Good Reading : August 2007
20 goodreading ı AUGUST 2007 Diseases among authors are often more bizarre than those they write about in their fictional characters [see the article by Jim Leavesley in gr November 2006]. A case, perhaps, of truth being stranger than fiction. Let’s look at a few. Robert Louis Stevenson was a consummate writer and a chronic invalid whose dogged pursuit of relief, if not cure, from his tuberculosis made it appear that he regarded his invalidism as a prolonged preparation for death. He once wrote: ‘I have awaked sick, gone to bed weary, written in bed, written out of it, written in haemorrhages, writ- ten torn by coughing. My case is a sport. I may die tonight or live to sixty.’ He actually died in 1894 at the age of 44, not, in the end, from tuberculosis, but from a sudden bleed on the surface of the brain, a so-called subarachnoid haemorrhage Born in 1850, Stevenson was always frail, but remained well enough to graduate in law from Edinburgh University. He never practised his profession, choosing to follow his true inclination, writing – a billet which allowed him to pursue a wandering, if impoverished, lifestyle in search of a healthy climate. In France he met an American divorcee, Fanny Osbourne, whom he married in 1880.They continued this peripatetic existence together, eventually settling in Bournemouth on the south coast of England. Here his pulmonary symptoms became so marked his doctor forbade him to speak in fear of precipitating a bleed.There were no specific treat- ments for the malady then, but laudanum (tincture of opium) was given as well as morphia (morphine) to relax the mind and suppress the hacking cough. He wrote: ‘The morphia moderates the bray, but I think sews up the donkey.’ Cocaine applied directly to the larynx was having a run at that time and in 1885 Stevenson was persuaded to try it. Pretty drastic, and it is perhaps not without significance that two months later he wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Ill-health forced the Stevensons to travel to Samoa in the South Seas.There, one night in December 1894 while working on Weir of Hermiston, a book some regard as his masterpiece, he suddenly rose from the dinner table, clutched his head and cried out,‘What’s that?’ He had heard the character- istic loud bang in his head associated with the bursting blood vessel. He died within the hour. The ill-health of some prominent authors through the ages is examined by JIM LEAVESLEY. stranger thanfiction Geprge Orwell Edgar Allan Poe Franz Kafka WH Auden Thomas Carlyle Charlotte Brontë RL Stevenson Above: A photo- graph of Robert Louis Stevenson playing his flageolet in bed at Vailima, Samoa, shortly before his death. Above: Detail of a portrait of Steveson painted by his friend John Singer Sargent Centre: Fanny Osbourne, neé Van de Grift.