August 21, 2013 by Victorian Body Parts Conference
In trawling through all twelve volumes of Dickens’s letters in recent weeks and months, one thing has struck me more than anything else, dear Parts Party readers: the man had A LOT of colds. Barely a few months go by without Dickens again suffering from a new strain of nasopharyngitis, and he frequently writes to friends to lament his unfortunate nose. I include here for your delectation my pick of the bunch: a rather beautifully-constructed and Dickensianly-creative missive to William Harrison Ainsworth, in 1843:
My dear Ainsworth,
I want very much to see you, not having had that old pleasure for a long time. I am at this moment deaf in the ears, hoarse in the throat, red in the nose, green in the gills, damp in the eyes, twitchy in the joints, and fractious in the temper from a most intolerable and oppressive cold, caught the other day, I suspect, at Liverpool, where I got exceedingly wet; but I will make prodigious efforts to get the better of it to-night by resorting to all conceivable remedies, and if I succeed so as to be only negatively disgusting to-morrow, I will joyfully present myself at six, and bring my womankind along with me.
Dickens’s susceptibility to colds, ever-present in his letters, can even, to some extent, be held responsible for his writing career. His initial plans to go onto the stage were scuppered at the age of 20, when, having made an appointment for an audition in Covent Garden, he was forced to cancel due to the intervention of another bad cold. He never rescheduled, instead turning to his career as a parliamentary reporter, which lead to his journalism, to the Sketches, and then, of course, to Pickwick.
It’s amazing to think how a simple infected body part could have such an impact upon a life. Of course, lives are full of such contingencies: chance circumstances that derail a trajectory and start a new one. But for a writer whose hand makes his living, I find this perpetual intrusion of Dickens’s nose into his letters bizarrely fascinating. Throughout his writing here, the urgent, unexpected, and irrepressible presence of the bodily bit is clear. Is such a quality unique to Dickens? Did other notable Victorians battle with their nasal passages in this way? Let us know over Twitter, Parts Party-goers!