Good Reading : November 2006
20 goodreading ı NOVEMBER 2006 displayed none of the abdominal symp- toms characteristic of metal poisoning. Heavy metals do cause nerve damage in the extremities, resulting, for instance, in foot drop. But the ears are not usually affected. Squod had been a keen boxer, and blows he received to the head may have been more significant. Victor Hugo was another fine nineteenth-century author, and the nature of the hunchback Quasimodo’s affliction in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris poses a medical problem. Charles Laughton produced a fine performance in the 1939 classic film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame: who can forget the splendid sight of him pushing the great church bells with his feet while lying on his back? The proper name for anteroposterior curvature or bending forward in the upper part of the spine of a hunchback is ‘kyphosis’. It can be angular, limited to a small portion of the area, or diffuse, involving a large part of the back. The novel is set in the Middle Ages, and Quasimodo was found by the Archdeacon of Notre Dame as an abandoned and grossly deformed infant.The portrayal in the films also has him being intellectually challenged, but this is at odds with the written version. He becomes deaf, doubtless due to an aural traumatic resulting from his bell-ringing job. Kyphosis is due to the collapse of the bodies of one or more vertebrae, the commonest cause of which is our old enemy tuberculosis.This is especially so in children, and Quasimodo’s deformity could almost certainly be put down to this. As this disease is uncommon now, the deformity is rarely seen. Rickets ( also very rare now in Western countries) is another cause. In older people it is more likely to be a crush fracture from a fall, osteoporosis, or secondary malignant disease. Charlotte Brontë’s two famous sisters, Emily and Anne, her painter brother Patrick, and two younger sisters all died at a young age of tuberculosis. But Charlotte broke the mould, for at the age of 38 she perished during her first pregnancy from hyperemesis gravidarum, or excessive vomiting. Her novel Jane Eyre deals with neither of these prob- lems, but features another contemporary situation: the incarceration of a mentally deranged person at home. In this case the ‘mad’ wife of Mr Rochester, who is secreted in an upstairs room. Jane is staying in Rochester’s house, Thornfield Hall, and first encounters the upstairs lady after the latter has escaped her carer. Later Rochester asks Jane to mar ry him; the ceremony is interrupted by a lawyer revealing that the groom is already married; whereupon they retur n to the Hall and confront the mystery woman, Bertha Rochester, née Mason, whom he had married 15 years previously. Rochester claims: ‘Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations. Her mother, the Creole, was both mad and a drunkard ... Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parent in both points.’ At the meeting Bertha runs back and forth, grovelling on all fours, growling ‘like some strange wild animal’ while ‘a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.’ The carer, Grace Poole, warns Rochester to ‘for God’s sake, take care!’ whereupon the wronged wife springs on Rochester and has to be tied down. It is an unedifying picture of mental illness described by someone, I fancy, who has not seen the real thing. Brontë recounts the popular misconception of a mentally ill person displaying dangerous and unbridled mania. It is true that someone in a manic attack may have to be restrained, but this settles and is com- monly replaced by depression. We are a bit short on detail, but there is no hint of periods of depression suffered by Bertha. With what is described, plus the lady’s likely age (married 15 years, so probably about mid thirties) and alleged family history, it sounds like paranoid schizo- phrenia. Being locked away for so long, she would suffer a sense of social depra- vation, and, perhaps, malnutrition, features which would enhance any paranoia. The fact that she was a Creole had nothing to do with the alleged mental state; that was just a manifestation of Victorian racism. In the first half of the nineteenth century, when the Brontës were writing, there were very few hos- pitals dedicated to the insane; Bethlem (better known as Bedlam) was one. They were mainly for the indigent and were massive, forbidding places with patients often restrained in fetters. For the well off, such illness was an embarrassment and, if they could afford it, the sufferers were either placed in an expensive, small private hospital and conveniently forgotten, or kept at home and out of sight – like Bertha Rochester. Charles Dickens was fascinated by disease, frequently visited hospitals and studied physical abnormalities with relentless dedication to create realism in his work. That, together with his well- developed social conscience, especially regarding children, made him one of the greatest writers of all time. Other writers were not so perspicacious, so if you want to read about disease in fiction, Dickens is your author. Dr Jim Leavesley is a retired GP who lives in Western Australia. He is a columnist with Australian Doctor magazine. His books Mere Mortals and More Mere Mortals are published by ABC Books, rrp $29.95 each. categorical It is an unedifying picture of mental illness described by someone, I fancy, who has not seen the real thing. Brontë recounts the popular misconception of a mentally ill person displaying dangerous and unbridled mania.
December / January 2007