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Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Comet fever

Saturday, May21st., Paris.

Undoubtedly there has been more evidence of superstition about the comet in Italy than elsewhere. On Wednesday the papers were full of the 'incontro' of the Earth with the tail - on the posters - and some of them had articles rassurants by, for example, Camille Flamarion, explaining soothingly that no harm would occur. Vast numbers of people stayed up on Wednesday night to see the comet and were decus, as there was nothing to be seen. The Italian landlady of the pension went up to the Piazza M. Angelo at 2.30 a.m. and stayed till 4. Crowds of people singing & making a row. I had heard noises and wondered what was up. Indeed, Soulie reports same thing from Toulouse - going out to a certain point to see the comet, and seeing it en masse, as if for the end of the world. Same thing in a lighter vein in Paris, where people thought the violet colour of the lightning in the tremendous storm of Thursday night meant the end of the world.

In 1910 Halley's Comet made one of its rare but regular passes by the earth. With the new scientific equipment of the era, astronomers were able to study the comet much more closely than before and observe many of the properties of it and its long tail. This observation revealed that much of the tail consisted of cyanogen, a deeply poisonous gas. The astronomers also determined that Earth might well briefly pass through the tail of the comet. They quickly determined that this would be harmless, however, and told people that the only thing to expect was that sunsets would possibly be somewhat more vivid for a while. However, the media and the public didn't entirely pick up on the harmlessness of the pass-through, and just focused on the fact that the Earth would be passing through a cloud of poisonous gas. Soon, hysteria began to build as people grew more and more fearful that poison would envelop the world. Scientists tried to reassure the public that the gas was so widely distributed that it would be unnoticeable, but the papers often failed to actually report that fact, and panic continued to mount. 
As the event drew nearer, things grew worse and worse. Con artists were able to sell pills that they claimed were ‘comet pills' to protect people from the gas. Regular prayer vigils were held in churches across the nation. The death of Mark Twain was implied to be connected somehow to the arrival of the comet. A shadow over one town drove people into a brief mass panic. Newspapers reported constantly on any news related to the comet – where the tail would hit the Earth, when it would be visible, and the like. When the time finally came for the pass itself, people barricaded themselves in their houses, filling any cracks or gaps with old rags to prevent any air from outside getting into the house. In the end, the Earth and its people rather obviously survived. The hysteria faded as Halley's Comet made its way back off into its distant and complicated orbit, and nobody died from the gases in its tail. 

We left Florence at 2.45 on Thursday, and arrived at Milan at 9.45 a.m. Auguste Foa met us at station and had a drink at hotel (Bellini). Headache all the time. 3 hours sleep. We left Milan at 8 a.m. on Friday, and left Italy about 11 a.m. No proper seats in the through carriage till we got to Montreux. Tremendous storms in the Jura and further on. We reached Paris at 11.25 p.m., half an hour late, & the hotel at 12.30. I found a large post, including a request from the Chronicle to suspend articles, as they were crowded out and a letter about a play. We went to bed about 1.30 or 2, and I had 4 hours sleep. Beautiful morning but heavy. My first act was to go to my artistic barber in the Rue de Seze. Then to buy La Nouvelle Revue Francaise.

I read over half of "A Man of Property" in the train and have many ideas about it. Distinguished, but not mighty, not complete.

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