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A strange and dreadful disease is causing deaths around the world. Doctors are divided and it is difficult to establish an accurate picture of what is happening. The authorities are trying to avoid panic, trips have been interrupted and fake news is everywhere. All this happened in August 1856, when Charles Dickens took his pen to write a letter to Sir Joseph Olliffe, a doctor from the British Embassy in Paris.
I recently discovered this letter in the course of my investigations on the abundant vital correspondence of the great writer. In the letter, Dickens thanked the doctor for alerting him to the diphtheria outbreak that had occurred in Boulogne-sur-Mer, on the north coast of France, while the writer was there on vacation. In fact, three of his children were attending school in the region, and were preparing to start the new year. Dickens told the doctor: “I have no doubt that we could not be in a healthier situation, in a cleaner home. But even so, if he ordered us to leave, we would obey. “
At that time little was known about diphtheria, which was popularly known as “malignant sore throat,” “Boulogne sore throat,” or “Boulogne fever.” Its scientific name, diphtheria, was coined by Pierre Bretonneau, and by him he meant the leathery-looking membrane that forms in the larynx as a result of a bacterial infection. The disease was serious, contagious and often fatal. It spread in the same way as covid-19, by direct contact or by respiratory micro-drops.
In the letter Dickens highlighted what had happened to Dr. Philip Crampton. He was on vacation in Boulogne on roughly the same days as Dickens, when two of his sons, aged two and six, and his wife, 39, died a week apart from diphtheria. Dickens wrote: “I cannot imagine a more terrible experience than poor Dr. Crampton had.”
The spread of contagion on both sides of the English Channel, in France and England, made scientific investigations accelerate and that by 1860 (four years after the first case detected in England) there was a more complete knowledge about the origin, symptoms and mode of transmission of the disease.
At that time Boulogne was a very frequented place by the English, who in the 1850s formed a colony of 10,000 people there, representing a quarter of the total population. To dickens he liked this town, which he described as “a place that, as I know it, is evocative, picturesque and beautiful”. There he could remain anonymous to some degree, and also the locality offered a pleasant summertime that helped him in his work. On the other hand, Boulogne could be reached from London in about five hours, first by train and then by ferry from Folkestone that made two daily trips.
There he wrote some parts of works such as Gloomy house, Hard times or Little Dorrit, and the locality was the main subject of his journalistic text Our French Watering-Place, published in the weekly newspaper of which he was editor, Household Words. Dickens became close friends with his French landlord, Ferdinand Beaucourt-Mutual, who provided him with excellent accommodation in Boulogne (and years later, in the village of Condette, I would also install in a nest of love to the writer’s mistress, Ellen Ternan).
Dickens must have been concerned by the news about “Boulogne’s sore throat” that he read in the press, prompting him to send his children to England to be safe. French medical authorities downplayed the spread of the disease, which unfortunately coincided with a typhus outbreak that killed a friend of Dickens, the cartoonist and journalist. Gilbert Abbott Á Beckett. He was also on vacation in Boulogne, and, in another tragic turn of events, and coinciding with the period in which he was already mortally ill, his son Walter died of diphtheria just two days before À Beckett died as a result of the typhus.
In a letter written to the newspaper The Times and dated September 5, 1856, a group of prominent Boulogne doctors declared that “with very few exceptions, this disease only affects the poorest neighborhoods of the city and the population with hardly any resources.” A few days later, on 12 September, a person calling himself “another victim of Boulogne fever” wrote to the newspaper to claim that he had been in the same boarding house as À Beckett, and that his wife had contracted diphtheria. He concluded the letter with the following plea: “If you can allocate some of your valuable space to the publication of this letter, you will also perform the service of warning all those who have thought to cross the Channel to come to Boulogne.”
This prompted the Boulogne medical authorities to send another letter on September 16 in which they questioned the claims of that “other victim” and in which it was noted that the “panic” was limited “almost entirely to temporary visitors.” However, the authorities admitted that “the truth is that we would not advise anyone to bring a child” to “a house where the malignant sore throat had been recently.” There was a lot of misinformation: guesthouses and travel companies continued to heavily promote Boulogne as a holiday destination, and even the pension where À Beckett died concealed the real cause of his death.
Since he was a journalist himself, Dickens was very sensitive to fake news. In his letter to Olliffe he made the following observation: “We have the general idea that this disease exists abroad and that it affects children; in fact, two young children our children know have died as a result of it. But it’s incredibly difficult […] discover the truth on this site. And the townspeople are particularly concerned that I know it, given the large amount of media I would have to spread it. “
In 1856, those who were careful and prudent had a better chance of surviving the pandemic, and in time Dickens’s life returned to normal. He returned to school for his children in Boulogne, and himself returned to the town many times.
It was not until 1920 that a diphtheria vaccine was developed, although it was not until 1940 that different countries began to provide it to children free of charge and nationally. Right now, vaccines against covid-19 are being produced, and luckily our lives will also return to normal. We will return to the holiday destinations, perhaps even Boulogne, to continue dickens footsteps for a town that he sincerely loved.
Leon litvack is Senior Editor of the ‘Charles Dickens Letters Project’, published by the Dickens Fellowship. The letter you write about in this article is part of the growing archive of missives recently discovered and published as part of Dickensletters.com