The Stranger in the Mirror in Bleak House

September 16, 2013 Karie Youngdahl

Nurse and Patient, Bleak HouseAs I was reading Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, I was interested to find a description of an illness that most likely was smallpox. The incident involves Esther Summerson, the self-sacrificing heroine. At one point in the book, she performs the kind of act of charity we so often read about in novels from the era – a kind woman ministering to the poor and ill. She walks into a house to which her maid has brought her and notices an unpleasant fact.  “The place … had an unhealthy and a very peculiar smell.” Dickens's mention of the smell immediately brought to smallpox to my mind. Indeed, ,any reminiscences of smallpox mention the characteristic smell of the disease. In “The Demon in the Freezer,” Richard Preston quotes D.A. Henderson, director of the WHO’s Smallpox Eradication Programme: “My God, they talk about the odor of smallpox. It is an odd smell, not like anything else…It's a sickly odor, like rotting flesh, but it's not decay, because the skin remains sealed and the pus isn't leaking out….That smell is one of the mysteries of smallpox. No one knows what it is. " A boy in the house is feverish, and Esther and the maid tend to him.

Within a few days, Esther’s maid Charley becomes ill, and Esther locks the two of them in her quarters to tend to her illness. Though Dickens does not name the disease, he seems to describe smallpox:

And thus poor Charley sickened and grew worse, and fell into heavy danger of death, and lay severely ill for many a long round of day and night. …I was very sorrowful to think that Charley's pretty looks would change and be disfigured, even if she recovered—she was such a child with her dimpled face—but that thought was, for the greater part, lost in her greater peril….And Charley did not die. She flutteringly and slowly turned the dangerous point, after long lingering there, and then began to mend. The hope that never had been given, from the first, of Charley being in outward appearance Charley any more soon began to be encouraged; and even that prospered, and I saw her growing into her old childish likeness again.

As Charley recuperates, Esther becomes ill herself. Soon she finds it difficult to speak (smallpox pustules would frequently, and painfully, line the mouth and throat). She is blind for a time, and for several weeks is confined to bed.

After a long recovery, during which she notices that the looking glass has been removed from her room, she finally looks at herself in a mirror.

My hair had not been cut off, though it had been in danger more than once. …[I] stood for a moment looking through such a veil of my own hair that I could see nothing else. Then I put my hair aside and looked at the reflection in the mirror, encouraged by seeing how placidly it looked at me. I was very much changed—oh, very, very much. At first my face was so strange to me that I think I should have put my hands before it and started back but for the encouragement I have mentioned. Very soon it became more familiar, and then I knew the extent of the alteration in it better than I had done at first. It was not like what I had expected, but I had expected nothing definite, and I dare say anything definite would have surprised me.

I had never been a beauty and had never thought myself one, but I had been very different from this. It was all gone now.

Esther’s scarring is not surprising. In the smallpox chapter of Plotkin's Vaccines, the authors write that 65% to 80% of people who recovered from smallpox infection had scarring for life. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who brought smallpox variolation from Turkey to England, was so scarred from smallpox that she wore a veil or heavy makeup to cover the traces (Carrell, The Speckled Monster, 2004).

Though Dickens does not refer to smallpox vaccination in Bleak House, he was a strong supporter of the practice. In an essay in the June 30, 1860, edition of All the Year Round, he advocated for mandatory vaccination and displayed a sophisticated understanding of smallpox history and vaccine production. He noted that in 1853, legislation mandated that all infants in England be vaccinated, with punishment in the form of a fine. At first, he wrote, people complied with the law. But seeing that no one enforced the law nor collected the penalty, they began to ignore it. He concluded his long essay with “Our present wants, therefore, are but two: firstly, some measure for the renewal of the vaccine matter: secondly, a system of compulsory vaccination that will include provision for the actual enforcement of its penalties.”

I’m curious about why Dickens wouldn’t explicitly use the term smallpox—was the disease so freighted with negative associations that the reader would lose sympathy for Esther? Or might he have chosen to avoid the term to keep the focus on Esther, rather than the disease? Or, because the chapter is narrated by Esther, perhaps Dickens is indicating that Esther would be too ladylike, or too afraid, or too appalled to utter the word smallpox. If you’re a Dickens lover, and won’t yell at me for trying to make a literary diagnosis, please chime in!


Posted by Beth (not verified)

Very interesting entry, and I agree with your literary diagnosis!

Posted by Darrel (not verified)

Could the hesitance to name the disease arise from an author's natural desire to "get it right?" Weren't "smallpox", "the pox", and "cowpox" rather intermingled in people's minds back then? If they didn't completely understand how the vaccine worked it might have been easier to be a little vague on that point, OR it may be that the disease was so common at the time that one didn't need to name it...?

It was a part of life and it wouldn't be the first time that an author was non-specific on something because he/she was so stuck in the present that they forgot that their words may one day outlive what then appeared to be so permanent.

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

If it was another disease, Darrel, I might agree that the "get it right" desire could be a factor. But I don't there there would have been too much confusion about the nature of the disease -- based on what I know, cowpox was extremely rare, found in people with exposure to cows, usually limited to a few lesions, and usually on the hands. Syphilis (great pox) looks very different, too, and certainly our saintly heroine wouldn't have been exposed. If the cases were mild, you could have confusion with chicken pox or measles. But given the severity -- as indicated by her incapacity and later scarring -- I don't think there would be much doubt. I'm sure I could be wrong, though. I might get my history of medicine advisor to weigh in.

Thanks for stopping by the blog!

Posted by Marty Brandon (not verified)

Bleak House is one of my favorite books, and I've often wondered what disease could have caused Esther to become disfigured. Thank you for the enlightening post.

I don't know why Dickens avoided the smallpox label, but he was similarly vague in his description of illnesses suffered by other characters. It suggested to me a fatalistic outlook in which consumptive disease, the details of which are not important, could strike at any moment.

Now, what about the etiology of Krook's spontaneous combustion?

Posted by Valerie Procto… (not verified)

I think not naming the disease helped increase the suspense and demonstrate the characters' fear and helplessness. The disease is so frightening that not even the physician characters name it, as though it's Voldemort. And not giving it a name allows the readers to hope, as Jo crawls along with his "very bad sort of fever", that saintly Esther will be able to rescue and save him. Instead she barely survives herself.

Dickens was also delicate about the extent of Esther's scarring--except in the incident where she scares away an unwanted suitor by raising her veil.

Posted by Karen (not verified)

Thank you for your blog! I have been reading Bleak House and was also curious about the disease that disfigured Esther. She didn't mention the scarring initially, only that her appearance had been altered by the illness. Although I knew little about smallpox, it was the first disease that came to mind and so I have been researching smallpox to learn more about it and try to imagine how Esther might have been disfigured by the disease. However she may have been affected by it outwardly, Esther was truly beautiful inwardly and I could not picture her otherwise. But I, too, was curious why Dickens would not have named the disease. I'm thankful for this blog and the comments which reinforce the idea that it was a smallpox outbreak which afflicted Esther and other characters in Bleak House, and for educating me further about the disease (e.g., I didn't realize there was an odor associated with it).

Posted by Sophia Burak (not verified)

I've been thinking about Esther and smallpox recently so I was happy to come across your post. I want to put forth the suggestion that Dickens didn't name the disease explicitly because there was no need.

Smallpox was a reality for people of the time, and Dickens could assume his readers would recognize the disease based on his description rather than spelling it out, as an author writing for a modern audience would need to.