Magazine article The Spectator

The Writing Bug

Magazine article The Spectator

The Writing Bug

Article excerpt

Orwell's Cough by John Ross Oneworld Publications, £12.99, pp. 304, ISBN 9781851689514 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 Bronte 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'. …

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