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Jewish World Review
Nov. 7, 2007
/ 26 Mar-Cheshvan 5768
Are famous writers accident-prone?
It would be interesting to know what Thackeray weighed. As a child he was thin, in youth spare, but his appetite for food slowly became prodigious, and after Vanity Fair made him celebrated in 1848, the number of his invitations to grand dinners at the best tables in London grew steadily he often had a choice of five or six in the season. He could never resist rich food, though he suffered agonies from indigestion and every kind of gastric, bile and liver trouble, not to speak of a recurrent stricture, the result of a venereal infection in his careless youth, never properly cured, which often made the business of urinating very painful, and sometimes impossible, forcing him to use a catheter. In his forties (he lived only to 52), he put on weight and developed a formidable paunch. He was six foot three and looked taller. His face was puffy and unformed, and his monocle, screwed in tight, gave it a comic twist. He had been forced to have a fistfight at Charterhouse, and had his nose broken in the combat. Later, travelling in France, he fell from a donkey and broke it again. It looked like a flat button, giving him an infantile look. He was described as 'resembling a gigantic baby'.
I suspect the peculiar shape of Thackeray's body in middle life made him accident-prone. He had many falls. Is there such a thing as a propensity to damage yourself? I would like to read a proper scientific study of the subject. Writers are certainly liable, the outstanding example being Ernest Hemingway. Like old Thack's, his big body was an awkward shape, but he hurt himself badly as a small child, falling with a stick in his mouth and gouging his tonsils. He also caught a fishhook in his back and hurt himself playing football and boxing. In 1918, beside being blown up in the war, he smashed his fist through a glass showcase. In 1920 he cut his feet walking on broken glass, and fell on a boat-cleat which caused internal bleeding. He burnt himself painfully while smashing up a water-heater (1922), tore a foot ligament (1925), and had the pupil of his good eye cut by his son (1927). In 1928, drunk, he mistook the skylight cord for the lavatory chain and pulled the heavy glass structure down on his hand. The result: concussion and nine stitches. The next year he tore his groin muscle, damaged an index finger, was hurt by a bolting horse, and broke his arm in a car accident. In 1935 he shot himself in the leg while drunk and trying to gaff a shark, broke his big toe kicking a locked gate, smashed his foot through a mirror and damaged the pupil of his bad eye (1938). In 1944 he was concussed twice. There was another bad car smash the next year, a clawing by a lion in 1949, a boat accident in 1950 and in 1953 a series of serious accidents in Africa, leading to a fractured skull, two cracked spinal discs, a ruptured liver, spleen and kidneys, and paralysed sphincter muscles. Bad falls, usually while drunk, continued till his suicide.
Some writers get themselves epitomised in a short sentence. Anthony Trollope 'had a voice like two men quarrelling'. George Eliot 'had a head much too big for her body'. It made her, as Jane Carlyle recorded, 'Oh, so slow!' When I was a child I was told Gladstone chewed his food 39 times before swallowing it. That is the kind of information I like to have, if true. But was it true? Did Gladstone count? Each time? There is something to be said for Dr Johnson's remark, 'There is no piece of information, however insignificant, which I do not prefer to know, than not know it.'
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© 2006, Paul Johnson