Tag Archives: spanish influenza

Downton Abbey Season 2, ep. 6 recap

This episode opens in 1919, as Edith watches the last medical vehicle leave the property of Downton, signalling that the home can finally return to normal.  Downton Abbey’s definition of “normal,” that is: this two-hour episode was packed with drama, culminating in a wedding and a funeral.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Now that the war is over, the inhabitants of Downton are ready to move on, or rather, move back to the way things used to be (much to Lady Sybil’s dismay).  As Cora goes about looking for new work to put her energy into, her husband continues to mope about, feeling his life no longer has purpose.  He apparently finds that purpose in one of THE oddest hookups in Downton Abbey history with the housemaid Jane.  Honestly, I know the man’s lost, but this seems so far out of character for Robert that I just couldn’t buy into it.  And his wife is in the other room battling for her life no less!  Who is this man and what has he done with the Earl of Grantham, caring husband/father/lord of the estate?  Fortunately, Jane decides it best for both of them if she turns in her notice, but not without giving Robert a goodbye kiss to remember her by first (in the library, really?).

Of course, that’s not the only social-barrier-crossing romance that reaches its conclusion in this episode.  After much deliberation (and a great deal of patience on Branson’s part), Lady Sybil finally decides that she cannot go back to her life before the war.  We see her sitting in the grand drawing room, staring off into space while others chat around her.  The wheels in her mind are turning, and she goes to Branson, telling him she’s made her decision, and he’s her ticket out of her old life.  Her statement left me feeling that Sybil is using Branson just as much as Branson seemed to be using Sybil in previous episodes.  But I had to respect the resolve of the couple, which never wavered despite a botched elopement and retrieval by Edith and Mary, and a large amount of blustering by Papa (who apparently is okay with double standards).  So maybe there’s love there, after all.

But of course the big news of the episode (besides the fact that Dr. Clarkson made a mistake in his diagnosis of Matthew’s spinal injury) is the development in the driving “will they/won’t they” plot between Matthew and Mary.  The dance scene between the two of them (the one that Lavinia unfortunately witnesses) is one fans have no doubt been waiting for all season.  Thanks to Granny’s advice, Matthew has been left to mull over the unsettling thought that he is marrying the wrong woman, but out of obligation and duty he feels he must marry Lavinia, who sacrificed everything to be with him.  Even though he doesn’t really want to.

And what of poor Lavinia?  It is somewhat disheartening to see your fiancee embracing his former fiancee just days before your own wedding.  She takes to bed with a case of the Spanish flu (of which Cora and Carson are also afflicted), and has a heart-to-heart with Matthew, and even she has to admit that Matthew and Mary are a better match than the two of them. She takes a sudden turn for the worse, and lives up to her predictions from previous episodes that she will not be able to live without Matthew.  On her deathbed she informs him that it is better this way, and she wants him to be happy.  I’m sure her intentions were good, but her words left Matthew wandering around the estate, wracked with guilt.

Matthew and Lord Robert discuss funeral arrangements

After the funeral Matthew informs Mary he feels certain that Lavinia died of a broken heart (while I yelled at the TV “NO!  It was the Spanish flu!”).  Because of her parting words he knows he and Mary can never be happy together.  A devastated Mary leaves the graveside on the arm of skeeze ball Sir Richard (you know, the one who tried to bribe Anna to spy on Mary for him).

"We are cursed, you and I."

Amidst all this, Bates and Anna’s relationship is taken to the next level when evidence surfaces of Bates’s possible involvement in his wife’s death.  Anna refuses to let him go through it alone, and basically orders him to go ahead and marry her, which he does.

The two get one night of happiness together before he’s carted off to prison on the charge of willful murder.  I’m still of the opinion that Mrs. Bates’s demise was self-inflicted, and she set up the letter and other evidence in order to frame her husband, but I suppose the upcoming trial will shed some light on what really happened.  Poor Bates and Anna, will these two kids ever catch a break?

Bates being handcuffed, with a helpless Anna watching on

Hard to believe it, but next week wraps up season 2 with Christmas at Downton.

Interested in learning more about the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19 featured prominently in this episode?  You can read my post about it here.

Miss any of the other episodes?  Read my recaps here:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5


Filed under Downton Abbey, Period Pieces

Spanish Influenza Pandemic: 1918-19

The First World War claimed the lives of over 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians.  However, a more devastating killer came in the form of an unseen virus, sweeping across the globe and claiming between 50 and 100 million lives between June 1918 and December 1920.  This pandemic is considered one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.

Unlike many illnesses, the highest  mortality rate from the Spanish influenza was in the 20-40 year old age range.

Three waves

The influenza struck in three successive waves.  The first, in the spring and summer of 1918, was relatively mild with a very low death rate.  The deadliest wave hit in the fall of that year.  Soldiers on the front came down with the flu, and were packed into crowded train cars and shipped to crowded infirmaries, which only worked to spread the disease.  This second wave traveled quickly, causing epidemics in communities around the world.  A third wave and final wave occurred in the spring of 1919.

Why “Spanish?”

The pandemic was given the moniker “Spanish flu” because of the perceived notion that Spain was one of the hardest hit countries.  Newspapers in Spain reported openly on the effects of the flu in the country, as Spain’s neutrality in the war meant no censorship had been placed on the media.  The US, Great Britain, France, and Germany would not allow stories to be printed that would lower morale.  In addition, these nations did not want their enemies to read their death tolls from the flu.  As a result, Spain’s coverage of the flu gave the illusion that it suffered more than other countries.


The Spanish flu typically struck suddenly.  A high fever accompanied by body aches sent those afflicted to their beds.  They might also suffer from a headache, sore throat, cough, and sometimes a very bad nose bleed.

The illness was often unpredictable.  Some made a full recovery.  Others died within hours of taking ill.  Then there were some cases in which a patient seemed to have recovered, only to suffer a relapse which was often fatal.


Most treatments offered by practitioners at the time were largely ineffective against the virus.  Patent medicines, available at most local drug stores, were widely prescribed, including Vick’s Vapo-Rub.  While doing research for my novel The Education of Eve, I found that the local newspapers ran weekly ads toting the healing properties of this product against the Spanish flu.  Unfortunately these patent medicines did nothing to help.

Some fell back on home remedies.  Selena W. Saunders of North Carolina followed a trained nurse, offering her assistance.  She noted:

[The flu] struck suddenly, spent itself quickly in a burning three-day fever, often leaving its victim dead. The people lost faith in the remedies they had relied on all their lives, and they became frantic.

Practitioners became desperate, resorting to archaic treatments to help “balance the humors.”  Patients were sometimes wrapped in blankets so that they would sweat, and sometimes cupping was used as a way to bring out the excess blood.

Doctors worked around the clock to help those in their communities, often making house calls.  During the height of the epidemic in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Dr. Wingate Johnson reported that his “days” usually lasted between 30-40 hours.  He would sleep for 4 hours, then call a nurse for more tongue depressors and medicine before going out for another “day” of visiting patients in their homes.

Public reaction

Communities struck by the Spanish flu would often panic.  Selena Saunders described the public reaction in North Carolina:

Some of them locked themselves in their house, and refused to open the door for anyone…. Merchants nailed bars across their doors, and served the customers one-at-a-time at the doorway. We found whole families stricken, with none able to help the others.

Gauze masks were recommended by physicians

Besides quarantining those who were ill, many communities also placed bans on public gatherings in hopes of preventing the spread of the flu.  In some cases even public funerals were banned for fear that mourners would transmit the disease.  Gauze masks were recommended when going out in public, as physicians knew that the spread of the illness came from coughing and sneezing.  Posters were created and distributed, reminding people to cover their mouths when coughing.

Dan Tonkel, who was a child growing up in North Carolina during the 1918 pandemic, remembered how scary that time was:

I felt like I was walking on eggshells. I was afraid to go out, to play with my playmates, my classmates, my neighbors. I was almost afraid to breathe. I remember I was actually afraid to breathe. People were afraid to talk to each other. It was like—don’t breathe in my face, don’t even look at me, because you might give me germs that will kill me…Farmers stopped farming, merchants stopped selling. The country more or less just shut down. Everyone was holding their breath, waiting for something to happen. So many people were dying, we could hardly count them. We never knew from one day to another who was going to be next on the death list.

In November the worst of the second wave was over, and the US Public Health Service sent out reports that the number of influenza cases were declining.  Public panic subsided, and quarantines were slowly lifted, gauze masks discarded.  Public events were once again held, just in time for everyone to gather and celebrate the end of the war.

If you live in the United States, you can learn more about how your state was impacted by the Spanish influenza by going to the US Department of Health and Human Services page about the pandemic.

Sources: World War I Casualties, 1918 Flu Pandemic, The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919


Filed under World War I