The Weekly Machen

In an unexpected subject for a newspaper column, Arthur Machen intimately relates a universal experience that surely produced sympathy in many of his readers. Only months before this bout of the flu, Machen had turned fifty. At this stage of his life, the writer already suffered from a weakened state of health due partly to diet and smoking.

Below, Machen mentions the impact of the influenza pandemic of 1890. First identified in Russia, the strain spread quickly around the world due to modern transportation. It is estimated to have killed a million people, mostly the elderly. This would not be the case with the more indiscriminate Spanish flu, set arrive five years after the publication of this article.

In Bed With “The Flu”
Arthur Machen
May 1, 1913

I heard of it first at least forty years ago, sad it was mentioned without respect. My elders were agreeing that it was all nonsense, that there wasn’t such a thing at all, that it was the merest affectation.

Silly people,” I was informed, “say they are ‘suffering from influenza.’ That’s their pompous way of telling you that they’ve got a cold in the head.”

This was all very well or thereabouts, when influenza appeared veritably in all its terrors. It was called “Russian,” and there was a pleasing theory to the effect that it was caused by the unburied bodies of myriads of Chinese who had been drowned in a great flood.

But this will never do. After the lapse of twenty-three years those Chinese corpses can no more offend nor scatter pestilence; and the influenza still goes on. I have had it; rather I am having it still.

Not in the very worst form; the certifying doctor preferred to speak of “a severe influenza cold with bronchitic cough,” rather than of influenza absolute. This is bad enough for me in all conscience; I am comparatively convalescent, but neuralgic pains are corkscrewing into my left eye, and the perspiration is rolling off my face, and my knees shake and tremble as I totter from room to room.

How It Began

How did it begin? Well, one afternoon I felt that peculiar gritty, strained sensation at the back of the throat which warns some of us that a cold is on its way.

I forthwith proceeded to take tabloids composed of cinnamon, ammonia and quinine is large quantities; I have fought off common colds this way.

But not with such aid, not with such defences can the influenza be repelled. I awoke up gradually the next morning when it was still dark. I was making a long, long voyage in an open boat; as long a travail it seemed as that of Ulysses over “the wandering fields of barren foam.” It was a journey of an infinite weariness; from side to side the boat rolled to and fro on its endless way; from starboard to port, port to starboard, and there was somehow pain in that uneasy and ceaseless motion.

Then, very slowly, the dream melted into actual life. I was the boat, and it was I who turned from side to side, trying all in vain to find some rest and ease for a body that ached from head to foot. There was a dull and heavy pain on the crown of my head, an iron band seemed bound about my brows, it was a burden to lift so much as a little finger, and the strength had been poured forth from every joint and articulation.

No Tobacco or Tea

I crawled painfully out of bed and tottered. I lit a pipe, and a rending, tearing cough began to crash through me. I held on to a chest of drawers, and the cough laid hold of me and possessed me and shook me to and fro; the pipe was clearly out of the question. I tried a cup of tea, and discovered that the cup held an intensely offensive fluid, of an evil flavour that ten old-fashioned apothecaries, with the nastiest drugs in the pharmacopœia at their service, could never possibly have obtained, not if each one of them had lived ten lives of mortal men.

I looked at the rashers of bacon. I tasted one, and found I had made another discovery in the absolutely disquieting; strong nausea was my portion, breakfast was out of the question.

I contrived to smoke a little in the coarse of the morning as I lounged, infinitely weary, on the sofa. The tobacco was not tobacco; it had been transmuted, and Shakespeare has described it:

Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,
With Hecate’s ban thrice blasted, thrice infected.

I rolled wretchedly, uneasily, miserably on that sofa. There was no help nor comfort in its softness; my body was become a weight too heavy to be borne, and weary anguish sat in every limb.

No Day for Dickens

So the day went on. I tried to read, but I couldn’t be bored. Pecksniff himself seemed stale; Micawber was a tiresome, foreseen old man. Besides, the lightest book was a torment to handle.

The next day things seemed very much better. The pain had gone, though the cough still racked and tore me, and I felt week and tottery. Still I went to my work, and got through it tolerably, and thought the worst was over.

But the worst was yet to come. The day alter brought an increase of nausea, an increasing weakness. There was nothing to be done but to loaf and lounge and take up books and putt them down, and swallow morsels of food at intervals with difficulty and disgust. The cup of tea was still quite horrible; but it was sot more nauseous than the Burgundy or the whisky and soda; they were devil’s brew everyone of them.

So we get at last to the doctor, who says that there is a great deal of it about, end prescribes palliative drugs, confessing that there is no actual specific against the influenza poison.

It reminds one of ague and malaria,” he declares, “only in these diseases we have the specific of quinine.”

So the malady goes slowly from day to day; now relaxing a little of this symptom and deceiving me with hopes of a cure—till I wake up in the middle of the night with intolerable neuralgic pain shooting through my right eye.

Aad somehow the pain enters into a dream or creates it; somehow that tearing anguish becomes mingled with the Guards’ Review that I saw last Monday; I am in scarlet and I must march round and round Hyde Park for ever, racked and wretched, and deprived of hope.

I wake up—to find that the influenza has not yet left me.

The Weekly

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Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

One thought on “In Bed With “The Flu”

  1. Thank you for this fascinating article! Virology was still in its early days, if Wikipedia may be trusted here – with a few isolations of there being some kinds of “infectious agents” which could somehow pass through the Chamberland filter, which had “pores small enough to remove all bacteria from a solution passed through it.” I am not sure how many varieties of “infectious agents” can affect someone’s sense of taste, as Machen here testifies to, in his experience. The Wikipedia article, “1889–1890 pandemic”, has an interesting overview of the case for it being caused by a corona virus rather than an influenza virus, in which ” loss of taste and smell perception” is apparently part of the case.


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