9 Diagnoses by Charles Dickens

Dickens, Charles [Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]English novelist Charles Dickens had a knack for expertly portraying the symptoms of medical conditions. He also had a tendency to slip those descriptions into his works in subtle terms, such that historians and physicians have made it something of a hobby to interpret them medically and attempt to diagnose afflicted characters. In some cases, Dickens’s descriptions actually predated those offered by medical doctors, revealing his skill for observation. “Dickensian diagnoses” ascribed to nine of the novelist’s characters are explored in this list.

1. Miss Mowcher


“David Copperfield”: first edition illustration by Browne [Credit: © Photos.com/Thinkstock]Dwarfism

Also in David Copperfield, readers encounter a character affected by dwarfism, the hairdresser Miss Mowcher. Unlike the sinister Heep, Miss Mowcher is a heroine. However, Dickens seems to have initially portrayed the hairdresser as immoral, a notion that was strongly disapproved by his neighbour at the time, Mrs. Jane Seymour Hill, a dwarf herself. Hill appears to have threatened to sue Dickens over the matter, which might explain Miss Mowcher’s redeeming qualities. The character ultimately came to be recognized as a symbol for the rights of the disabled and is representative of the novelist’s inclination to bestow decency upon his poor or enfeebled characters.

2. Uriah Heep


Heep, Uriah; <em>David Copperfield</em> [Credit: The Print Collector/Heritage-Images]Dystonia

“He had a way of writhing when he wanted to express enthusiasm, which was very ugly.”

“Writhing” was used frequently by Dickens in his descriptions of the villain Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. Heep’s constant wriggling and twisting has been interpreted by some as indicative of the physical disorder known as dystonia. Dystonia is characterized by repetitive movements resulting from the involuntary contraction of muscles. The unusual twisting movements and postures associated with dystonia can be socially disturbing, for sufferers and observers alike, which Dickens captured well.

As Miss Trotwood exclaims in Heep’s presence, “If you’re an eel, Sir, conduct yourself like one. If you’re a man, control your limbs, Sir! Good God!”

3. Bradley Headstone


<em>Our Mutual Friend</em> [Credit: From <e>Our Mutual Friend</e> by Charles Dickens (The Continental Press, New York)]Epilepsy

“You are quite ill, Mr. Headstone!”

“It is not much, sir. It will pass over very soon. I am accustomed to be seized with giddiness.”

Bradley Headstone, the schoolmaster in Our Mutual Friend, is thought to have suffered from epilepsy. Indeed, his being “seized with giddiness” likely represented a seizure. Headstone was not alone among Dickens characters in his condition. Monks, a sinister and sickly character in Oliver Twist, and Guster, a maid in Bleak House, were prone to “fits” as well. Some have speculated that Dickens himself may have been afflicted by epilepsy or a similar condition, which would have given him thorough insight into the disorder. The claim, however, remains unsubstantiated.

4. Joe the Fat Boy


Pickwick, Samuel [Credit: © Photos.com/Thinkstock]Obesity hypoventilation syndrome

In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens described “…a boy—a wonderfully fat boy…standing upright on the mat, with his eyes closed as if in sleep.”

It is a classic description of what is now known as Pickwickian syndrome, or obesity hypoventilation syndrome. While its primary physical features, obesity and atypical daytime drowsiness, appear to have been described prior to Dickens’s portrayal of Joe the fat boy, the first reference to the syndrome in relation to the novel appears to have made later, in the early 1900s, by Canadian physician Sir William Osler in an edition of his textbook The Principles and Practice of Medicine. The name Pickwickian syndrome entered into popular use more than a century after The Pickwick Papers was published in book form (1837).

5. Arthur Havisham


Havisham, Miss [Credit: © 1946 Universal International Pictures; photograph from a private collection]Delirium tremens

“There was another in with Compeyson, as was called Arthur…He was in a decline, and was a shadow to look at.”

In Great Expectations, with the character Arthur Havisham, Dickens again demonstrates his knowledge of the consequences of addiction, namely its tendency to lead to physical and mental deterioration. Arthur suffered specifically from “the horrors,” which physicians have equated with delirium tremens, a condition brought on by alcohol withdrawal and often seen in people who suffer from chronic alcoholism. As its name suggests, defining features of the condition include changes in mental state (“delirium”) and shaking or shivering (“tremens”). Arthur suffers from both, as Dickens describes succinctly in the novel, making for a subtle yet intriguing treasure among Dickensian diagnoses.

6. Jack Jasper


“Jasper’s Sacrifices,” an illustration from <em>The Mystery of Edwin Drood</em> [Credit: From <e>The Mystery of Edwin Drood</e> by Charles Dickens (Chapman and Hall, 1914)]Drug addiction

In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, choirmaster Jack (John) Jasper, in the grips of opium, dreams his darkest desire—to strangle his nephew, Edwin Drood—an act that the opium addict ultimately seeks to realize. While still a mystery, some psychologists suspect that dreams, particularly those associated with drug use, may represent the origin of a craving or desire, such as for food or sex. Perhaps of significance, then, was Jasper’s love for Rosa Bud, Drood’s fiancée, which may have driven Jasper to kill Drood (though, the identity of the person responsible for Drood’s disappearance is unknown; the author died before completing the novel). Thus, Dickens appears to have been spot-on in his portrayal of dreams, desire, and what is now a recognized medical condition—addiction.

7. Mr. Krook


“Bleak House” [Credit: © Photos.com/Thinkstock]Dyslexia

“He can make all the letters separately and he knows most of them separately when he sees them…but he can’t put them together.”

That was how Dickens described the reading ability of shopkeeper Mr. Krook in Bleak House. Some have postulated that it might have been the first written description of dyslexia, and if that is the case, then Dickens penned it some three decades before the term itself reached the medical literature. Krook also suffered from alcohol dependency and died a most unusual death, having spontaneously combusted.

8. Tiny Tim


Tiny Tim; <em>A Christmas Carol</em> [Credit: Getty Images/Thinkstock]Vitamin D deficiency

Whatever it was that ailed Scrooge, his visions in A Christmas Carol may have saved Tiny Tim Cratchit’s life. Indeed, Scrooge was warned, “If these shadows remain unchanged, I see an empty chair where Tiny Tim once sat.” With this, Dickens suggests that if Scrooge were to be generous—to, for instance, raise Bob Cratchit’s wages—then the family would be able to afford more food. And, more important, they might have been able to buy fish oil, which, if modern-day physicians are correct in their assertions that Tiny Tim suffered from vitamin D deficiency, would have helped strengthen the boy’s crippled legs. Why Tiny Tim may have lacked vitamin D is uncertain, though the condition may have been caused by renal tubular acidosis or rickets, or even by a combination of rickets and tuberculosis, which were common among London’s children in the 19th century.

9. Ebenezer Scrooge


“Christmas Carol, A” [Credit: © Photos.com/Thinkstock]Fungus poisoning

On Christmas Eve in A Christmas Carol, miser Ebenezer Scrooge relives his past and has visions of the present and future in a series of vivid hallucinations. The following day, as detailed by Dickens, the mature-age (presumably 50-something) Scrooge was atypically generous and joyful. Scrooge’s complaint of indigestion on the night of the visions has been interpreted by some as evidence of poisoning with the hallucinogenic fungus ergot, which once was a common contaminant of rye bread. Others have suggested that Scrooge may have experienced a stroke or been afflicted by dementia or brief psychotic disorder.


BBC’s Top 100 Best Novels


In April 2003, the Big Read began the search for the nation’s best-loved novels. Below are all the results from number 1 to 100!

(The link to the list can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/bigread/top100.shtml )

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

(Although it would be discouraged but you can download the e-books in this list here: http://www.allyoulike.com/42761/the-big-read-bbcs-top-100-best-novels-ebooks/ )