Scarlet fever, according to Lizzie Enfield, is ‘the red rash of romantics’. The once-deadly disease causes a high fever, red rash, red lumps on the tongue, flushed cheeks and red creases under the arms, in the elbows and groins. As well, it causes the death or severe disability of several children in literature. They include Beth March in Little Women, the boy who owns the rabbit in Velveteen Rabbit and Mary in By the Shores of Silver Lake.
Those of us who have suffered the disease remember nothing romantic about it.
Lizzie Enfield says that
‘The first outbreak of scarlet fever was recorded in 1543 in Sicily. In the 19th century it was still widespread and dangerous, especially among small children.’
Although it once caused dreaded epidemics, in modern society it occurs only in sporadic outbreaks. Antibiotics such as penicillin or erythromycin used to treat the disease usually also prevent serious complications. These include rheumatic fever, kidney disease, pneumonia and arthritis.
Nowadays there are virtually no fatal cases.
Scarlet fever in children’s books
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, children who contracted the disease frequently died. The literature of the time reflects their deaths. The only children who died in books always seemed to me, as a child, to be those who were extremely good and well-behaved.
Only kind, quiet, delightful children died or were incapacitated, although they never seemed to deserve their fate. I shed many tears, especially over those who experienced of scarlet fever (also known as scarlatina).
Beth March in Little Women
In this book by Louisa May Alcott (1866), Beth March, the third daughter of a family of four girls, dies of complications of scarlet fever.
An article in Parish Match, discusses a recent film version of Little Women. The author talks about the archetypes Alcott ‘doles out to the siblings’ in ‘the first chapter of the book’. Meg, the oldest daughter, describes her sisters Jo as a tomboy and Amy as a goose. But Beth, she says, is ‘a dear and nothing else’.
In Little Women, Alcott created a novel of great sadness roughly based on the story of her own family. Many scenes foretell of Beth’s ultimate demise. A dead canary, invalid dolls, a sickly baby from a poor family which she cuddles. The baby dies of the scarlet fever which will eventually also kill Beth.
Under the weight of so much grief, Beth appears uncomplicated, almost too good to be true. She recovers from her initial illness, but never regains her strength. She dies some time later from heart complications.
People still read Little Women and watch films based on it, even though Alcott wrote the novel over 150 years ago.
The Boy in Velveteen Rabbit
Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, (1922), tells the story of a stuffed toy, a Christmas present given to a small boy. The story is told from the point of view of the toy.
We learn that the boy adores the rabbit and carries it around until its fur rubs away. The boy succumbs scarlet fever.
‘His face grew very flushed, and he talked in his sleep, and his little body was so hot that it burned the Rabbit when he held him close. Strange people came and went in the nursery, and a light burned all night and through it all the little Velveteen Rabbit lay there, hidden from sight under the bedclothes, and he never stirred, for he was afraid that if they found him some one might take him away, and he knew that the Boy needed him.‘
This boy does not die. Instead, he travels to the seaside to convalesce. The poor rabbit finds out that he will be burned. The doctor says,
‘Why, it’s a mass of scarlet fever germs!’
A fairy rescues the toy, turns it into a real rabbit, and it hops off into the woods to play with the other rabbits.
In a way, this is a happy ending. But I continued to feel sorry for the rabbit. He had done such a good job of keeping the boy safe and comforting him, but in the end could not stay with the person who loved him.
Mary in By the Shores of Silver Lake
By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1939) is the fifth in the series of nine books in the Little House on the Prairie series.
Based on the author’s late childhood, the story begins in 1879. When the story begins, Laura’s sister, Mary, has been blinded as a complication of what the author calls ‘scarlet fever’. However, the disease does not cause blindness and must in fact have been another illness.
The girl’s father asks Laura ‘to be Mary’s eyes’ by describing what she sees. Through this device, Laura becomes patient and more mature.
Although published in my early childhood, I had not heard of the series until my own children became interested in the television series, Little House on the Prairie in the 1960s. My daughters and some of my granddaughters and now my oldest great-granddaughter have read some of the books.
SOME OTHER BLOGS ABOUT EPIDEMICS/PANDEMICS
If you are interested in pandemics or epidemics, you might like to check out my previous blogs.
- A blog about polio: Poliomyelitis epidemics in Western Australia
- Another about the novel corona virus: COVID-19 and self isolation
I’d love to hear from you about childhood books you loved in which the protagonists are affected by disease. Are they a thing Bof the past?
I received this delicious comment somewhere else about this blog from my dear friend Tricia Steadman (aka the Umbrella Lady from ARTY BRELLAS)
‘I also read your blog about scarlet fever. That too was most informative and interesting, and I really enjoyed the way you talked about scarlet fever through the literature. I hardly remember the book as I was about three when Dad read it to us girls before bedtime. My sisters and I used to pretend to be the March sisters. My eldest sister was named Beth, but she didn’t want to be Beth from the book. As we grew older over the ensuing years there were always arguments about who would be Jo and who would be Meg. No-one ever wanted to be Amy. In the end our eldest sister used to dictate who was to be whom. It was fun, and your post brings back happy memories of young girls all trying to assert their very different wills. Thank you for sharing your writing with us. It’s always a delight/interesting/educational/fun to read your posts.