Writers’ illnesses

Presumably George Calderon had recovered from the influenza that confined him to Fort Brockhurst for a fortnight; but if so, why did he come home on sick leave ‘still very ill and with a high temperature’, as Kittie described it?

The chances are that he was suffering from the ‘tonsilitis’ that Kittie says also swept the barracks. That would account for his temperature, sore throat and grogginess, certainly. As I know myself from having contracted chronic tonsilitis whilst living in Russia in the 1970s, without antibiotics it is difficult to throw it off. But bed-rest, gargles and TLC evidently did the trick for George, as we never hear of tonsilitis again and by the beginning of March he was well enough to return to Brockhurst.

But did he have an underlying condition? Was there something more sinister to Surgeon- Major Basil Pares’s diagnosis at Ypres that George had an enlarged and varicose prostate? Could that explain facial change and deep lassitude by the time he set sail for Gallipoli?

Personally, as a biographer I am extremely wary of the accounts given of writers’ medical conditions during their lifetimes and the diagnoses we can produce without much effort today. First, there is often an element of medical ‘fashion’ both to the contemporary (‘then’) and the modern (‘now’) accounts. George was diagnosed in the early 1900s by Dr Tebb as suffering from gout (in particular, I think, this was assumed to be the source of his bouts of irritability). Admittedly this was partly based on urine analysis, but it is amazing how many other writers were being diagnosed with gout at the same time. Yet, as with George, ten years later one doesn’t hear much about their ‘gout’. Similarly, in recent times it has been suggested that Chekhov and George were ‘bipolar’, but ‘bipolarity’ is simply one of the most talked-about conditions now. Although both writers definitely got very depressed about things at certain times in their lives, like Winston Churchill and the rest of us, I don’t think that adds up to manic depression. There is far from enough evidence to draw that conclusion.

Similarly, Samuel Beckett seems to have been a bit obsessive, but to be a writer you have to be a bit obsessive — about writing. Does this mean Beckett suffered from O.C.D. or even, as has been recently suggested, Asperger Syndrome?  I doubt it. His armchair diagnosers are more likely suffering from Fashionable Medical Label Syndrome.

Second, the contemporary (‘then’) medical records are themselves often too skewed to make a plausibly objective diagnosis today (in any case some doctors would argue that diagnosis is more of an art than a science).  The records may, in fact, be highly selective and reflect a preconceived idea — a diagnosis already made in the symptom-recorder’s head. An example would be Chekhov’s TB. Undoubtedly he suffered from pulmonary TB. But the pages and pages of medical records of his intestinal troubles are also presented in terms of intestinal TB. A modern (‘now’) doctor looking at them and not knowing Chekhov had pulmonary TB might well suspect a form of cancer.

The condition that actually intrigues me most about George Calderon is his swings from compulsive athleticism (running, golf, cricket, tennis) and general hyperactivity, to complete exhaustion and ‘nervous prostration’. One would have thought he was far too slight a man to drive himself to all this sporting activity — often in photographs he looks actually underweight, and there were periods when he smoked heavily. But the term ‘nervous prostration’ was the ‘bipolar’ of Edwardian England. Everyone from writers and politicians to painters and suffragettes seemed to suffer from it. In Edwardian males particularly, the cycle from sporting/intellectual/’adventurous’ hyperactivity to ‘nervous prostration’ seems to have been so common that I would say it was a syndrome of the age. I would give a lot to know what was the cause of it.

Next entry: ‘Black Pot’ and black holes


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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