Diseases in Fiction
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Diseases in Fiction is an article published in The Leeds Mercury on 15 december 1894.
Diseases in Fiction
The latest and perhaps the most dangerous traitor in the ranks of novelists (says the "Globe") is Dr. Conan Doyle, who, from his position of vantage "Under the Red Lamp," laughs at the flounderings of his fellow-writers in the "Materia Medica." This is verv cruel. For a novelist can create a hero who is not a barrister, not an artist, not an actor, not anything which involves a knowledge of one or other kind of "shop." But, if he be true to nature, he cannot create a hero who is never ill. And if his hero be ill, he must, in an era of realism, be suffering from a definite illness. You cannot send your hero to bed and kill him off without at least holding a post-mortem on his body. And even a post-mortem requires some little knowledge of surgery and medicine. It is here that Dr. Conan Doyle finds his rival novelists at fault. They exhibit too little invention in the variety of diseases inflicted on their characters, and too much invention in their treatment of those which they do inflict. As a doctor, he knows that fits and heart disease are much less common than mumps, and shingles, and quinsy. There are a hundred cases of illness that are petty and ugly to one that is picturesque and fatal. And so he calls for a due proportion of the former to counterbalance the abnormal mortality caused by the latter among the characters of fiction. He does not know for what he asks. Or, rather, he asks as a doctor for what he would be very sorry to get as a novel reader. You cannot purge the passions by terror and pity through a description of German measles. Even when Mr. George Alexander gets them in reality we keep silence — the most of us, and the rest make jokes about them in the Press. But one cannot help reflecting that the feminine admirers of that elegant actor would prefer that he should suffer from a more picturesque, if not a more painful and dangerous disease. And the feeling is only the index to a universal longing to imagine life more beautiful and more heroic than it really is. In real life we are acquainted only too well with colds and indigestions and such-like ailments, which are too annoying to be funny, and too petty to be fine. In the world of romance we like to imagine a life where suffering is magnificent — if it is not medical — and where, if one dies, one dies as Ibsen's heroine said, "beautifully."
But Dr. Conan Doyle has an even more serious cause of complaint, a complaint which is strictly medical. Every one knows the importance of brain-fever in romance. It is the "deus ex machina" of the novelist. When the heroine has gone through all manner of trouble, quarrelled with her lover and all her relations, run away from home, spent her last penny, slept on doorsteps for a week, and lived for a fortnight on a biscuit and a cup of tea, when she — and the novelist — are at their wits end to clear up the complication — then the heroine has brain fever. Brain fever gives an opening for delirium. And delirium gives the heroine a chance of saying the word unconsciously which will clear up the situation — the word which she would die rather than utter in her saner and sillier moments. The novelist would trade away all the diseases, zymotic, endemic, epidemic, and sporadic, if only he be allowed to keep his brain fever. And Dr. Conan Doyle has filched it from him. For Dr. Conan Doyle asserts that there is no disease known, under that name to the test-books. Possibly. But that is quite immaterial. The most common of diseases are equally unknown to the text-books, which are strangely deficient in the knowledge of life which is the stock-in-trade of the novelist. You may read all the medical text-books from and to end, and find no word of allusion to "the hump." And yet there is no complaint so universal — and so depressing. On every Sunday evening in the year, there are probably ten thousand people in London —bachelors in suburban lodgings — who are suffering from a severe "hump." And yet no word of its cause or cure in the text-books. You may look for it under the title of the "Blues;" but you will not find it. And yet it is the commonest of complaints. So much for the text-books.
The truth is that we do not want truth — always, Plain life we can make for ourselves; we would gladly pay twopence — or even a shilling — to get it nicely coloured. We want the impossible nurse, who, without training or experience, steps straight from the salon to the sick-room, nurses the hero for fifteen days without sleep, and still retains enough vitality to marry him at the end, and live happily ever afterwards; we want the sudden heart disease which cuts the Gordian knot of complication: we must have the brain-fever which explains everything. We welcome unaccountable diseases and impossible cures as a relief from the relentless accountability and the limited possibilities of life. And we believe the man who has the courage to present them to us as we believe Shakespeare when he places Bohemia on the sea-shore. For after all, Shakespeare is a better man than a map-maker. And what is genius, properly defined, but the capacity for making mistakes?