Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Nessie Reviews ☆ Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough

Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough by John J. Ross
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Release Date: October 1st, 2012
Source: Library
Date Read: 6/26/14 to 7/1/14
291 Pages

The doctor suddenly appeared beside Will, startling him. He was sleek and prosperous, with a dainty goatee. Though he smiled reassuringly, the poet noticed that he kept a safe distance. In a soothing, urbane voice, the physician explained the treatment: stewed prunes to evacuate the bowels; succulent meats to ease digestion; cinnabar and the sweating tub to cleanse the disease from the skin. The doctor warned of minor side effects: uncontrolled drooling, fetid breath, bloody gums, shakes and palsies. Yet desperate diseases called for desperate remedies, of course.

Shakespeare’s shaky handwriting, his obsession with venereal disease, and his premature retirement connected? Did John Milton go blind from his propaganda work for the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell, as he believed, or did he have a rare and devastating complication of a very common eye problem? Did Jonathan Swift’s preoccupation with sex and filth result from a neurological condition that might also explain his late-life surge in creativity? What Victorian plague wiped out the entire Brontë family? What was the cause of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sudden demise? Were Herman Melville’s disabling attacks of eye and back pain the product of “nervous affections,” as his family and physicians believed, or did he actually have a malady that was unknown to medical science until well after his death? Was Jack London a suicide, or was his death the product of a series of self-induced medical misadventures? Why did W. B. Yeats’s doctors dose him with toxic amounts of arsenic? Did James Joyce need several horrific eye operations because of a strange autoimmune disease acquired from a Dublin streetwalker? Did writing Nineteen Eighty-Four actually kill George Orwell?  

The Bard meets House, M.D. in this fascinating untold story of the impact of disease on the lives and works of some the finest writers in the English language. In Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, John Ross cheerfully debunks old biographical myths and suggests fresh diagnoses for these writers’ real-life medical mysteries. The author takes us way back, when leeches were used for bleeding and cupping was a common method of cure, to a time before vaccinations, sterilized scalpels, or real drug regimens. With a healthy dose of gross descriptions and a deep love for the literary output of these ten greats, Ross is the doctor these writers should have had in their time of need.

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It's been a while since I've read a non-fiction book for pleasure. However, while I wandering through my local library, I stumbled upon this book and knew I had to read it. I've always been fascinated with the lives of famous authors and how their surroundings impacted their work. In particular the mental struggles of authors interested me the most, but seeing this book made me (stupidly) realize that great authors can and do suffer from physical illnesses as well.

What surprised me the most was how engaging his writing was. I went in expecting a somewhat boring read filled with medical jargon. Instead, I was surprised to find that each section began with a little vignette of the afflicted author either receiving treatment or the initial diagnosis. The writing in these sections made me feel as if I was reading a short story. And even after the vignette ended I felt as if Dr. Ross was able to maintain a fairly colloquial tone. 

Let me begin with the structure. The book is divided into ten chapters, each focusing on a separate author. The only exception to this is the chapter on the Brontës, which talks about the illnesses of the entire family and how they might have impacted each other. Each chapter begins with a brief fictionalized vignette of the author dealing with their illness. After that, each chapter reads like a mini-biography. He talks about where they were born, how they're parents were, and follows them throughout their lives. The only obvious difference is that in addition to following their travels and literary careers, we also get updates about hospital stays, treatments, and various symptoms. However, all the medical information is presented in the least complicated terms and you never feel overwhelmed. At worst, you feel horrible for what these writers had to go through. In addition, Dr. Ross isn't just handing out his own diagnoses, he also takes care to mention other speculated diseases.

What I liked most about this book is how it humanized these great writers for me. Medical care for these authors was pretty much their doctor's performing hit-or-miss treatments, and there were a few authors that became sicker later on because of the "treatments" they had received. One example is Shakespeare, who likely suffered from syphilis which was treated by ingesting liquid mercury in his time. While he was eventually cured from syphilis, he developed a severe tremor--rendering him unable to write his own plays--among other symptoms, likely from mercury poisoning. I also found it interesting how in some authors cases while they were dealing with illness, mentions of the illnesses they were dealing with appeared more often in their work, and once they were "cured" these mentions subsided. It was just cool to see how you could piece together an author's life from reading their works of fiction.

If there is anything I took away from this book, it was a deeper understanding and appreciation of some of my favorite works. 1984 is one of my favorite books. I love talking about it and relating current day events and ideas in other books I read back to it. When we first read it in class, my teacher off-handedly mentioned how he had written it on his death bed. But having that foreknowledge did not prepare me to read about how it basically took enormous amounts of his non-existent energy to complete this book. After finishing it he had to be rushed to sanatorium, and he took little pleasure in the money he gained from the book because he was fully aware that he was going to die soon.

On the other hand, it was equally inspiring to read about Herman Melville battling with physical ailments and severe mental illnesses and having the love and support of family and friends helped keep his diseases from getting much, much worse (although they were pretty bad).

I highly recommend this book to people interesting in learning more about and oft-forgotten part of author's lives or anyone just looking for a slightly different read.

Vanessa is Val's bestest buddy, and she will be guest posting throughout the summer because she loves to read and write. You can also find her at her own blog, Musings of an Aspiring Writer.


  1. This sounds different, definitely something outside my normal reading schedule!
    Missie @ A Flurry of Ponderings

    1. Yeah it was completely out of the types of books I normally read, but I'm really glad I did and I hope you decide to read it too :D

  2. I don't think I've heard of this, but holy wow, that COVER. I have a thing for illustrated covers, especially red ones, and this one is beautiful. Love the simplicity! And I'm glad that the story itself wasn't a disappointment. The one problem about books like these (containing loads of sciencey stuff) is that they tend to go overboard with the medical terms and theories -- even in fiction books. I read Parasite by Mira Grant and while the story was good, there were so many scientific terms that just confused me. Or maybe I'm just dumb, lol. But whatever, still happy that that wasn't the case for this book!

    Wow, I never knew George Orwell wrote 1984 on his deathbed. Amazing! Now I'm just all the more excited to read it. And any book that increases your appreciation for another is a good book, in my opinion. :) Great review, Vanessa!

    1. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed my review! :) And the cover was actually one of the reasons I first decided to even pick it up. But yes, you don't need to worry about the sciencey stuff too much with this book. The most "sciencey" it gets is describing what the different illnesses do and the like, but overall the book is structured more like a biography than some scientific book analysis. But yes do read this book!


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