Another time, another plague
It’s buboes not bubbles that occupy The Plague Letters. Kate Griffin talks to its author about past (and present) horrors
14 May, 2021 — By Kate Griffin
Detail from a copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (Dr Beak), a plague doctor in 17th-century Rome
Despairing medics are baffled by a deadly epidemic. Wealthy Londoners abandon the city for their country retreats. Those who remain go warily about their business; one eye on the mounting death tolls, the other on neighbours who flout the rules of quarantine.
If this sounds horribly familiar, it’s a quirk of fate that in Vikki Valentine’s hugely entertaining novel The Plague Letters we visit the capital during 1665 when the country was in the grip of an earlier pandemic. What follows is a grisly restoration comedy of murder, mystery and buboes.
As senior science editor at National Public Radio in Washington DC (where she covers infectious disease outbreaks such as Ebola, Zika and now coronavirus), Vikki is perfectly positioned to observe a pestilence past. Far from being inspired by the current pandemic, her debut novel has been incubating in her mind since she came to study in London in 2005.
“I’d been working in journalism for 10 years specialising in science and health,” she says. “But I loved history and wanted to unite those two passions. I saw that the Wellcome Trust ran a master’s programme in the History of Medicine through the University of London and it was a dream come true.”
Through a lecture on the last Great Bubonic Plague of London, Vikki came across the correspondence that inspired the book. In 1665 at the height of the contagion, Symon Patrick, rector of St Paul’s Covent Garden, wrote a series of letters to Elizabeth Gauden, wife of navy victualler Denis Gauden. Elizabeth had taken refuge from the epidemic in the more salubrious environs of Essex and although she was married to one of Patrick’s friends, his lovestruck messages suggest something more than a courtly bond.
“Are you alive or do I write to another world?” the real Symon Patrick agonised dramatically when nothing had been heard from Brentwood for several days.
We never know how Elizabeth replied to that cri de coeur as her letters to Symon do not survive, but Vikki deftly fills in the gaps, portraying a good, if slightly feckless man, utterly consumed by a fickle woman.
“I think we all know relationships like that,” she laughs. “Everyone on the outside is saying ‘run for your life!’, but the person just can’t see it.”
She extracts a good deal of comedy from poor Symon’s infatuation – particularly a laugh-out- loud scene where he travels to Essex to see the supposed love of his life only to find her entertaining several other “gentlemen”, including a deliciously superior John Evelyn – but she also elicits the reader’s sympathy for her decent churchman.
“The real Symon also ran from London, but he came back because his conscience pricked him,” she explains. “The instincts I gave Symon in the book – the sense of loyalty to his parish and his desire to help – definitely came from the letters.”
Vikki Valentine. Photo: John W Poole
Vikki’s fictional Symon is on the track of a murderer. Hidden amid the growing pile of corpses awaiting burial in his churchyard is the body of a young girl. Her wrists and ankles are bound with twine and there are burn marks on her shorn scalp.
She is not the last. If Bubonic Plague isn’t awful and deadly enough, it soon becomes clear that someone is performing experiments on the dying before concealing their bodies in the death carts. From the evidence, it appears that the murderer has medical knowledge.
Desperate to discover the culprit, Symon joins forces with a society of eccentric physicians who are working to find a cure for the plague.
Despite this grim premise, The Plague Letters is often shockingly funny. Vikki has a sly eye (and ear) for the comedy of the grotesque. Her dreadful doctors – particularly filthy Mr Mincey and his sausage dogs – are riper than Mr Pepys’s parmesan. She pulls off a clever tightrope act, balancing the reader between horror and an almost Dickensian relish of the absurd.
Admitting that Pepys’s ribald, nakedly honest diaries were an inspiration, she says: “He was a gossip and he loved getting into the thick of sticky situations. The worst of his character came out that summer. I always knew this was not going to be a book about sober rational people doing the right thing.”
Except, that is, for the young woman who is the beating heart of the story. Mysterious Penelope is an independent and unsettling addition to Symon’s household. A Restoration era Sherlock Holmes, she sees through everything – including Elizabeth’s wiles.
“I had such fun writing this book. In my day job I try to be impartial and unbiased, but fiction set my imagination free,” Vikki says. Certainly, her version of 17th-century London is vivid and authentic.
“You don’t often get to ‘live’ in history in America – you have to visit special parks or museums that have recreated it; particularly anything before the 19th century. In London you’re walking on layers of history. What I loved doing when I was there was just exploring the streets and experiencing those layers as a way to access the past.”
In her work, Vikki has never been more focused on the present. A specialist in global health, her prime area of interest is disease outbreaks. The clues were already there as she recalls: “In 2017 the team I work with went to Borneo to report on research that suggested coronavirus was a likely candidate to cause the next pandemic because there was so much ongoing, concentrated interaction between humans, farm animals and bats, which carry the viruses. But when we reported that story, we thought the next pandemic would be 20 to 30 years from now and not something this big.”
Asked about parallels between the Great Plague and the coronavirus pandemic, she answers carefully. “I think the idea that this time we got it wrong and could have gotten it right is not necessarily true. I was someone who thought that the reason we would never have a pandemic like this one was because we knew how to stop it. But when you look back at 1665 and at other pandemics, what you see is that it’s an incredible effort and undertaking to get humans to organise and agree around something they haven’t encountered before.
“I guess that’s part of our species – that messiness. Sometimes in our modern age we convince ourselves that we’re smarter than the mess, but it’s in our DNA.”
• The Plague Letters. By Vikki Valentine, Viper Books. £14.99