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Are famous writers accident-prone? Some are

Paul Johnson on what one should and should not know about a writer

31 October 2007

5:24 PM

31 October 2007

5:24 PM

I don’t want to know too much about writers. The endless revelations about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes have put me off their poetry. Nothing can shake my love of Keats’s Odes but I don’t have any desire to see his full medical records. Nor do I care to learn anything more about Byron’s club foot (though I am fascinated by the fact that the painter John Glover, who founded the Australian school of art, and whose masterpiece ‘Dovedale at Dawn’ I possess, had two club feet). We know quite enough about Shakespeare personally, and I am happy he is still surrounded by mysteries. Of course, if his diaries were suddenly to appear, or autographed letters, that would be another matter.

The truth is, an author and his works are best kept separate. All the same, I like to know what a writer (or any famous historical personage, for that matter) looked like. I don’t want to be told about Jane Austen’s sexual yearnings, if she had any. But I would like a good, truthful portrait of her, full- length if possible. The only one we possess which shows her face, by her sister Cassandra, is feeble and amateurish and does not, I suspect, do her justice. Oh, for a minute or two of videotape, to show her sparkle and her facial expressions, and her smile when she made a wicked joke. (‘Wicked’ was a term she used about herself more than once.) It would be reassuring, too, to have a really lifelike and dependable drawing of Shakes­peare. I long to imagine him as he actually looked at his desk, scribbling away, dipping his quill pen into the inkpot, then mending and sharpening it with his dagger.

No such problem with Dickens, painted by accurate portraitists like Daniel Maclise and Ary Scheffer, often drawn and photographed, and described in detail at work. He was five foot nine, slim but not slight, soon very wrinkled and with receding hairline, his thin brown hair turning grey and white in his fifties. Restless, always on the move, emitting sparks of energy. Marcus Stone, the artist, described him as ‘light and spare, his hands somewhat large but fine in form …His eyes, dark green-grey-hazel, were of unforgettable beauty. A splendid frankness and honesty shone out of them, such a keen perception and observation, and such rare powers of unconscious expression.’ He had a ‘moral glow’. By the time he was 50 he was often compared to a ‘bronzed sea-captain’. Then, under the stress of his frenzied travelling and readings, he began to disintegrate physically. A photo by J. Gurney shows him, at 55, almost completely bald, the beard and moustache grey-white. There is a tragic drawing of him by ‘Spy’ in the year of his death, aged 58, white and exhausted on a sofa, a genius killed by overwork and anxieties, some of his own creation. The visual images of Dickens tell the story of his life.


I relish little pieces of information about people. A sharp-eyed Frenchman, Philarète Chasles, described Charles Lamb as ‘purely intellectual’ as his body was ‘ridiculous’, his legs ‘almost imperceptible’, ‘poor little spindles, clothed in stockings of Chinese silk, ending in impossible feet, encased in large shoes, which placed flatly on the ground advanced slowly in the manner of a webfooted creature’. After dinner he would fall asleep, but so lightly that the state of slumber appeared to descend on him like gossamer, and he never made the slightest sound of breathing. When he awoke, equally gently, almost imperceptibly, he would immediately say: ‘Diddle, diddle, dumpkins!’ A lot of people who knew him spoke of the ‘spirituality of his body’, as though its material existence was of no account. When drunk, he could be carried on the back of a coachman upstairs to his bedchamber, without trouble. Yet he was not minute. For two centuries, the wine merchants Berry Brothers in St James’s Street used to weigh distinguished customers on their big scales, and keep a record of the findings. They persuaded Charles Lamb to be weighed on 14 June 1814 and, the note in their register reads: ‘in boots, 9 stone 31/2 pounds’.

It would be interesting to know what Thackeray weighed. As a child he was thin, in youth spare, but his appetite for food slowly became prodigious, and after Vanity Fair made him celebrated in 1848, the number of his invitations to grand dinners at the best tables in London grew steadily — he often had a choice of five or six in the season. He could never resist rich food, though he suffered agonies from indigestion and every kind of gastric, bile and liver trouble, not to speak of a recurrent stricture, the result of a venereal infection in his careless youth, never properly cured, which often made the business of urinating very painful, and sometimes impossible, forcing him to use a catheter. In his forties (he lived only to 52), he put on weight and developed a formidable paunch. He was six foot three and looked taller. His face was puffy and unformed, and his monocle, screwed in tight, gave it a comic twist. He had been forced to have a fistfight at Charterhouse, and had his nose broken in the combat. Later, travelling in France, he fell from a donkey and broke it again. It looked like a flat button, giving him an infantile look. He was described as ‘resembling a gigantic baby’.

I suspect the peculiar shape of Thackeray’s body in middle life made him accident-prone. He had many falls. Is there such a thing as a propensity to damage yourself? I would like to read a proper scientific study of the subject. Writers are certainly liable, the outstanding example being Ernest Hemingway. Like old Thack’s, his big body was an awkward shape, but he hurt himself badly as a small child, falling with a stick in his mouth and gouging his tonsils. He also caught a fishhook in his back and hurt himself playing football and boxing. In 1918, beside being blown up in the war, he smashed his fist through a glass showcase. In 1920 he cut his feet walking on broken glass, and fell on a boat-cleat which caused internal bleeding. He burnt himself painfully while smashing up a water-heater (1922), tore a foot ligament (1925), and had the pupil of his good eye cut by his son (1927). In 1928, drunk, he mistook the skylight cord for the lavatory chain and pulled the heavy glass structure down on his hand. The result: concussion and nine stitches. The next year he tore his groin muscle, damaged an index finger, was hurt by a bolting horse, and broke his arm in a car accident. In 1935 he shot himself in the leg while drunk and trying to gaff a shark, broke his big toe kicking a locked gate, smashed his foot through a mirror and damaged the pupil of his bad eye (1938). In 1944 he was concussed twice. There was another bad car smash the next year, a clawing by a lion in 1949, a boat accident in 1950 and in 1953 a series of serious accidents in Africa, leading to a fractured skull, two cracked spinal discs, a ruptured liver, spleen and kidneys, and paralysed sphincter muscles. Bad falls, usually while drunk, continued till his suicide.

Some writers get themselves epitomised in a short sentence. Anthony Trollope ‘had a voice like two men quarrelling’. George Eliot ‘had a head much too big for her body’. It made her, as Jane Carlyle recorded, ‘Oh, so slow!’ When I was a child I was told Gladstone chewed his food 39 times before swallowing it. That is the kind of information I like to have, if true. But was it true? Did Gladstone count? Each time? There is something to be said for Dr Johnson’s remark, ‘There is no piece of information, however insignificant, which I do not prefer to know, than not know it.’

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