Death overtook him just as he was working his way to a lucrative discovery after spending several years at scientific research. He was trying to find a cure for all kinds of gout. Gout is a rich man’s disease, and rich men will pay any price to recover their health once lost. And so, among all the problems which had given him subject for meditation, he had singled out this one for resolution.
– Honoré de Balzac
Lost Illusions (Penguin, 20f.)
Balzac’s novel focuses on a young poet losing his way in the tinseled Parisian publishing world, the quotation above, about the poet’s father, drew my notice. Admittedly it does appear early in the book, before I’ve settled – when my attention is still at its sharpest. It reminded me of this passage in a book published almost thirty years later:
Lydgate’s hair never became white. He died when he was only fifty, leaving his wife and children provided for by a heavy insurance on his life. He had gained an excellent practice, alternating, according to the season, between London and a Continental bathing-place; having wrritten a treatise on Gout, a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side.1 His skill was relied on by many paying patients, but he always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do.
– Middlemarch, (OUP, 920)
Gout is the point of failure for both men; Monsieur Chardon fails to enrich his family because he dies before registering his cure in Paris. Tertius Lydgate, meanwhile, fails in his humanitarian mission to provide medical treatment for the poor of Middlemarch. Although Lydgate succeeds as Chardon would have liked, but his interests are no longer individual – his success is a greater failure. I cannot think of any other literary examples of doctors succumbing to the temptation of gout, so I can’t tell whether the difference between Chardon and Lydgate is a matter of national temperament, of genre (between society and social novels),2 or entirely of character. Perhaps I should consult a book such as Gout: The Patrician Malady3 or some other texts on the subject, but at present I think I’d rather let the matter rest in the mire of suggestive speculation.
See, e.g. Bleak House (Penguin, 271):
Sir Leicester receives the gout as a troublesome demon, but still a demon of the patrician order. All the Dedlocks, in the direct male line, through a course of time during, and beyond which the memory of man goeth not to the contrary, have had the gout. It can be proved, sir. Other men’s fathers may have died of the rheumatism, or may have taken base contagion from the tainted blood of the sick vulgar; but, the Dedlock family have communicated something exclusive, even to the levelling process of dying, by dying of their own family gout. It has come down, through the illustrious line, like the plate, or the pictures, or the place in Lincolnshire. It is among their dignities. Sir Leicester is, perhaps, not wholly without an impression, though he has never resolved it into words, that the angel of death in the discharge of his necessary duties may observe to the shades of the aristocracy, ‘My lords, and gentlemen, I have the honour to present to you another Dedlock certified to have arrived per the family gout.’
Less literary documents should probably have been appended here, but my interest in gout does not extend so far.
- Not that I dismiss Balzac as a ‘mere’ society novelist, but his intention seems documentary rather than didactic.
- Another review appeared in that gouty rag the NY Times.