Authors seem to be more unhealthy than most people. Sometimes the sick room simply offers time to read and a sense of grievance or detachment; but the relationship between health and writing may be more complex. John Ross, a practising physician and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard, has happily violated every rule of patient confidentiality in this gossipy, highly conjectural and entertaining piece of medical bookchat.
Some of it is a bit far-fetched. Did Shakespeare have syphilis, and if so did a mercury cure cause tremors and personality changes? Ross thinks Shakespeare may have had an STD, that mercurial rage may have surfaced later, that he may have struggled to complete his last plays and that perhaps a syphilitic chancre increased his sympathy for others. The basis of all this conjecture is the number of references to pox in the plays. But Shakespeare’s genius was of the opposite kind: to inhabit experience he had not had. Do we believe that Dodie Smith suffered from spots?
For Ross’s scheme, that is the Scylla of not really knowing. The Charybdis is that of being too sure. So there is not that much to say about Milton’s sight: he was blind and perhaps that gave added authenticity to passages of Samson Agonistes. Ross’s riffle through Milton’s records, however, also suggests lead poisoning and death by cardiac arrythmia.
Perhaps. The ten sick subjects vary in the degree to which Ross can offer new diagnoses. With the Brontë sisters, for instance, he is essentially adding clinical detail to what is already known about their sufferings from tuberculosis; with Swift, his suggestion of ‘frontotemporal dementia’ seems more speculative. What is common to all these case histories is a bracing potted biography, a shilling life with a medical twist. To those of us not wholly convinced by the 1,000-page literary biog with its assertion that the character of the footman, Spittal, in the second novel is ‘based’ on Boy Dougdale or Eddie
Lytton-Duff, this is a useful reminder of how a few facts can make you want to read someone’s work yourself. Why have I never read Jack London? He sounds essential, for all the scurvy, nephritis and alcoholism.
Ross is at his best on his fellow Americans, as in his essay on ‘The Many Maladies of Herman Melville’. Of Melville’s formative experience on Nantucket whalers, Ross writes: ‘Desertion rates in whaleships were high. Whaling consisted of long periods of tedium punctuated by bouts of terror, rather like firefighting or watching the films of Lars von Trier.’ After many south-sea adventures, Melville befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, in an arguably homoerotic way. Or as Ross notes, ‘While the happily married Hawthorne had a robust, if repressed, appreciation of feminine sensuality, in Melville’s writings one finds a paucity of women, despite a profusion of seamen.’ As naval gags go, that’s not bad.
The Melville essay contains a quite dotty sub-Darwinian speculation that all Americans are manic because natural self-selection kept only the optimistic settlers there and sent the dull ones home, but it also contains some fascinating ruminations on bipolar disorder and ankylosing spondylitis, supported by good research: Melville’s passports show that he shrank. But back from the wilder shores of speculation, Ross has the modesty to admit: ‘Melville may have had multiple, unrelated medical conditions.’ We do hope not, dear doctor, because then he would just be like the rest of us!
We finish with a piece on Orwell who, as we know, pretty much smoked himself to death. He was apparently never told to give up, ‘perhaps because 87 per cent of British doctors smoked at the time’. Ross gives us some detail of TB treatment worthy of a scene from A.E. Ellis’s great sanatorium novel The Rack, as well as a superb potted life. This essay is written with real passion — with indignation at the suffering Orwell underwent and a borrowed sympathy for the downtrodden about whom he wrote.
This is an oddity: a book of considerable scholarship (almost a fifth of it is bibliography and notes) that does not take itself too seriously. It is a sort of Hello! for book-
lovers, where the subjects are not Jordan and Pippa Middleton but Yeats and James Joyce; where the drama concerns not a party or a handbag but dementia and TB. One’s prurient reading pleasure is elevated by Ross’s clarity, his wit, his authority in both medical and literary terms, and the fact that he has so clearly relished the achievements of these poor sick people.