Little Arthur Weston had first come to my practice in July of 1811. Eyes downcast, the young lad was dragged loose-limbed into the surgery by his tight-lipped mother. Mrs. Weston struggled to speak at first. She fiddled with the cheap rings on her fingers and mumbled about not wanting to waste anyone’s time. Arthur, however, was all eyes once seated. The boy’s hungry gaze was not directed at me, however, but rather at a point somewhere several inches to the left of my head. A glance to my posterior, where my essential medical texts lay stacked, told me all I needed to know.
Sure enough, the symptoms brought forth reluctantly from Mrs. Weston’s mouth were exactly as I suspected. A vocabulary beyond the boy’s years, an imagination beginning to impinge upon reality, and the pale skin and hooded eyes that spoke of hours spent under his blanket with a lamp. Once the dyke had been breached, the boy’s mother lost all composure. Bubbling from her lips were tales of fictional companions, ideas far above Arthur’s station, even stories written in the boy’s own hand. As soon as I had calmed her, I was able to assure the woman that her son’s affliction was not uncommon, and all the better for being caught early.
My solutions, although stringent, were seized upon by Mrs. Weston as driftwood is clutched by the shipwrecked. All stimuli were to be removed from the boy’s reach. Catalysts for the mind could be found in the most unlikely of places: news sheets, unguarded correspondence within the home, even orders of service at church. There were to be no books kept within the house. Not so much as a short story. Not so much as a poem. Young Arthur’s imagination was to be starved of light and air, wrenched out by the roots even as its tendrils tried to wind their way through the impressionable boy’s mind.
As I watched the Weston’s leave my surgery, Arthur walking unsteadily with eyes streaming and with a look of utter disconsolateness on his face, I will admit to reflecting on a job well done. The boy was still at risk, granted, but the mother appeared to have the measure of the problem. I consoled myself that any spark of imagination would be safely snuffed out and Arthur gainfully employed in a manner commensurate with his upbringing.
It is the part of the doctor to see patients at their worst. For our part, we are mostly inured to the tears and the stories told in hoarse voices. Only on a handful of occasions during my career was I genuinely shocked. Such was one case on January 2nd, 1837.
A couple of the newly gazetted constables were already present within the cramped rooms by the time I arrived. The windows were patterned with grime and the air was heavy with the smell of tallow candles and decay. The two officers left the house so that I could work, and it soon became apparent why. Obstructing easy passage through the property were innumerable piles of books and pamphlets, some so high that they were wedged against the damp-stained ceiling. Ink blotches and spatters upon the surfaces spoke of the poor man’s condition.
I recognised Arthur Weston immediately, this in spite of his emaciated condition. Gone was the sallow-skinned youth I had met in my office all those years ago, and in his place was a thin-haired, unshaven wretch with barely a tooth in his head. The cause of death was immediately apparent. From the candle nubs surrounding him, to the books scattered liberally around him, to the expression of ecstasy underneath those half-lidded eyes, here was a classic case of literary relapse.
Only God knows when the books began to call to Arthur again, whispering and wheedling from between their bindings. It had probably started as a few missed meals as he had been caught in a narrative. Next to be sacrificed had been Weston’s employment, swiftly followed by family and associates who had no doubt been replaced by characters created by some reckless author.
Isolation had probably begun once Arthur’s cultural mise-en-scene had diverged from those of his fellow workers. As is common in cases of this kind, conversation topics would have become scarce just as poor Weston’s curiosity would have become dangerously roused. The fevered mind would have found itself alone among contemporaries and yet poor Arthur’s social station would have denied him access to the more refined minds of those in Whitehall or Fleet Street. How he must have seethed, mistakenly assuming that his cancerous literacy would grant him passage to salons and theatres. How his despair must have clawed at him as he realised that he had made himself a pariah, a curio amongst his noble, ignorant brethren. It was too late by then of course. The comfort of the veil of ignorance had been withdrawn, leaving Arthur naked to the despair of his position.
Never mind the exact course of Arthur Weston’s debilitation, hardly worthy of documentation among innumerable similar cases amongst the poor and the stupidly ambitious. As I tell many a patient, what must be remembered are the catastrophic consequences of the lower classes being afforded unsupervised access to literature.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order