What the doctor saw

Peter Ackroyd

  • The Horror of Life by Roger Williams
    Weidenfeld, 381 pp, £15.00, February 1981, ISBN 0 297 77883 8

The title hints at something extravagant and strange: five 19th-century French writers – Baudelaire, Jules de Goncourt, Flaubert, Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet – are enrolled here because of their ‘unremitting pessimism and disgust toward life’. As it turns out, the book is more Marie Curie than Mario Praz. Roger Williams, a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wyoming, has supped his full of horror. He opens with a modest disclaimer: he began this study ‘with the understanding that all five had been syphilitic, and with the suspicion that disease had blackened their outlook.’ A good, probing start. But ‘my medical inquiry soon revealed that four of the cases were far more complicated than anticipated.’ Diseases spread across each page – colic, rheumatism, cerebral haemorrhage, epilepsy, tertiary syphilis, hemiplegia. These five apparently permanent invalids, breezily described as ‘Flaubert and Company’, seemed to pick up whatever was going; it is surprising that they found time to write anything at all.

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