If you enjoy mysteries, biographies, and history, you may be interested in "Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough," by Dr. John J. Ross, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. This book grew out of a presentation about syphilis that Ross made at a Boston teaching hospital, in which he incorporated a number of quotations from Shakespeare's plays. Ross was amazed at the number of times that Shakespeare alluded to "the pox" in his writings. Could the Bard have been afflicted with syphilis?
John Ross explores the history, literary output, and maladies of ten of the most celebrated writers in the English language: William Shakespeare, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Charlotte Bronte (and her family), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, William Butler Yeats, Jack London, James Joyce, and George Orwell. Although this book is billed as non-fiction, Ross admits that some of his statements are pure conjecture. For example, we know very little about Shakespeare's health, other than that his handwriting in later years was unsteady. This narrative may be noteworthy not so much for Ross's speculation about his subjects' alleged ailments, but for his perspective on how these individuals dealt with such hardships as troubled childhoods, financial setbacks, marital problems, psychological disorders, and physical pain. It is horrifying to read about the primitive treatments used by incompetent physicians who not only failed to heal their patients, but in many cases administered substances that were injurious if not downright toxic.
Ross discusses Milton's blindness; Swift's deafness and dementia; Bronte's tuberculosis; Hawthorne's possible stomach cancer; Melville's bipolar disorder; Yeats's brucellosis; Joyce's eye inflammation and arthritis; Orwell's weak lungs, and a whole array of additional physical and mental problems that plagued the ten people covered in these pages. At times, the author goes a bit overboard. For instance, in the chapter on Shakespeare and syphilis, Ross provides an extensive list of highly unpleasant symptoms in graphic detail, describes the treatments used in Elizabethan England, and touches on how syphilis arrived in Europe in the first place. This might be appropriate for a scholarly treatise on venereal disease, but Ross offers too much unnecessary detail that is tangential to the book's central theme. Nevertheless, "Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough" is recommended for its literate and well-researched analysis that sheds light on the personal experiences and chronic illnesses of ten creative geniuses.