Social Isolation in the S&As: an antidote to the Coronovirus?

Winter holiday, an exercise in self-isolation and social-distancing

Disaster strikes – no school, no socialising, no camping or sailing anyway, it being winter. Not that they were too worried about missing school. As John says

“It’s lucky it’s not the football term … a month might make just the difference about getting into the fifteen ….”

Roger’s mind has gone off on another tack

“Of course it’s too late now … or we could have put an advertisement in the newspaper …. Mumps for anyone who wants them ….”

John’s response to that idea

“Money-grubbing little brute.”

sounds rather like AR’s father’s reaction to his son’s hair-brained schemes for making money.

Dorothea doesn’t feel that the discussion relates to her and Dick, just as some of us thought that all the new directives only applied to other people

“Perhaps it isn’t all schools that mind.”

In words like those more normally heard from the lips of Titty or Roger, John replies

“No school wants to have a whole lot of people bursting out with spots all over, or faces like pumpkins, or turning red like lobsters or green and yellow with any kind of plague ….”

Titty listens to this exchange and comes up with the first practical suggestion, immediately taken up by the others.

“Everybody’ll want us to keep away. If it was summer, we’d have to hoist a yellow flag on Swallow.”

And so the first activity of the long isolation begins at once.

“Nancy wouldn’t have a quarantine flag …. She’d have the plague flag itself, squares of yellow and black.”

Mrs Jackson, no doubt glad to find her charges well able to occupy themselves while staying at her house, provides the materials, and Nancy’s flag is soon supplemented by yellow flags to show that the others are in quarantine from that day and for at least the next 28 days.

The NHS guidance regarding mumps, last updated in 2018, is now different, although it is still an untreatable virus. The infection is now said to pass within a week or two, normally.

“And what is mumps, after all?” said Mrs Dixon ….

Sufferers are now advised to stay at home for 5 days after symptoms first develop. Measures that may help to relieve the symptoms are: plenty of bed rest (as for Nancy), over-the-counter painkillers (probably not for Nancy, as all that would have been available would be aspirin, not now advised for anyone under 16), lots of fluids to drink, especially water, and applying a warm or cool compress to swollen glands to help reduce the pain.

Mrs Dixon confirms the latter treatment as applied to Dorothea’s mother when she was a small girl, and also to her dolls.

“I mind now, when she had mumps herself, she had two dolls have mumps at the same time … she kept me fairly on the run, what with hot poultices for their poor cheeks, and tying handkerchiefs round their swollen jaws ….”

Mrs Blackett, meanwhile, is worrying about the fact that those new town children, Dick and Dorothea, might have been infected through playing with Nancy. She tries to convince herself that

“You might have picked up mumps anywhere – in the train or, oh, anywhere, even if you had never met Nancy at all.”

Earlier she told the Swallows

“I don’t know what your mother’ll say. I feel most dreadfully to blame. But really, where Nancy managed to pick it up I don’t know. There’s no mumps in the valley.”

Mrs Blackett feels responsible not only for the Walker children, whose parents are in Malta, but also for the Callums, children she had only met the day before and whose parents she did not know, and who were also abroad,

“digging up bones and rubbish heaps, poor lambs …”

as Mrs Dixon said, in Egypt. So when Peggy decides after a few days without Nancy’s leadership that they simply must go to Beckfoot and consult her by signalling, they were sent packing by her mother in no uncertain terms.

“Keep to your own side of the lake. Goodbye.”

Poor Mrs Blackett: first she is told by the doctor not to kiss her daughter (and insists that she doesn’t want to, nor Peggy either) and then she has to deal with all of those other children wandering about the place, who seem to want to carry on as normal.

“She’s a masterful young woman, that Nancy of yours,” said the doctor. “I told her I could take nothing because Mrs Blackett is so anxious to make sure that none of you comes out with mumps after you do get back to school ….”

By the way, if kissing is not an activity you associate with the pirates and explorers, you may be surprised, as I was, to learn that it appears in all of the books except Peter Duck, The Picts and the Martyrs, Missee Lee and Great Northern? It’s done mainly by mothers: Mrs Blackett, Mrs Walker, Pete’s mother, and Mrs Barrable kisses Dorothea, but shakes hands with Dick. Mothers don’t appear in the books with no kissing, and is clearly not something the Great Aunt indulges in.

Both the Ds and the Swallows had been given certificates by their schools, to be signed before they could return after the holidays.

Susan showed hers to Dorothea.

On the top of it, in large handsome letters, was the name of the school, and then, under it, in ordinary type:-

“I hereby certify that during the last holidays ……………… (‘That space is for our names,’ said Susan) has not suffered from any infectious disorder, and, to the best of my knowledge and belief, has not been where any infectious disorder existed …

Signature …………………..

Note. – If the above certificate cannot be signed, the pupil concerned must not return to the school without permission.”

“There’s no getting out of it,” said Susan. “The things can’t be signed.”

“Who wants to get out of it?” said Peggy. “Nancy said herself it’s the very best thing that could have happened.”

And so, in effect, the holidays begin all over again, albeit without the dominating presence of Nancy – but she is still the leader, and makes her presence felt in other, more creative ways. She begins planning immediately.

… the Polar expedition would not be a tame affair of mere pretence. She, herself, might not be able to take part in it, but it would be the real thing, a march across the frozen sea.

The main body of the expedition, as we have already seen, also has creative resources within itself. After the Dorcas party comes letter-writing. The Swallows write a letter to their mother in Malta to go along with that from Mrs Blackett, explaining the situation, and Titty paints a yellow flag on the back of the envelope.

Peggy, the Swallows and the Ds are never bored, with Nancy sending suggestions (commands?) of things to do in order to prepare for the great march north, as well as ideas of their own. Signalling practice continues; the exploration of Greenland with the rescue of the cragfast sheep, or polar bear; skating practice, including a circumnavigation of Spitzbergen by John, mirroring his swim around Wild Cat Island in the summer holidays; toboganning (as Ransome remembered from his schooldays in Windermere); reading aloud and storytelling (Titty and Dorothea); astronomy (Dick); the failed attempt to convert the Beckfoot sledge into an ice-yacht by John, and Dick’s later success with the smaller sledge made for him by Mr Dixon and Silas, with their help; composing cryptic messages for Nancy; the making of fur hats and mittens by all, aboard the Fram, after Nancy sent the key of Captain Flint’s houseboat; even a bit of rowing, before the lake freezes.

There was plenty of exercise without meeting any Eskimos (the new name for the ‘natives’ of the summer adventures), just what we in 2020 are being encouraged to do, albeit for them rather more than an hour a day. Pulling the big Beckfoot sledge up through the woods to Greenland takes all seven of them, before the four ‘dogs’ take turns with their elders once they reach the slopes of Greenland. Then comes the biggest adventure of Dick’s life so far – the dramatic rescue of the cragfast sheep, later renamed the polar bear. Training for the Arctic indeed.

The Blackett family doctor gives his patient and her friends some useful guidance as to how they should behave during their enforced period of isolation. At first he visits Nancy every day, and every few days he sends a postcard to Holly Howe, where Peggy is now staying along with the Swallows.

“Collect the gang. Inspection of jaws at 9 a.m.”

He takes time to tell them about frostbite, advice which Ransome clearly knew well from the winters he had spent in Russia, and makes them laugh to make sure that there are no aching jaws. He becomes the all-important link between Nancy and the members of the expedition, and good-naturedly delivers their secret messages without asking any questions; indeed, he doesn’t want to know what schemes Nancy is dreaming up:

“She offered to show it to me,” the doctor went on, “but I’ve known Nancy for some time now, and I said I’d rather know nothing about it. Your Uncle Jim gave me that bit of advice a good many years ago. And Nancy doesn’t grow safer with age.”

The frequency of his visits gradually lessens, and in chapter xvii, Dorothea comments:

“It can’t be the doctor … we saw him only the day before yesterday.”

Nancy had sent a picture:

The paper had been in the oven for disinfection, because it was faintly browned all over as if it had been scorched ….

In chapter xx, Nancy is impatiently waiting for the doctor, so that she can ask him to help her organise the North Pole.

… The worst of getting better was that the doctor came so seldom …. Three days had passed since she had given him that picture.

On the same day, he told her

“I didn’t mean to be seeing you for another two days ….”

Had he been busy with other cases of mumps in those 5 days, or was it just that he realised that Mrs Blackett was looking after her very well, and not allowing any breach of the self-isolation rules?

When Captain Flint makes his unexpected return from abroad, and after the Swallows and Peggy have recovered from his discovery of the Ds aboard his houseboat (surely one of the best pieces of writing in the entire cannon), he tells them how he has been sent from the house without being allowed to see Nancy:

“Her face is no bigger than usual … the doctor’s promised that in another week he’ll let her haul down the plague flag ….”

Poor Nancy must have been climbing the walls by that time!

At last came the day of her release, when Captain Flint tells the others

“Disinfection, fumigation, and all the rest of it … doctor’s going round there first thing in the morning ….”

Later that same day, when Nancy sets off to rescue whoever is signalling ‘N.P.’ from the Pole,

Just for a moment she felt herself most dreadfully tired. Even with all her efforts to get into training she was not yet the sturdy Amazon pirate she had been before she had got the mumps, and had had to spend so long being coddled in a hot bedroom ….

And no wonder, we might say these days. Even after my frequent bouts of chest infections as a child, when I was kept in bed and the fire was lit in my room, I used to feel very wobbly when I went back to school. Not the best treatment, really.

As we know, all ends well, and the whole expedition party, augmented by Captain Flint and Mrs Blackett, reaches the North Pole without anyone else coming down with mumps, thanks to the strict regime of social-distancing and self-isolation.

Winifred Wilson

31 March 2020