A Plague on Both My Houses
I commute between London and Venice. My brain commutes between English and Italian. The only constants in my life are my husband, my computer and illy coffee.
And my research obsessions.
For years, I’ve belonged to an obscure and emotional organisation, the Disinfected Mail Study Circle. We are gripped by Plague, Smallpox, Yellow Fever and other epidemic diseases that were carried around the world by travellers and merchants.
From the fourteenth century onwards, port cities tried to restrict the commerce in infectious illness. Members of the Disinfected Mail Study Circle pore over wax ‘Sanità’ seals, health passports and antique letters discoloured by smoke and blistered with droplets of liquid. Our organ, Pratique, publishes new treasures discovered by our formidably well-informed chairman, V. Denis Vandervelde. Our excursions are to ruined lazzarretti where those suspected of dreaded diseases were subjected to 40-day quarantines – in echoing dormitories or elegant mansions, depending on their class. Meanwhile, their possessions and merchandise underwent picturesque treatments such as sprinkling with vinegar and smoking over fires fragrant with juniper and rosemary.
In my children’s novel, THE UNDROWNED CHILD, a vengeful enemy of Venice starts infecting the city’s children with ancient spores of the Plague. My next adult novel, The Book of Human Skin, is set in Napoleonic times, when Plague was still rampant in the Middle East, Yellow Fever bedevilled South America and Smallpox was a hideous commonplace. That novel deals with disinfected letters and the murderous mischief that could be achieved with just a pinch of dried, powdered Smallpox scabs.
But why did an ephemera dealer at the antique fair at San Maurizio in Venice beckon me over so urgently? And why did he keep me waiting at his trestle while he leafed through his folders of proclamations, declarations and ration cards? And why did he suddenly stop at one leaf, and gesture to it triumphantly, saying ‘Eccolaqua!’ – ‘Here it is!’?
All these years I’ve studied disinfected post, I have never actually seen a smoked and vinegared letter. But I knew one immediately when I saw it, and my toes curled up inside my sandals. The paper was stained a cloudy chestnut brown, and about a quarter of the words were distorted by splashes of liquid.
I eased the letter out of the folder and automatically held it up to the light to check the watermark. The weave and fleur-de-lys confirmed the date of the letter, 1789. I saw the whiter parts where the tongs had held the letter over the smoke. I ran my finger over the blisters made by the vinegar. The letter had been sent to Venice from Pera, a suburb of Constantinople. The date was significant – in that spring the old sultan Abdul-Hamid had been replaced by Selim III. At that time, Plague was rife in Constantinople. Between the splashes I could see the fascinating words … Dragome … sultano … piastre …
‘Why did you show me this?’ I asked the dealer, an elderly man from Padua. He just smiled. I explained what I do, and about my novel.
For 50 euro, the letter was mine. I took it to a dinner party that night. After my show-and-tell, none of the astonished guests were satisfied with my explanation of why the old man had called me over.
Neither, on reflection, was I.
The fair at San Maurizio happens four times a year. The next fair, I presented myself at the ephemera dealer’s stand. The old man and a friend of his gave me an enthusiastic welcome. But when I asked again, ‘Why me? Why that letter?’ the friend just laughed at me, and clapped an affectionate arm around the dealer’s frail shoulder.
‘E’ un mago’ – ‘He’s a wizard.’
And that was clearly all the explanation that I was going to get.
The Plague letter now commutes between our houses in London and Venice with me. My husband has never been sure about hosting it, and is strangely uncomforted by my explanations that it is only Smallpox that can be transmitted by paper. So it’s currently swaddled in plastic.
Even so, he gives it suspicious looks and a wide berth.