Life is precarious, and our hold on it uncertain. That’s always been true, but it seems that people have forgotten it. We have medication that keeps people alive with conditions that, only a few years ago, would have killed them. It’s easy to believe that threats to life have been overcome; those in their teens today may even believe that they’ll live for ever. They won’t.
Life in the eighteenth century was a lot less certain
A lot of research went into my James Blakiston series, some of it to do with the ages at which people died and what it was that carried them off. Illnesses that we now know as TB and flu were rife. Here is a passage from the first book in the series, A Just and Upright Man:
On the fourth of February in a winter that was taking no prisoners, Blakiston might have expected to find everyone clustered around the fire – and that is exactly where the aged Benjamin was, being fussed over by his wife who was twenty years younger than he was. His two sons, however, were hard at work in the biting cold. Blakiston watched them, struck by the single-minded intensity with which both young men worked. Then he returned to the farm house to take a dish of tea by the fire with the old man and discuss how they would manage the change from a three crop to a four crop rotation.
As he prepared to leave, Blakiston said, ‘You have two good sons.’
‘Aye, Master. They’re good lads, both of them.’
‘It is a pity that both cannot inherit the tenancy. The younger boy…Tom, is it?’
‘Aye, Master. Tom is the second born.’
‘From what I have seen he would make a better farmer than many who are already tenants. But it cannot be. This farm is not large enough to divide. We need bigger farms, not smaller.’
‘Well, Master, God’s will is God’s will.’
‘Do you say so? Tell me, Benjamin Laws, have you any other children beyond those two?’
‘A daughter, Master. Henrietta. We call her Hetty. She is a scullery maid at the Castle.’
‘And how comes it that a man of advanced years has sons so young?’
‘Twas the influenza, Master.’
‘Ah. I am sorry.’
‘Aye, Master. I had a wife and five bairns before what you see me with today. And then the influenza came, in 1735 I think it was, and in three weeks all were gone but me.’
‘A sad story.’
‘It was the same for many.’
‘And that, too, was God’s will?’
Blakiston saw the startled expression in the old man’s eyes and realised he had better take this no further. ‘Well, Uncle, I shall keep you from sleep no longer.’
That was how life was, and the people knew it. Cholera and typhoid were other killers and it was not so many years before that that plague halved the population of England. And these killers did not respect rank – a king or a bishop had almost as much chance of dying as some farm labourer in a hovel.
Those 18th-century killers are still at work
That isn’t the case now, and it could be that the reason that Covid-19 is getting so much attention when tuberculosis (and, if it comes to that, measles) kills far more is that most of the people dying from TB are not white and not middle-class and have very little buying power and are therefore of little interest to our western media. If the virus serves no other purpose, perhaps it might be useful in bringing home to all of us a lesson that, once, did not need to be taught: that life is precarious and our hold on it tenuous.
Passing the time in self-isolation
If you are observing self-isolation, you may find that this is a very good time to spend with a good book. You’ll find the first in the James Blakiston series here and the second here. If historical fiction is not your bag, and you’d like to take a look at the way people live now, try this one or this one.