Pity the monsters

Richard Altick

  • The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance
    Faber, 71 pp, £2.25, June 1980, ISBN 0 571 11569 1
  • The Elephant Man: the Book of the Film by Joy Kuhn
    Virgin, 90 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 907080 09 X
  • The Elephant Man by Christine Sparks
    Futura, 272 pp, £1.25, August 1980, ISBN 0 7088 1942 7
  • The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves
    Star, 126 pp, £95.00, August 1980, ISBN 0 352 30747 1
  • The Elephant Man and Other Freaks by Sian Richards
    Futura, 197 pp, £1.25, October 1980, ISBN 0 7088 1927 3
  • The True History of the Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford
    Allison and Busby, 190 pp, £6.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 85031 353 8

The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes; but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed. He was naked to the waist, his feet were bare, he wore a pair of threadbare trousers that had once belonged to some fat gentleman’s dress suit.

It might almost be mistaken for the dénouement of an early Sherlock Holmes story: Dr John H. Watson describing the scene in an East End police station when Holmes literally unmasks the man with an old scar running across his face from eye to chin which turned up his lip into a perpetual grimace, a ‘crippled wretch of hideous aspect’ who hid out in a vile opium den near the docks. But it is, in fact, Frederick Treves MRCS, a medical contemporary of Dr Watson and Dr Conan Doyle, describing, after forty years, the first scene – in an East End hospital – in the even stranger story of the Elephant Man, the least of whose manifold disfigurements was a grotesquely twisted lip. A year or so before he wrote his tale of the actor-turned-mendicant, Neville St Clair, Doyle would have read the Elephant Man’s brief obituary in the Times. If he was tempted to use some of the facts in the case – the man’s never appearing in public unless concealed by a curtain-like mask with a single slit, a hat the circumference of his waist, and a huge cloak, his occupancy of two secluded ground-floor rooms in the London Hospital from which he emerged at night to take solitary walks in the courtyard – Doyle no doubt rejected them as too bizarre even for his own freely imaginative fiction.

The memory of the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick (Treves always called him John, but he was wrong), was largely lost until 1923, when Sir Frederick, as he had by then become, a distinguished surgeon laden with professional and public honours, revived it in an essay subsequently reprinted by Ashley Montagu in his monograph on the Elephant Man (1972). Now it figures prominently in the printed spin-offs and tie-ins inspired by the success of Bernard Pomerance’s play and the film starring John Hurt encased in a make-up construction that seems destined to be a classic in its own line of art. Once again the showmen and the hucksters, independently or in collaboration, have been true to the long tradition of the London exhibition trade. The printers of Seven Dials and the mountebanks of Bartholomew Fair squeezed additional revenue from a popular freakish attraction by producing and hawking descriptive pamphlets, ballads, prints, and ‘autobiographies’ ghosted by the same hacks who concocted dying speeches to be sold at the site of public executions. The play and film of The Elephant Man have likewise generated a variety of byproducts ranging from the reputable to the catchpenny. On sale now, in addition to the text of the play, are The Elephant Man: The Book of the Film, an illustrated souvenir; Christine Sparks’s The Elephant Man, a competently written fictionalised narrative based on the film script; a reprint of Treves’s own The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences; a wretched paperback entitled The Elephant Man and Other Freaks, which adds to Treves’s essay a selection of the mediocre short stories from which equally mediocre horror films have been made; and Michael Howell and Peter Ford’s The True History of the Elephant Man.

The best of the lot is the last, a well-researched and level-headed biography that tells us considerably more about Joseph Merrick than we knew before. For example: Treves recorded that he carried about with him, as his most cherished possession, the photograph of a woman he identified as his mother. This led Ashley Montagu to speculate that, unlike Alexander Pope, a misshapen man whose personality developed in the opposite direction, Merrick owed his surprisingly sweet disposition to a mother’s loving care in the childhood years when his awful deformity was becoming evident. Actually there is no evidence to connect the picture with the mother, but Howell and Ford, in the course of their profitable search of local records in Leicester, have established that his working-class mother did indeed care for him until her death when he was 11 years old. Whether the care was truly loving is a question on which the records are silent, but she could easily have disposed of Joseph to a showman or the charitable authorities long before that.

While the present flurry of print and picture places the Elephant Man firmly in the mainstream of the ancient London freak trade, the story of the Elephant Man and of his revival after almost a century is in some respects unique. The Howell-Ford biography is one of the very few books that reliably document the life of an exhibited freak. The authors’ luck in discovering so much hitherto unknown information seems, in a way, a spin-off from the good fortune that distinguished the last years of Merrick’s life from the fate of most freaks. It was the mere accident of his being shown for twopence in a vacant shop across the road from the London Hospital which, in 1884, brought the Elephant Man to the attention of the bright young consulting surgeon. A year and a half later, having been shipped back from Belgium by a showman who had first robbed him of his fifty pounds’ savings, Merrick cowered before the sensation-seeking crowd that cornered him in the third-class waiting-room at Liverpool Street Station. He was penniless, with no means of livelihood except as a freak, no prospect of institutional care, and little means of communicating because his facial deformities made his speech almost incomprehensible. But he had miraculously preserved Treves’s card, and Treves, summoned by the police, assumed his care. Then still another miracle occurred: in a rough mixture of the Pygmalion and Caliban stories, the sentient, sensitive human being was liberated from the gross flesh.

Howell and Ford had a further stroke of luck in their discovery of the unpublished memoirs of the English showman who first exhibited him. Tom Norman, it turns out, was something of a magnate in these lower depths of the trade: he had more than a dozen freak and waxwork shows moving from one grimy location to another in greater London. Within four years, however, the police powers of the newly-formed London County Council were to make such shows illegal, thus ending, almost unnoticed, a form of popular urban entertainment that had flourished ever since Pepys’s and Evelyn’s time in taverns and rented rooms and at Bartholomew Fair. The Elephant Man came near the end of a repellent procession of giants, dwarfs, hydrocephalic children, bearded women, men and women with extra limbs or no limbs at all, and foetal abortions pickled in spirits. Although some of his predecessors had been palpable fakes, Merrick was all too genuine. He had the worst case known to medical history, even down to the present day, of neurofibromatosis or Von Recklinghausen’s disease, which, by coincidence, had only recently been described. He was one of the last publicly-exhibited freaks to be studied in the interests of science – a practice which had run from the establishment of the Royal Society in 1660 down to the time of the Siamese Twins (1829), if not later.

The anatomists and physiologists were sometimes joined by moralists, philosophers and proto-psychologists. A sight like the back-to-back Hungarian Twins in 1708, remarked Swift, ‘causes a great many speculations; and raises abundance of questions in divinity, law and physic’. Aside from whatever light they might shed on general principles, the fascination of such exhibits among the thoughtful lay partly in the tantalising question of what it felt like to be a freak. Conceivably, it was his awareness of public curiosity on this score that led Swift to cast Gulliver as a freak when in the land of the Brobdingnagians. But Gulliver’s account of his experience as an itinerant exhibit is limited by the fact that he was a miniature man agreeable to look at, rather than one of the dreadfully malformed or stunted creatures who were carried in boxes through the streets en route to private showings – the basket cases of the Queen Anne period. It would have been impossible for Swift, however much he may have sympathised with those hapless victims of nature’s malignity and man’s exploitative instincts, to understand their feelings, let alone convey them.

The growing concern for suffering humanity in the next two centuries seldom extended to freaks, who were customarily looked upon as imbeciles. Even when indignation was stirred in some quarters by their exhibition and, like the magnificently steatopygic Hottentot Venus in 1810 and the terminally emaciated Living Skeleton, Claude Seurat, in 1825, they were solicitously interviewed, the line of questioning did not seek to plumb their emotional depths. We can imagine, though, what it was like for the Sicilian Fairy, a ten-year-old girl less than twenty inches tall, with three-inch feet, to submit to moist nuzzling by bristle-cheeked newspapermen just before her death from a chill in a cab taking her back from her showplace to her exhibitor’s lodgings.

Exhibited freaks had little to make them happy. It was Treves’s distinction that he often gave Merrick things to smile about, and Merrick’s tragedy that his malformed face prevented him from smiling. But at least he was increasingly able to communicate. Treves, who managed gradually to understand his painful mumbling, encouraged him to relate – fragmentarily, to be sure – the sorry history of his life after the death of his mother, as, successively, an unwanted family embarrassment, workhouse inmate and raree show. His halting but eager conversation revealed, unexpectedly, that he had read not only the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer but every scrap of printed matter that had happened to drift his way. Treves tells us that he was especially fond of romantic novels (Ouida perhaps?) and Jane Austen.

No one can learn, without being moved, of his unspeakable delight when he was taken to the pantomime at Drury Lane, sitting in Baroness Burdett-Coutts’s box behind a protective phalanx of hospital nurses in evening dress. (The film strikes a deplorably discordant note when it places him in the front row of the box, in full view of the audience, which then rises to its feet and applauds him, as if he were a returned war hero or explorer.) Merrick’s capacity for enjoyment proved to be as great as any child’s. Thanks to elaborate logistical arrangements which required a private curtained carriage to be attached to the train from London to Northampton, he was treated to six summer weeks in a cottage on Lady Knightley’s estate, from which he sent Treves bunches of common wildflowers that were to him as exotic and wondrous as the Victoria regia lily. Only Treves knew that his condition could only grow worse. Within four years, though he was unaware of it, the Elephant moved from his mid-twenties to the threshold of old age.

We may feel a simple, perhaps unfashionable pleasure in seeing his escape from the degradation that was the virtually inevitable fate of freaks to something approaching comfort and to whatever normality so hopelessly abnormal a condition could offer. But this relatively happy ending and the revelation of a warm and astonishingly uncorrupted personality is only one of a number of reasons why his story has touched a sensitive spot in the contemporary imagination. It has appealed to the witches’ brew of anxieties fostered by thalidomide babies and the more recent products of teratogenic drugs, by the victims of Hiroshima and of the mercury wastes in Minamata Bay, by Fellini films and the horror movies on late-night television, by Science Fiction with its races of mutants, by controversies over the morality of therapeutic abortion, the emergence of ‘genetic engineering’ and of its capacity to produce fresh monstrosities in laboratories, and what Leslie Fiedler calls in his recent book on freaks ‘myths and images of the secret self’. None of these phenomena except possibly the last, however, can explain the fascination which the Elephant Man had for the working-class patrons of the show in the Whitechapel Road, or the social celebrities who flocked to drink tea with Merrick in his hospital bed-sitter. If any stopped to consider their motivations, they kept their own counsel.

For London society to take up freaks was nothing new. In the 1780s a Polish midget named ‘Count’ Boruwlaski made a good living by holding at-homes for members of the aristocracy and the fashionable set, who paid liberally for the pleasure of his company. He continued to be patronised by the quality, in drawing-room and at dinner table, for the rest of his long and prosperous life. But there was nothing repulsive about him: like Gulliver in Brobdingnag, he was perfectly-proportioned and was merely made to a smaller scale than his patrons and hosts. His wit and social presence were equal to their own. In early Victorian days, General Tom Thumb succeeded him as the pet of royalty and fashion. He, too, was winsome and witty, though most of his script was prepared by his proprietor, P.T. Barnum. Merrick enjoyed none of these freaks’ advantages. People who came upon him unprepared, like the first nurse who saw him at the hospital and the cottager’s wife at Lady Knightley’s, screamed and fled.

It is true that by the time high society called, Merrick was no longer the wholly fearful sight he had been when the police closed down Norman’s exhibition as detrimental to public morality and order. Then, almost his entire body, covered with great pendulous folds of skin that gave off an unbearable stench, was on show. Now, daily baths had eliminated the odour and Merrick was dressed in a suit of clothes, complete with watch and chain, that would have done credit to any respectable London businessman. But though the body was decently concealed, the distorted face and head, with its bony protuberances inexorably growing so big and heavy that he could sleep only in a sitting position with his drawn-up knees supporting it, were more than enough to daunt even the least squeamish. Still, the guests came in a steady stream, following the example of the Prince and Princess of Wales. (Oddly enough, Madge Kendal, the fairy god-mother of the piece, seems never to have visited Merrick: she performed her numerous good works in absentia.) If they were motivated by charity, it was charity of a most uncommon sort. The hundreds of halfpennies and pennies Conan Doyle’s Neville St Clair collected every day in Threadneedle Street had little resemblance to the substantial cheques that flowed in to the London Hospital after an appeal in the Times from Carr Gomm, chairman of the governing board, or the autographed and expensively framed pictures and gifts of game brought or sent by people of rank.

The best indicator of Treves’s own role is the luxurious gentleman’s dressing-case with ivory and silver fittings that Merrick had seen in a newspaper advertisement and asked to have as a Christmas present, even though some of the fittings, such as the hair-brushes, were useless to him. Treves filled the cigarette-case, though Merrick did not and in fact could not smoke, and, in his most considerate act of all, he removed the mirror, just as he had earlier made sure that no minors were to be hung in the room. Like some heart-transplant virtuosi in our own day, Treves has his detractors. The situation he found himself in when he rescued Merrick from the gaping crowd at Liverpool Street Station was ready-made for an exploitation that could have exceeded any the Elephant Man had endured in the hands of the showmen. But settling him comfortably and permanently in the hospital (Treves could never convince Merrick that he would not have to ‘move on’ some day), visiting him daily, arranging for treats, and appealing through Carr Gomm for funds to maintain him, can hardly be called exploitation. Nor did Treves’s association with Merrick significantly advance his career. He eventually became surgeon in ordinary to the royal family and was entrusted with the crucial operation for appendicitis on which depended the life of the man who was about to become King of England, but Edward and Alexandra had long been patrons of the London Hospital and this up-and-coming doctor would have come to their notice without the Elephant Man. If he continued to build up a lucrative Wimpole Street practice, it was because he was a notably skilled medical man: as respected and influential as his own early schoolmaster in Dorset, the dialect poet William Barnes. These professional distinctions had no more to do with his service to the Elephant Man than did his lifelong devotion to literature (he once wrote a book on Browning’s The Ring and the Book, illustrated with 100 photographs he had taken at the poem’s various locales), or his friendship with Thomas Hardy, who attended the burial of his ashes in Dorchester and wrote a poem in his memory. Treves’s devotion – and Madge Kendal’s – to a victim of Hardy’s capricious gods is best regarded as an illustration of man’s occasional humanity to man.