Call it the Downton Abbey effect.
Suddenly, pop culture has time for scullery maids. It seems we take a certain degree of comfort in discovering that “the help” – brought to life in a slew of recent novels, TV miniseries and films – weren’t entirely unhappy. Exhausted, yes. Underpaid, yes. But miserable? Not necessarily.
Mary Beth Keane’s intensely readable new novel, Fever, adds to our casual study of yesteryear servitude.
But unlike cozy Downton, Fever refuses to romanticize the life of the domestic servant.
New York in 1907 was packed to the gills with hopeful immigrants. Work was plentiful, but staying alive in the city was a terrifying lottery.
Fatal diseases like typhoid swept through Manhattan households. Department of Health officials were in a frenzy to control their spread, and sought out desperate measures to contain infected people.
Irish-American Mary Mallon was one of those people. After immigrating as a teenager, she worked her way up from laundress to scullery maid to cook, her place secured by her talents in the kitchen.
But after a series of typhoid outbreaks in the homes where Mary worked, the health department accused her of spreading infection through cooking.
Sanitary engineer Dr. George Soper quarantined Mary to North Brother Island (off the coast of Manhattan, in the East River) for three years. Lurid newspaper headlines dubbed her “Typhoid Mary” and speculated that she spread the disease on purpose.
New York City courts finally released her under the condition that she never cook for hire again.
Mary, as those familiar with her legend know, did not heed this ban.
Fever, a fictionalized biography, humanizes Typhoid Mary. Keane’s Mary is a hard-edged, ambitious, and determined woman who will do anything to stay afloat, but just as consumed as anyone else with romance, worries for the future, and the beautiful things she sees in shop windows.
The love of Mary’s life – and the source of her biggest regrets – is an alcoholic German-American named Alfred Briehof (apparently a character of Keane’s invention).
Every penny Mary earns goes toward keeping herself and Alfred away from the fetid boarding houses, the rotten food, the trash on the street, and the threats of violence and prison and death that lurk behind every missed day of work in New York. After Alfred is badly injured in an accident, Mary’s income is also in hock to shadowy, expensive downtown druggists.
Keane makes a compelling case for why Mary stubbornly keeps cooking despite the risks. None of the scientific warnings makes much sense to Mary – how can a healthy woman possibly spread a deadly disease? (In fact, Mary had “natural immunity” to typhoid, carrying the disease without suffering a single symptom.)
We now know typhoid is transmitted through contaminated food and water, but in 1907, when typhoid-infected homes were still burned or torn down, this nuanced understanding of bacteria and bacilli, and how they affected some bodies and not others, wouldn’t have been entirely convincing. The science was still too new.
Even with our privileged view of history, knowing that Mary was indeed a danger to those she cooked for, readers of Fever will still feel the suffocating injustice of Mary’s situation.
Fever manages to make you hope against hope, just like the real Mary must have, that the doctors are wrong; that the dozens of typhoid cases linked to her aren’t really her fault.
This novel theorizes that Mary kept cooking to prove that to herself. So many people she fed, after all, didn’t get sick.
Furthermore, Mary is a fantastically good cook (some of Fever ‘s liveliest passages are descriptions of Mary creating her feasts: butchering meat, melting butter, whipping eggs into flour and sugar).
The only other work available to Mary is laundry. But it’s not just that Mary enjoys the culinary arts and their higher wage – rather, she and Alfred couldn’t survive if she gave in to the health department’s mandate. They are barely surviving as it is.
This is where Fever most radically departs from Downton Abbey and its ilk.
This is a tougher, crueler version of the past than we’ve lately seen depicted, and it’s an unsettling one.
Everyone in Mary Mallon’s world is separated from despair by just one stroke of bad luck, be it disease, a stable fire, or a cook who doesn’t wash her hands before preparing a meal.
As much as Keane’s gutsy, relentless Mary comes to earn your respect, it’s a relief when Dr. Soper finally catches up with her again in 1915, cooking in an Upper East Side maternity ward. Mary will never stop cooking on her own, and wherever she cooks, tragedy follows.
Keane’s best trick in Fever is that by this time, you’re not just afraid for the people she cooks for.
You also want Mary to have some rest, some freedom from worry, and some time to make peace with the hard and sad realities of her life.
It was time Mary certainly had. She spent the rest of her life in isolation on North Brother Island until she died, of causes unrelated to typhoid, in 1938.
Lucy Silag is the author of the Beautiful Americans novels for young adults.
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