What did these great writers have in common? (Apart from fatal illness obviously!)

Orwell's Cough: Diagnosing the Medical Maladies and Last Gasps of the Great Writers

This exciting, non-fiction, blockbuster vividly recounts the deadly diseases that claimed the lives of some of the world’s greatest writers. Prepare yourself for:

  • Syphilis
  • TB
  • Yaws
  • Brucellosis
  • Not to mention the horrific treatments which were almost as dangerous

It’s great to mix up your fiction with a bit of non-fiction. Especially when the non-fiction is as great as this AND deals with the lives of some of our favourite authors.

A whole miserable life

What makes this book a winner is the way it divides into ten case study chapters, each focusing on one writer (or family in the sorry case of the Brontës). The writer hasn’t tried to be daring with a thematic approach, instead each chapter offers you:

  • Dramatised retelling of a crucial scene and medical crisis
  • Absorbing life story (these people had astonishing lives!)
  • Medical background of disease/period told in layman terms
  • Account of their death and most likely medical theory
  • Thoughtful reflection on what made the individual unique.

Although I knew a lot about the Brontës, I knew very little about the lives of James Joyce, Nathanial Hawthorne, John Milton, and the others. Apart from anything, it made me want to read their work for myself.

Did Shakespeare have syphilis?

Or so the first chapter asks. In each case the author, John Ross, uses clues pieced together from letters, contemporary sources, medical records, and even their own writing, to build a pictures of their life, disease and death. Sometimes his judgements are bold to say the least. Venereal disease features more frequently in Shakespeare’s later plays. Does this mean he was suffering from the disease and thus knew all about it?

Ross uses handwriting analysis, consideration of heavy metal poisoning (mercury was used for years as the most successful treatment) and quotations from other contemporary playwrights to determine that, no, Shakespeare probably did not have syphilis, though he likely did have gonorrhoea. None of his finding are completely new discoveries, but the journey to get to the conclusion is riveting.

If in doubt, take every drug

Jack London failed his medical degree, built a boat called the Snark (very badly), set sail to the Pacific with people he didn’t really like, had unprotected sex with people in ports around the world. It’s a wonder he managed to write anything. He contracted yaws in the Pacific, from infected mosquito bites. It is related to syphilis but not sexually transmitted. London claims to have cured himself by injecting himself with every single drug he brought with him. Miraculously, this seemed to work.

Fortunately for Jack, the scribblings inspired by his reckless and extraordinary journeys proved astronomically popular with the public and he became the equivalent of a millionaire. Sadly in the late 19th/early 20th century, all the money in the world couldn’t buy you a safe cure. He died aged just forty, a medical and emotional wreck.

Thank god for modern healthcare

Although this book revealed some interesting similarities between the truly great writers, which I consider last of all, the main feeling that I took away from this book was an overwhelming gratitude for our modern healthcare. Sadly there are still some parts of the world that experience ill-health on the scale. The suffering, years of it, was endured and accepted, and in many cases (all but one of the writers studied were male) their wives bore the brunt of their physical care and emotional support.

Whilst there was the usual suggestion that their sufferings ‘inspired’ their writing and gave them an ‘outlet’ for their psychological distress, in all honestly it was probably true. Modern healthcare may have extended their lives, and eradicated the diseases that tormented them but would it have have also taken away from their raw talent? This is the question Ross asks us to take away.

What do these great writers have in common?

This wasn’t really a question the author was asking, but it always a question I ask, when looking for writing inspiration. No writing career is worth the childhood pain and adult sickness endured by these writers. But as a writer, ever keen to glean a tip that doesn’t involve a miserable childhood (can’t do anything about that now) or agonising sickness, was struck by several similarities in the writers’ lives that could be copied:

  • They read a lot as children. By a lot, I mean so much that other people are worried about whether they are normal.
  • They continue to read a lot as adults.
  • They write a lot, as children and as adults and they don’t restrict their genres. They write poetry, short stories, essays, letters and novels.
  • They tend to mix with other literary greats.
  • They tend to be married to very sensible people who have to deal with all their nonsense and genius.

Orwell’s Cough: Diagnosing the Medical Maladies and Last Gasps of the Great Writers by John Ross is an excellent read. Each chapter gives you a welcomed potted life of the writer in question, as well as enough gory detail about their respective diseases to crank up your reverence of their achievements to new heights. Within these pages are also timely reminders and what great writers do. Read, write, suffer and keep writing.

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