Anna Lee Huber

Behind the Book by

On November 11, 1918, world leaders signed the armistice ending World War I and its four years of gruesome conflict. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the armistice, Anna Lee Huber shares a look behind the latest installment of her delightful Verity Kent historical mystery series, Treacherous Is the Night.

My fascination with World War I began because it seemed to be the war that always got skimmed over in History class. Not on purpose, I’m sure, but when the school year was winding down, and our class had only just begun to crack our books open to the 20th century, the First World War tended to get reduced to a blip in time in order to get to the Second. It was like fast-forwarding to the end of a movie, ignoring the plot twists that had gotten the characters to that point in the first place.

But I wanted to know about the people. I wanted to understand how the war had affected the hundreds of thousands of people who had fought and died and struggled through the first modern worldwide conflict. It seemed to me they deserved more than to have their lives reduced to such sparse facts as the assassination of an archduke and a short description of trench warfare in a Western Civilization class.

The truth is, it’s all too easy to reduce an era in history to just a set of numbers and dates and a few names and places. To ignore the humanity of millions of individuals. But when I look at history, I see people. I see their hopes and dreams. I see their struggles and losses. Sometimes they triumph, sometimes they fail, but always there is the wishing, the wanting, the striving.

But World War I crushed so much of that. It extinguished the hope, or reduced it to a bare flicker. It left its survivors wandering and lost, searching and sometimes failing to find something to give their lives meaning. Or at least to distract them from the pain for just a little while. It’s no wonder they’re called the Lost Generation, and not just because of the unimaginable number of casualties stolen from their ranks.

I began writing my Verity Kent series to try to better understand this generation, to explore who they were and what it would have been like to live through such a horrendous conflict. To have survived, and yet not know how to move on and rebuild their lives, or even dare to hope again. But rather than a soldier, I wanted to do so from the perspective a woman, one who had witnessed both sides. A woman who had become a young war bride just days before her beloved husband left to fight on the Western Front, leaving her to sit anxiously at home waiting for him. But also a woman who had decided to do her bit, unwittingly finding a position in military intelligence—one of the few agencies that would hire a married woman—and discovering she was good at it. A woman who could move about London as one of the thousands of wives carrying on while their husbands fought, but also found herself undertaking increasingly dangerous missions at home, near the front and even within the German-occupied territories.

I wanted to grapple with what it was like for the thousands of women employed in various capacities by the British intelligence agencies to serve their country in secret, and then when the war was over to be demobilized and told to never speak of it again. To be so tremendously useful and then suddenly not. Not to mention the impact this had on their relationships with their families, friends and spouses. What was it like to be reunited with a man you had been largely separated from for four long years, a man who had been through the hellish experience of trench warfare? How did such a marriage survive when they’d both been forbidden to speak of their years of service, to share what had become such an essential part of who they were?

On the centennial of the armistice for World War I, which will take place on November 11th at 11 a.m.—the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—I’ll be thinking of all those men and women. I’ll be thinking of those who died, of those who served, of those whose contributions and sacrifices were barely acknowledged. But most of all I’ll be thinking of those who survived, but whose lives were irreparably impacted—the returning soldiers, the wives and fiancés, the children. I hope you’ll join me in observing two minutes of silence to honor all those lives, as well as our veterans.

My fascination with World War I began because it seemed to be the war that always got skimmed over in History class. Not on purpose, I’m sure, but when the school year was winding down, and our class had only just begun to crack our books open to the 20th century, the First World War tended to get reduced to a blip in time in order to get to the Second. It was like fast-forwarding to the end of a movie, ignoring the plot twists that had gotten the characters to that point in the first place.

Behind the Book by

Anna Lee Huber always knew that her Lady Darby mysteries, which are set in the 1830s, would eventually reach the cholera epidemic of 1832. What she couldn’t have known was that she’d be writing A Wicked Conceit, in which sleuth Kiera Darby must solve a series of crimes in a disease-stricken Edinburgh, while the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting Huber’s own life.

Illness is nothing new, and neither are epidemics, for that matter. Yet very few of us living in the developed world have experienced a pandemic. We’ve read about them in history books, but we haven’t experienced the strain and uncertainty and immediacy of dealing with one—until now. 

When I first began writing the Lady Darby mysteries and decided to set the first book in August of 1830, I always hoped the series would last long enough for the characters to reach the year 1832. But while I was aware that my characters would eventually have to wrangle with the cholera epidemic that struck Britain beginning in late 1831, I had no idea I would be writing about it while enduring a new pandemic in our time—nor could I have predicted how my own personal experience with a pandemic would inform not only my understanding of the past but also our present predicament.

First I had to confront the methods used for controlling a pandemic and treating disease in 1832 and how they differ from those we utilize today. Our scientific and medical knowledge has progressed immensely in 188 years. For one, we now understand that viruses and infections like cholera are caused by germs and not by miasmas.

In 1832, miasma theory was the predominant medical theory held by the brightest minds of the age to explain how diseases spread. The belief was that bad, noxious air emanating from things like rotting corpses, marshy land areas and other putrid matter actually released vapors that caused people to fall ill. This “influence in the atmosphere” was also believed to afflict those who had weakened themselves by exposure to certain behaviors, places or “exciting causes.” These theories promoted the idea that only people of “irregular habits” should fear diseases like cholera. So in addition to avoiding noxious air, doctors prescribed preventatives that were supposed to keep you from contracting dreaded diseases.

One of the most useful measures was the establishment of the first Central Board of Health, which was based in London with branches in other cities throughout Britain. The World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control are the modern equivalents of these Boards of Health. Also, much like the regular televised coronavirus briefings held in 2020, the 1832 Central Board of Health published the Cholera Gazette to disseminate information to the public in an organized manner. Broadsides were posted that advised people of what foods to eat, how to clean themselves and their homes, and how to be mindful of the weather and the suitability of their clothing. Buildings in infected areas were even cleaned and whitewashed.

Quarantine measures were rarely recommended because cholera didn’t seem to spread by contagion but by personal contact. Contagionism was a precursor to germ theory, so it conflicted with the accepted concept of miasmatism. Quarantine was unlikely to have been effective anyway because the bacteria that causes cholera is not airborne like the virus that causes COVID-19. We now know that the reason cholera outbreaks kept recurring despite all the Central Board of Health’s efforts was that they failed to address the true source of the disease: open cesspools throughout communities.

It wasn’t until 1854, when Dr. John Snow was able to trace the source of a single cholera outbreak in London to a specific water pump, followed by a decadelong fight for germ theory to overtake miasma theory, that the real cause of cholera was pinpointed and accepted. Once significant sanitation improvements were made and uncontaminated water supplies were created, cholera became largely eradicated from many parts of the world, though areas without these two crucial elements still struggle with the disease.

While writing for an audience now familiar with the masking and social distancing protocols of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was important to communicate the differences in methodology between the medical community of 1832 and today. However, the feelings of dread, fear and misgiving that people experience during such times of crisis were as present in the past as they are today. The desire to make sense of such a calamity, to understand its cause and to draw some sort of meaning from it, was just as strong. 

Some people in 1832 found healthy ways to grapple with these issues and emotions, while others responded with anger and vitriol. Pamphlets from the time railed against people’s sinful natures and called on the government to change laws to save people from their own iniquities, correlating the concept of contagion with the idea that cholera was divine punishment for intemperance and immorality. Others even blamed doctors for allowing or causing people to die of cholera so their bodies would be available for dissection in anatomy schools. This fear ultimately resulted in violent cholera riots throughout Britain and Europe. 

But not everything that can be gleaned from our study of past pandemics is dire or disheartening. In fact, there is great comfort to be found in realizing we have been through difficult times like this before, and we’ll get through them again. Chaos and uncertainty may reign for a time, but humanity will eventually prevail. Science and social understanding will be advanced. We’ll emerge with a better understanding of the past, and hopefully of ourselves and others. As an author, I now have a greater empathy for the characters who inhabit my pages and the misfortunes I inflict on them.

Anna Lee Huber shares what it was like to write about the cholera epidemic of 1832 while the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting her own life.

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