…and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings — and commoners too, for that matter. The great William Shakespeare wrote many such sad stories, some of them more protracted and dramatic than others, some of them mercifully taking place offstage, as it were. The other night we watched the current episode of Downton Abbey, and even though we knew it was coming, we did sniffle a little at the shocking death of Lady Sybil – in childbirth, too. Whereas this was a tragically common cause of death in women of high and low social stature alike up until the end of the 19th century, it probably took real effort on the part of the writers to have it happen convincingly in the 20th – even the first quarter thereof. I’ll give the writers all props for creative research and as extra round of appreciation for avoiding the old soap-opera standby of a long fall down a staircase (although in fairness, they have hit upon a good few classic soap opera memes).
This also brought me to think on how many times I had to go into books, or perform a routine googlectomy in looking for just that very means of afflicting or removing one of my own characters. Which did turn out to be a fairly substantial list of conditions, ailments and cause-of-death, although some of them happened off-stage, so to speak or were referred to only briefly, while others had more detailed treatment. Let’s see: To Truckee’s Trail – threatened and actual near-starvation, malaria (called the ague) and cholera, both offstage before and after the time of the story. The Gathering – gunshot to the head, typhus (called ship-fever), malaria again, aftereffects of frontline meatball surgery in wartime, cholera again, and hints of manic-depression. The Sowing – more manic-depression, post-traumatic stress, pre-eclampsia, diphtheria, chronic alcohol abuse, gunshot to the back, multiple gunshots to the torso, and multiple sclerosis. The Harvesting; full-blown manic-depression, agoraphobia, more post-traumatic stress, incipient senility, stroke, peritonitis following abdominal wound with a bladed weapon, gunshot to the abdomen, drowning, and sudden massive heart attack/heart failure. Daughter of Texas: immediately fatal arrow-wounds, unspecified chronic illness, extreme dysentery coupled with heart failure, meatball surgery, and tuberculosis … plus, a war going on. Deep in the Heart: multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic shock, uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery, massive stroke, again aftereffects of frontline meatball surgery, and malaria. Plus another war going on. So far in the latest book, Quivera Trail, I have only gotten up to a massive heart attack, but there is an operation for a depressed skull fracture in my plot outline, so I really should get back to work on that.
This listing actually makes it look as if it it is wall to wall General Hospital-type soap opera medical emergencies in the books, but actually it isn’t. It’s just that illness and death is a part of life – and in the 19th century, it happened with really dismaying frequency. Considering that Daughter of Texas/Deep in the Heart and the Trilogy cover more than fifty years of the lives of four different families, during three wars, and at a time when the best of doctors couldn’t do all that much … this list could have been much, much longer.