Victorian illness
January 6, 2008 2:13 PM   Subscribe

What is the 19th Century illness that disfigures Esther Summerson of Dicken's Bleak House?

In mid 19th century London, Esther Summerson contracts a fever from her young maid that disfigures her face and damages her appearance. At one point, as the fever comes on, she is temporarily blind. Any ideas as to what this disease may have been? There's nothing very helpful in the text so far, other than that the alteration is rather shocking.
posted by oneirodynia to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Smallpox?
posted by dilettante at 2:14 PM on January 6, 2008

Best answer: I've always assumed it was smallpox, which could often be quite disfiguring. PubMed seems to agree with me.
posted by MsMolly at 2:31 PM on January 6, 2008

In the Little House on the Prairie series, Mary went blind from scarlet fever.
posted by chelseagirl at 2:39 PM on January 6, 2008

Best answer: It's smallpox.

'I looked liked a pizza'
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:41 PM on January 6, 2008

Response by poster: Cool, thanks everyone!
posted by oneirodynia at 3:50 PM on January 6, 2008

Best answer: There are actually two theories: smallpox and erysipelas.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:47 PM on January 6, 2008

If you watch the miniseries, which is a lot of fun, they come right out and say it's smallpox. I realize this may have only been a dramatic decision, but still.
posted by Violet Hour at 9:07 PM on January 6, 2008

It's not in the Little House books, but apparently Mary Ingalls also had a stroke at the same time as her scarlet fever.
posted by brujita at 2:12 AM on January 7, 2008

Response by poster: thomas j wise: google turns up a tantalizing fragment of an article from the Oxford Journals that I'm to lazy to register for:

"West diagnoses Esther's illness as a combination of erysipelas of the face and ..."

... so it looks like there's definitely two possibilities. Thanks!
posted by oneirodynia at 9:35 AM on January 7, 2008

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