had such a success with The Egg and I, and I'm sure that's why this one was published, I imagine it mightn't have made it otherwise. And we're lucky to have this record of what it was really like, told in an entertaining way.

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  4. I've read both this book and the Egg book many years ago and they are very different. The first one scared me as my Grandfather had had tuberculosis and my skin tests were always showing that I'd been exposed to tuberculosis.

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    1. People were terrified of it, but with good reason. And it was widespread. I think back then everyone would have known someone who had been in a sanatorium, even though it is close to unimaginable now.

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  5. Here's something I wrote about rules:

    A school, organisation or religion has a few completely pointless rules. But they are markers: if the children, flock, workers obey the pointless rules, they will obey all the others. Because “a school must have rules”. And “to break one is to break them all”. And “if you doubt one item of Catholic doctrine you are not a Catholic any more and will go to hell and burn for all eternity”. Some of the flock adore the pointless rules and really enjoy forcing the others to follow them “because it’s the way we do it”. Result: most people follow the rules in public, break them if they can avoid being found out, impose them on others, tell everybody how important they are; while accepting the “hell” element as “metaphorical” – ie “imaginary”.

    You're so right: boarding school meets Maoist China.

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    1. It is such an interesting phenomenon isn't it, well worth thinking about. My daughter wrote a piece for the i newspaper recently about school uniform: she is generally against, and talked about the school she attended. The responses were fascinating - some people have such mythic views of the value of uniform. Uniform might or might not be a good thing (I know what I think...) but there really isn't any logic, or proof, or intrinsic good, and it isn't sensible to pretend there is.

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  6. This book sounds terrifying to me. It reminds me that my uncle had TB during WWII and survived, but one of his brothers, whom I never met, died of the disease before I was born.

    However, what some friends who attended Catholic school have said is that as soon as possible, they fled, never to return.
    Rejected all of it.

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    1. I think TB was far more widespread than I, at least, had realized, and not that long ago. Everyone would have known someone who had it, someone who had to go away... Horrible.

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    2. Kathy, people are sometimes puzzled that the extreme brainwashing of the convent didn't "take". Did they think it should?

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  7. Must read this. I loved "The egg and I" and never knew what happened to the author subsequently. The lack of empathy in the period was quite astounding - the comment about Camille both made me hoot with laughter, and gulp in disbelief.

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    1. It is very much worth reading. The book starts when she has left the chicken farm and husband, and gone back to live in Seattle with her family. There were so many things in the setup that make you realized the differences since that period...

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  8. I read this at least 30 years ago, but once read, never forgotten. The nurses were not immune and I remember vividly the part where a nurse succumbed to a particularly aggressive kind and was dead in weeks. There is certainly comedy, but of the blackest kind and like you I was too horrified for laughing out loud. Hard to imagine that this was so recent.

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    1. Yes, I am glad I have read it, and my reading in the last couple of weeks has certainly made me think about a world that has gone - not just the medical problems, but the attitudes, the way people were treated and so on.

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  9. As soon as I saw the name Betty MacDonald, I thought of "The Egg and I." I was planning to google her to see if it was the same person, but you confirmed it so I don't have to. I haven't read the book, but I've seen the movie (Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray) several times. It was a staple on channels that ran old movies. There was a restaurant here in L.A. called "The Egg and the Eye" (their logo was an egg in an egg cup with an eye superimposed on it) that was part of the Craft and Folk Art Museum (and shop). I miss that place. Wish I still had my copy of their poster.

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    1. I haven't seen the film but now you are inspiring me to try to find it. V funny about the restaurant.

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  10. I remember Claudette Colbert in the film. I think she was in a happy marriage on a farm, but I gather Betty MacDonald's first husband was not a nice guy.

    I looked up TB after I read this post. It is still a top killer in the world, causing about 1.8 million deaths a year, with 8 to 10 million people getting sick with it. A few strains are resistant to antibiotics, a big problem.

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    1. Yes, the truth of her relationship with her husband was a bit different I think. WE are right to be terrified of TB, those figures are horrifying.

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  11. Florrie's Girls by Maeve Kelly is about nurses in 1950s London, and the Irish narrator gets TB. But the interesting thing is that it's just late enough not to be a death sentence - she say something like "with streptomycin and P.A.S. of course I will be all right" whereas a few years earlier that wouldn't necessarily have been the case.

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    1. Thanks for the tipoff, and yes, there was a very complete change in prognosis over such a short time. Must have been incredible.

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  12. Of course, it's people in the poorest countries that have higher rats of TB, meaning their health care systems are inadequate and impoverished.

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    1. Yes, there's no doubt about that, and poor living conditions contribute hugely to its spread.

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  13. Interesting discussion - and so fun to find a number of Betty MacDonald fans - or at least people who remember her!

    Post Hypnotic Press has recorded all of Betty MacDonald's memoirs with award winning narrator Heather Henderson. Henderson is also co-producer and it was her initiative. She had always wanted to voice MacDonald's "The Egg and I" and I'm so glad we got together to make this happen. Well worth the listen whether or not you've read Betty's memoirs. https://posthypnoticpress.leadpages.co/betty-books/

    I have to say that I found "The Plague and I" quite funny, although it was also sensitive and moving and a fascinating peek into a very different time. And Betty was such a great writer! She was a great observer of people and she had a knack of finding humor in adversity. Tuberculosis, obviously, in the Plague and I. The Egg and I is her struggle as a very young wife to survive in pretty rough conditions. Anybody Can Do Anything is a hilarious account of surviving the Great Depression. Onions in The Stew, her last book published in the early 50s, is the only memoir that doesn't really have her facing adversity, unless you feel that raising teenagers or living on Vashon Island is adversity.

    Paula Car above mentioned a restaurant in LA named The Egg and Eye - great pun! There is also a restaurant chain in several states in the US - The Egg and I Restuarants - whose name was inspired by Betty MacDonald's books. The original owners were fans of Betty MacDonald. :)

    I'll give anyone who can decipher the shorthand on the steno pad in Betty's hand on our cover of "Anybody Can Do Anything" free digital copies of all four memoirs and our recording of Paula Becker's recent biography, "Looking for Betty MacDonald." You can see the cover here:

    http://www.posthypnoticpress.com/product/anybody-can-do-anything

    Use our contact box to submit your answers, but if you do know what it says PLEASE DON'T SHARE IT PUBLICLY. We don't want people submitting someone else's answer. :)

    http://www.posthypnoticpress.com/contact

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    1. Thanks so much for coming and sharing that - fascinating! She obviously meant a lot to people, and I'm not surprised. As I say above, living in Seattle for a time makes her so much more real to me.
      You've really inspired me to look at more of the books you mention.

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  14. Lots of interesting information here, both in the post and in the comments. Here at the city college I work for, employees are required to have a TB test every 4 years, which seems strange when I have never known anyone with TB. But reading more about it, I see that it is still a problem, and as Kathy says, mostly in poor countries.

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    1. We used to be tested for it at school, and there was an aura of fear and shame about it even then, left over from the pre-cure times. But it is desperate news that it is on the rise again.

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