The Spanish Influenza of 1918 was perhaps one of the most widespread and virulent diseases recorded in human history; although its death toll is debated, the estimates range from 22 million to 50 million worldwide. However, those that were infected range much higher—an estimated one third of the world’s population (500 million). No one is quite sure why the name was attached to the Spanish, because there is little evidence that it began there. However, the newspapers in Spain censored details about the epidemic the least (as it was not involved in WWI) and so word of the disease was most known there.
The symptoms of influenza are close to that of a cold or respiratory infection: cough, fever, and an aching of the body. The victims’ skin also turned blue. However, the virus often lapsed into pneumonia or other lung complications. What is most peculiar about this epidemic is that those who died were most often killed by the body’s immunological response to disease; the lungs would often fill up with fluid, thus suffocating the victim. This is one of the theories on why the disease more often killed the younger (20-40 years old) as opposed to older and other immunocompromised individuals. The stronger one’s immune system was, the more likely it would be to kill the individual.
The disease occurred in three waves. The first, least lethal, began in March 1918; it is most often linked to Fort Riley in Kansas, although theories also point to China and India. August 1918 marked the second wave, which appeared in France and quickly moved to the US and Africa. November 1918 brought a third wave upon the world. At first, doctors were reluctant to call it the flu, suggesting that it was merely a respiratory disorder, cholera, dengue fever, or botulism. Many people also believed that the disease had been caused by Germans trying to start pathogenic warfare or that it was caused by the poison gas that soldiers were using. Doctors also tried to treat the disease with useless compounds such as arsenic compounds and quinine.
Whatever the cause, individuals were dying at a rapid rate. It became policy that one had to wear a gauze mask in public; without following this rule, one would be fined. The sharp decline in the population also led to a sharp decline in the public workforce; with labor already stretched during the wartime, cities lost people to collect garbage and dig graves.
One of the easiest (and most obvious) reasons that the Spanish Influenza is important to this seminar is that HD was one of those affected by it. To make matter worse, she was pregnant with Perdita; however, Bryher nursed her back to health. Since Asphodel is fairly autobiographic, knowing the Spanish Influenza also aids in understanding these sections in the text, which are arguably more erratic and confusing than many of the other sections. This can be attributed to HD’s delirious mental state at the time. Furthermore, HD’s reference to the other angel, “Azrael,” on 190 becomes more apparent as the reader understands that, once again, she is close to death.
I think also that HD’s preoccupation with death during Asphodel plays into this. Hermione repeats over and over that she is dead, and with the onset of war, she is—at least mentally. The stress of the war becomes too much. Figuratively, Hermoine’s writing also suffers during this time as she constantly bounces between identities and individuals (such as Pound, Gregg, and eventually Aldington) who denounce her work. However, the onset of Spanish Influenza brings her to a more literal, physical death. Interestingly enough, it is this near literal death that brings both a literal birth (the life of Perdita and the possibility of being “mother”) as well as two figurative ones. The flu brings Hermione closer to Bryher, who becomes her savior. It also marks the end/death of the war, as well as the death of her marriage to Darrington. This becomes a reincarnation of sorts; Mrs. Darrington and all her pains and instabilities are allowed to die with the fighting, while Hermione Gart, someone who is (somewhat) fresh and who shas different worries, steps in to retake her place. With the onset of her new life, Hermione’s writing also begins to resurrect itself; following the first World War, she begins writing again.
Hays, JN. “Influenza Pandemic, 1918-1919.” Epidemics and Pandemics: Their Impacts on World History. Santa Barabara: ABC-Clio, 2005. Print. 385-396.