February 01, 2008

The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man's real name was Joseph Merrick, his picture is above. Merrick was born in 1862 in Leicester. His mother died when he was eleven and he spent time in and out of the workhouse in the city. His disease which caused the deformities in the picture above began to make its appearance at the age of five- he was unable to find work either as a cigar roller (because his right arm was too large to manipulate the cigars) or as a hawker of goods (because his appearance terrified people). He eventually ended up being used by a series of fairground entrepreuneurs as an attraction, a freak that the general public would gaze at. He was an unsuccessful freak in that he was almost too freakish, he terrified most of the people that he came across. In an attempted continental tour, Merrick found little success and was abandoned and robbed by his then manager. At that point he made his way back from Brussels to Liverpool St station and fainted when he reached the station handing over the card of a London doctor Frederick Treves to the station staff. Treves once summoned arrived and recalled inspecting Merrick years before when a junior surgeon, he took pity on the Elephant Man and got him put up in the London Hospital in his own set of rooms. Merrick became a society curiosity- the Princess of Wales was only the most noble of a succession of famous guests- he attended the theatre and stayed in the country. This idyllic lifestyle ended when Merrick died aged 27 in 1890. He couldn't sleep lying down and Treves believed that in a final effort to do so, the weight of Merrick's head either broke his own neck or that his head fell forward and he suffocated himself in his own trunk.

The story may sound horrible and whatever Merrick's disease- the most modern guess is Proteus syndrome and possibly a disease of the nerves named neurofibromatosis type 1- he suffered hugely from it. His body as you can see in the photograph above was horribly deformed- with the exception of his genitals and his left arm, his entire shape was twisted and stunted. He limped. He could barely speak comprehensibly, though after much practise others might learn how to hear the words amidst his curious tones. He had continual health problems mainly bronchial but others as well- he had to have a huge overgrowing trunk sawn off in his teenage years. He was completely isolated. Most of his notions of people came from the books he read which were his only consolation. Fascinatingly he saw the normal world not as the world he saw but as the world of a Jane Austen novel- Emma was one of his favourite books. He was not mentally retarded and was perfectly aware of his own condition. He had an incredibly romantic attitude to women- seeing them as perfect and placing on a pedestal- sublimating sexual desire into a reverence for the angelic female. He was cruelly treated, and yet himself very kind, almost saintlike. Its likely that at times in his life- with his mother as a young child, with his early showmen managers and later with Treves that he found real compassion from others but it was only later on that he was able communicate.

His life is an incredible story. It does reveal a lot about the nineteenth century and attitudes to entertainment. We often think of the Victorian era as a censorious one- but in reality the story of Merrick makes us I hope realise that it was merely differently morally orientated. Laughing at Merrick would be seen as immoral today, in the early Victorian fairground it was a way of making money. The story also reveals the limited choices out there for someone like Merrick in the Victorian world: he was incredibly lucky to be found firstly by the showmen and then by Treves but he could have languished in a workhouse for years and years and almost did. The one bitterness that he constantly displayed was about his time in the workhouse and the horrible conditions in which he lived- endless bullying and endless drudgery. He was denied a lot of what we consider to be the attributes of normal life: Merrick had few friends until his later days, was almost childlike in his attitude to the world because his world was merely his own mind, he had so little engagement with other people, he had no relations with the other sex (women ran screaming from him normally: something that caused him great sadness) and though he read voraciously he had little education. But somehow despite that he was almost devoid of bitterness and hatred: the fascinating thing about Merrick is that he was gentle and kind and thoughtful, in a childish way, yet still a genuine way. He managed to overcome his difficulties according to those close to him with a real fortitude of personality.

His tale is interesting and so distinct from the rest of human experience that its hard to read lessons from it, I think what is fascinating about it is the difference that it reveals between Victorian London and our own day and also the ways that this deep interiority was actually a deep resource for Merrick. Cast upon his own mind, he found there the willpower to be a good person. Despite his terrible affliction, and his terrible life, he succeeded in ways that people richer and more powerful than him did not. Furthermore we should also remember that he was lucky: there were no doubt hundreds like him or even thousands who perished, abandoned to the meagre resources of the early welfare state.


edmund said...

fascinting article poor guy few thoughts

a) Wondering waht the source is? This is very detailed account with lots of subjective judgemetns and would love to him

b) I'm unsure how much attitudes realy do reflect some major difference in atittudes- it's not clear (at least from your account) where him being a curiiosty ended and something to laugh begun -people see strange things in fairs all over the world to this day and shows

b) Where it does show the diffences is I)he'd be less depeond on others thanks to the fact primairly we're a much rich societey (though it's good that even in the Victorian era he ultimatley found someone who was wililng to subsidise him- i doubt that would have been true 100 years before) and most of all I iaminge now they'd be the technology to give him an operation to make him look better even if not exacly well poor chap.

c) ON I thimk a less positve side i think the thing about attitudes least likely to happen now is for him to have the same attitude about women

Gracchi said...

The source is a biography of him that I've just read- unfortunately its not an academic historian but a medical doctor who wrote it but his use of the sources is I think pretty good and he is transparant about what he can say on the basis of them.

B is true I suppose- I was thinking of contemporary Britain where fairs are much less important than they are today. During Merrick's lifetime there is evidence that they were slowly dying out- especially given their overwhelming earlier populatiry.

The second point b yes we are much richer- but also there is a much more sympathetic safety net out there- workhouses were not sympathetic places to be.

c possibly- but I think that was the product of his isolation and I don't think that attitude was a healthy or a good one to have. Much better judge women as they are- as human beings- than as aethereal creatures.

Sean Jeating said...

Several times since 1980 I've watched the film with John Hurt as 'The Elephant Man'. Moving! And lots to learn for those who would call themselves 'normal'.
Good post, Gracchi.

Political Umpire said...

Interesting post, to which I have linked.

edmund said...

as i understand it the % paid of GDP to the poor in Victorian England was pretty high (one survey in 1895 found something like 10% of income of the middle class went to charity and charity was heavily poor orientated) , i seem to recall something like (and rember pelple spend less money on the poor in poorer countries and Victorian england was no richer than all but the poorest countries today- GdP wax a 1/5 of what it was now in real terms even at the end of that era

there's also of course the important point that the poor in the Victorian era were much poorer all but the very poorest in strictly material terms in the UK today.

I should have added for attitude to women that this was less likely given no effective contact with women - a very important addition!

Gracchi said...

I think there is something in the argument that there is a culturally relativistic way of looking at this. In that the poor were treated awfully in the Victorian era- but that's in the context that today as a society we are much richer. I don't buy it entirely- I'd be interested in how that figure of 10% was arrived at and to what extent that went to the poor or to charity (different things)- if its to the poor that would mean that hte Victorian middle Class were spending say 20% on charity! A very big number indeed.