Without fear and illness, I could never have accomplished all I have.
Ambition, fame, sex, gluttony: All these have the capacity to transform our lives for better or worse, and as we have seen, the struggle to control them can be the making of us. But there are some traumatic events over which we can have no possible control: the loss of a limb, the onset of blindness, an attack of mental illness. The human race fights a running battle against disease and injury. Most people who have ever lived (perhaps as many as 45 billion) died of malaria; plague and smallpox have killed more human beings than all wars and natural disasters put together. Even in affluent Britain and the United States today, one in ten adults is registered as disabled; over the age of fifty, this rises to one in two. A quarter of Americans suffer from some form of neurotic, psychotic, or addictive disorder, and the commonest illness treated by doctors in Britain is depression. Whether we find comfort in religion, consolation in philosophy, or simply adopt a stiff upper lip, learning how to deal with sudden physical misfortune is something we all, sooner or later, have to deal with.
Posterity hasn’t been kind to Pieter Stuyvesant (1612–72), the last Dutch governor of what we now call New York. Ask an American what they know about him and they will probably tell you he had a wooden leg. The football team at New York’s Stuyvesant High School is still called the Peglegs, and grumpy, stubborn Peg Leg Pete is seen as, at best, a bit-part player in the long drama of the nation, an irrelevant prologue before the main act gets under way. In Washington Irving’s satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), Stuyvesant is described as “a tough, sturdy, valiant, weather-beaten, mettlesome, obstinate, leathern-sided, lion-hearted, generous-spirited old governor.” By 1938 this rather admiring portrait had given way to the repressive protofascist of the musical Knickerbocker’s Holiday by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson. In the one number from the show that’s become a classic, Stuyvesant’s character gets to sing the bittersweet “September Song.”
Stuyvesant’s real life was more bitter than sweet. He came from Friesland in the flat northlands of the Netherlands, an area of devout peasants and grim-faced ultraconformity. His father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and Pieter’s obvious career path was to follow him there. But the young Stuyvesant rebelled, choosing to study philosophy rather than theology and getting himself kicked out of the university for sleeping with his landlord’s daughter. He immediately joined the Dutch West India Company as a clerk, rising quickly through the ranks, until he was appointed the director of the Caribbean colony of Curaçao in 1642, just before his thirtieth birthday.
Stuyvesant was ambitious, single-minded, and charismatic, gathering a string of acolytes around him. The most dedicated of these was John Farret, a fellow West India Company employee and an accomplished painter and poet. For many years, the two men enjoyed a diverting correspondence conducted entirely in verse. Farret hero-worshipped Stuyvesant, referring to him as “Excellency” and “My Stuyvesant” and calling Stuyvesant’s own rather clunky verses “godlike.” These letters (which only came to light in the 1920s) have a faint flavor of homoeroticism about them, though there is no suggestion of any sexual liaison. They put a fresh slant on Stuyvesant’s dour and crusty image, rather like discovering Oliver Cromwell had an effeminate Royalist pen pal.
Stuyvesant was two years into his Caribbean appointment when, during an ill-advised expedition to recapture the island of St. Martin from the Spanish, his leg was blown off. He was flamboyantly planting the Dutch flag on a rampart that his troops had thrown up on the beach when a cannonball fired from the island’s fort shattered his right shin. That he lived to tell the tale indicates his considerable resilience. Dutch doctors were the most advanced in Europe and ingenious in devising new techniques of amputation, but none of these was easy or pleasant. Speed was of the essence. Fat and muscle had to be cut away to create a skin flap, and the bone sawn through as quickly as possible. Some surgeons could manage the whole procedure in less than a minute, but the survival rate was less than one in three.
Whoever saved Stuyvesant did an excellent job, but the patient was delirious for several weeks afterward. He got back to his desk as soon as he could, his first act being a letter of apology to the directors of the company, regretting that his attack “did not succeed so well as had hoped, no small impediment having been the loss of my right leg, it being removed by a rough ball.” He then dashed off a poetical note to Farret, who responded with his own attempt, “On the Off-Shot Leg of the Noble, Brave Heer Stuyvesant, Before the Island of St. Marten.” Even by Farret’s fulsome standards, the poem hit new heights of Stuyvesant idolatry: “The bullet hits his leg; the rebound touches my heart….”
Despite his determination to carry on as normal, in the heat of the tropics Stuyvesant’s wound began to fester and he was reluctantly forced to return home to recuperate properly. His nursemaid was the plain but good-hearted spinster Judith Bayard, three years his senior and his brother-in-law’s sister. When he announced his intention to marry her, Farret goaded him by suggesting the marriage would never be consummated because Stuyvesant wasn’t up to the job. Stuyvesant’s verse in response was defiant, and the couple went on to have a pair of sons.
Once better, Stuyvesant reported for duty at the West India Company’s offices in Amsterdam. He had an expensive state-of-the-art wooden leg, and a cheap spare one for emergencies. It was a scene from a seventeenth-century version of The Terminator—the wounded soldier returns, older, wiser, more focused, his false limb glinting with the silver nails used to reinforce it. Here was the complete company man. The directors were impressed. They gave Stuyvesant a new mission: to impose order on the unruly colony of New Netherland on the east coast of North America.
As director-general of the settlement, based in the capital, New Amsterdam, Stuyvesant diligently looked after the company’s interests for the best part of sixteen years. He was a shrewd negotiator: tough, uncompromising, and fair, holding off threats from the Swedes and the Native Americans and even managing for a while to get the New Englanders to accept Dutch sovereignty. In the end, though, it all came to nothing. And because it is the victors who decide what history gets taught in school, very few people today have heard of New Netherland, and if they’ve heard of Pieter Stuyvesant at all, they know only that he was Dutch and had a wooden leg. This is most unfair.
New Netherland was a colony of more than ten thousand people. Unlike most of Puritan New England, it wasn’t founded on religious grounds. It was primarily a trading center, infused with the liberal outlook that made the Netherlands the financial and intellectual powerhouse of the seventeenth century. As a result, it was a melting pot of nationalities and mixed marriages. New Amsterdam was to become New York, but its heart—and tongue—remains Dutch. Many words we consider uniquely American are in fact adopted from Dutch: boss for master, cookies, coleslaw, even Santa Claus. It was the Dutch who erected the defensive wall that became Wall Street; Stuyvesant’s farm or bouwerie is now The Bowery, one of the city’s most famous thoroughfares; even Broadway (built by Stuyvesant) is merely the English pronunciation of Breede weg. The homesteads of New Amsterdam—Nieuw Haarlem, Greenwyck, Breukelen, Bronck’s Plantation, Jonker’s Plantation—all survive in the names of modern New York’s neighborhoods and boroughs: Harlem, Greenwich Village, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Yonkers.
This last was originally a sawmill on the Hudson River, named after its owner Jonkheer van der Donck. Adriaen van der Donck was a young lawyer and landowner and Jonkheer was his honorific title (it means “Young Gentleman,” roughly equivalent to the Honorable in English). He had studied at the University of Leiden, where complete religious freedom and lack of censorship were the order of the day, and he was steeped in the new learning of Galileo, Descartes, and Spinoza. Arriving in America in 1641, he immediately fell in love with the country: the landscape, plants, animals, and most of all, the languages and customs of the local Mohican and Mohawk tribes. Recognizing early on the importance of beavers to the fledging economy, he kept them as pets and studied every aspect of their life cycle. He saw New Netherland as a place of almost endless possibility, where laws and governance could be founded on the principles of peace and cooperation between peoples. In the passion he brought to his task of recording and mapping the colony, one can detect the first glimmering of the ideas that led to America’s independence more than a century later.
Stuyvesant’s predecessor as director-general, Willem Kleft, had been very unpopular with the colonists. Against van der Donck’s peaceful principles, he had started a bloody Indian war that drained the colony’s resources and made outlying areas dangerous. Van der Donck used his oratorical skills to oppose Kleft and lobby for his replacement. When Stuyvesant arrived in 1647, van der Donck was appointed “President of the Commonality,” effectively Stuyvesant’s deputy. The two men at first got on well, but the new director-general was easier to admire than to like. Unlike Adriaen van der Donck, he was a deeply conservative man who had no time for anything other than the iron laws of God and their earthly manifestation, the Dutch West India Company. He was an autocrat, referring to his fellow citizens as “subjects” or “his children” and winning arguments not by subtle legal niceties, but by shouting, swearing, and stamping his wooden leg on the floor. The pain caused made him increasingly difficult to deal with. Intractable differences both of character and political aspiration made the relationship with his deputy untenable. Van der Donck was stripped of public office. In quick succession, he lost his job, his right to practice law, and his life. In a tragic irony, he was murdered in an Indian raid.
What Stuyvesant lost was the colony. Ten years after van der Donck’s death, the Second Anglo-Dutch War broke out and four English warships sailed up the Hudson. The Dutch knew they had no chance: The West India Company either couldn’t or wouldn’t send troops to defend the colony properly. The battle-weary Stuyvesant stood bravely at his post as New Netherland’s leading citizens—including his son—pleaded with him to give in. “I would much rather be carried out dead,” he replied. When finally forced to accept the inevitable, he did so proudly, stumping out of Fort Amsterdam in full uniform with his Dutch troops behind him.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for him. Without his cussedness and intelligence, the colony might have fallen to the English much sooner. When it did, it was well established enough for most of the colonists—including Stuyvesant and his family—to segue peacefully into life as New Yorkers. Little is known of Pieter Stuyvesant’s private life, but he did have one passion, inspired by his years in Curaçao. He collected tropical birds, and by the time of his death in 1672 he had several large aviaries full of them. It’s an odd thought that this tight-lipped old moralist, with his black-and-white view of the world, saw out his days surrounded by loud squawks and splashes of brilliant color, on the farm that would one day become famous as the street of bums and drunks.
It’s impossible to tell how much the loss of his leg changed Stuyvesant’s life. One of the central tenets of the modern approach to disability is that no one should be limited or defined by it. Stuyvesant, in his stoical Dutch way, would have assented to that. The career of another one-legged military man makes a dramatic contrast. General Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794–1876) holds the unique distinction of being the only person to become head of the same nation state on eleven separate occasions, once for less than a fortnight. From 1833 to 1855, Mexico was unstable even by Mexican standards: The presidency changed hands thirty-six times. To carve out a political career in these unpromising conditions, Santa Anna had to use anything he could to gather popular support, including the shameless exploitation of his missing appendage.
He was born into a respected Mexican Spanish family in the port of Veracruz, and his initial loyalty was to the Spanish crown. He was an outstanding soldier but also a keen gambler, and as a young officer he was often in debt. During his first tour of duty in Texas he appropriated money from regimental funds, got caught, and was sent back to headquarters in Veracruz as punishment. This allowed him to indulge his other passion: women. His military duties were not demanding and he soon acquired a reputation for whoring and for dalliances with other men’s wives.
The first wife of his own was only fourteen when he married her. Too busy fighting to make the ceremony, he deputized his prospective father-in-law to stand in for him. His bride brought a dowry large enough for Santa Anna to buy a country estate, but not long afterward, he made a personal appearance at another marriage ceremony in Texas, having persuaded one of his soldiers to dress up as a priest so he could bed a young woman who had agreed to sleep with him—but only if he married her.
This flexible ruthlessness was to serve Santa Anna well in politics. At various points in his long career others claimed him as a liberal and a conservative, a monarchist and a republican, a liberator and a despot. In fact, he was a pragmatist. Political ideology didn’t excite him: What mattered was to be on the winning side. His first major defection was in 1821. Now a colonel, Santa Anna was part of the Spanish force sent to crush the uprising of Agustín de Iturbide. Seeing that the tide was about to turn in the rebels’ favor, Santa Anna switched sides. Iturbide promoted him to the rank of brigadier general, and crowned himself Mexico’s first constitutional emperor. But the two men didn’t get on. According to one (entirely believable) rumor, Iturbide didn’t like Santa Anna’s flirting with his sixty-year-old sister. Santa Anna was once more sent back home to Veracruz, but this time as the state governor.
He lost no time in securing himself a luxurious hacienda and large tracts of land, while imposing punitive taxes on the port’s citizens. He became so unpopular that the self-styled emperor had to recall him to the capital. This was a mistake. Santa Anna’s antennae told him the wind was changing once more: He joined forces with the liberals to overthrow Iturbide and establish a republic under a new president, Vicente Guerrero. He later remarked:
I did not know what a republic was myself, but the more I tried to reason with the people, the louder they cried, “Viva La Republica!” so we all went off in search of one.
In 1829 his moment of glory arrived. In Spain’s last attempt to retake their colony, three thousand Spanish troops landed at Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico. Santa Anna, with half as many men, penned in the invaders for six weeks until lack of supplies and yellow fever forced them to surrender. Single-handedly, he had saved the republic and become a national hero. He “modestly” retired to his hacienda in Veracruz “until his country needed him.” He didn’t have to wait long. In 1833 he was elected president for the first time.
As with his wedding, Santa Anna didn’t feel the need to govern in person, staying at home on his ranch and delegating power to his vice president, Valentín Farías. Unfortunately, Farías was a genuine liberal and within a couple of years his reforms had enraged the Catholic Church and disgusted the landed gentry—of which Santa Anna was a prominent member. Alarmed by the sudden intrusion of politics into his life, Santa Anna acted decisively, sacking Farías, suspending the new constitution, and imposing a central dictatorship. This provoked several Mexican states, including Texas, to declare their independence. Mexico was at war yet again.
It was the Texan campaign that made Santa Anna famous outside Mexico. On March 6, 1836, after a twelve-day siege, his 1,500-strong force took the small garrison known as the Alamo. Hugely outnumbered, the Texans resisted bravely, but Santa Anna offered no quarter, ordering the execution of all who surrendered. The brutality of his troops that day probably changed the course of the war and certainly ensured his reputation in America as a sadistic tyrant. Even after the garrison had capitulated, Mexican soldiers continued to shoot and bayonet the corpses, which were then heaped into an unceremonious pile and burned. As well as the folk heroes Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, another 250 Texans were slaughtered. Only women and children and two slaves were spared. They were turned loose to spread panic through the rest of the state. Three weeks later, Santa Anna excelled himself by ordering the massacre at Goliad, where 342 unarmed Texan prisoners of war were shot by Mexican troops, the survivors being clubbed, stabbed, or trampled to death by cavalry.
Once news of these atrocities leaked out, the Texan army was inundated with volunteers. Led by General Sam Houston, they got their revenge by ambushing Santa Anna’s army at San Jacinto while it was enjoying its siesta. Falling on the enemy with the now legendary cry “Remember the Alamo!” they killed more than half the drowsy Mexicans in eighteen minutes. Santa Anna escaped but was captured the next day. Having ditched his fancy uniform, he was identified by the fact that he was the only prisoner wearing silk underwear, hardly standard issue for a Mexican infantryman. Forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty to save his own life, he was disowned by his government and exiled to the United States. Texas became an independent republic with Houston as its president.
In 1837 Santa Anna crept home to lick his wounds. But history intervened again. The French fleet arrived to blockade Veracruz, ostensibly in support of an extremely angry French pastry cook called Monsieur Remontel. He had written to Louis-Philippe I complaining bitterly of the chaos that reigned in Mexico City, which was having a deleterious effect on his pastry business. Like a Hispanic King Arthur, Santa Anna charged into the fray. In Mexico’s hour of need, he would once more save his fatherland from foreign domination. The government had no choice but to back him.
He won the “Pastry War” but lost his leg in the process. A cannonball killed his horse and pulverised his ankle. As he lay waiting for the surgeon he piled on the pathos in a letter to the latest Mexican president, Anastasio Bustamente:
I ask of the government that my body may be buried in these very sand dunes, so that my comrades in arms know that this is the line of battle I leave marked for them: that from today onward, the Mexicans’ most unjust enemies may not dare place the filthy soles of their feet on our territory. All Mexicans, forgetting my political errors, do not deny me the only title I wish to donate to my children: that of having been a Good Mexican.
He didn’t die, but the leg was amputated rather inexpertly: The surgeons left a nub of bone protruding too far and had to overstretch the skin to cover the stump. For the rest of his life Santa Anna suffered pain and inflammation, and sometimes the skin would split and bleed. But it was a propaganda weapon his rivals could do nothing to match: His missing leg was the living embodiment of Mexican independence and sacrifice. In May 1839 he was elected president for the second time.
His second administration was even more oppressive than his first, so he played the leg card. At political rallies, and to inspire his troops, he waved his wooden limb above his head, confirming his status as a war hero. In 1841 he had his original leg ceremoniously disinterred from its last resting place in Veracruz, taken to the capital under escort in a glass casket, and reburied with full military honors in a mausoleum in the cemetery of Santa Paula. It wasn’t enough to stem the tide of resentment. In 1844 a rampaging mob smashed his statue, rushed into the cemetery, and dug up the casket containing the revered limb. It was carried through the streets to cries of “Death to the cripple!” Shortly afterward Santa Anna was deposed and exiled to Cuba.
A year later he was back. The United States, keen to expand and consolidate its southern territories, had declared war on Mexico. Santa Anna wrote to the Mexican government offering his services with the solemn promise that he would not pursue the presidency. The long-suffering Farías, president once more, reluctantly agreed. What he didn’t know was that Santa Anna had been in secret talks with the U.S. government, offering to sell them large parts of Mexico if he ever returned to power. By early 1846 Santa Anna had returned to the place he loved best, the head of the Mexican army. Never one to do anything by halves, he decided to renege on both promises simultaneously, seizing the presidency and turning his army on the invading Americans. But Santa Anna was outmaneuverd by the U.S. forces and outgunned by their heavy artillery, losing six straight battles in a row. The Mexican-American War ended in disaster for Mexico and humiliation for Santa Anna, culminating in the fall of Mexico City in September 1847 and the loss of more than half of Mexico’s northern territory. On February 2, 1848, the Mexican states of Utah, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and half of Colorado joined Texas as part of the United States. Apart from those who fell in battle, deaths from secondary infection and disease on both sides claimed over fifty thousand lives. Santa Anna went into exile again, this time in Jamaica.
His leg had also had a bad war. In the battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847 the Americans overran the Mexicans so quickly that Santa Anna was forced to leave his half-eaten chicken dinner and both wooden legs behind. The legs were “taken prisoner” by two members of the 4th Illinois Infantry. The fancy one, made of cork and leather, was the work of Charles Bartlett, a New York cabinetmaker. It had cost $1,300 at the time (worth about $35,000 today), and had an articulated foot that moved on ball bearings. After the war, it was exhibited at state fairs for a dime a peek before finding its way to the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield. The simpler (spare) peg leg was used as a baseball bat by General Abner Doubleday and can now be seen at the Oglesby Mansion Museum in Decatur, Georgia.
That ought to be the end of the Santa Anna story, but it isn’t. He operated on a purely mythological level in the minds of his countrymen and, though he had just lost half the country, was invited back, this time by the conservatives. In 1853 he was sworn in as president for his eleventh and final term. Dispensing with even the pretense of democracy, he appointed himself dictator for life, insisting on the official title His Serene Highness. His Napoleonic fantasy was complete. Writing to a former ally, he made his position quite clear:
For a hundred years to come, my people will not be fit for liberty. They do not know what it is, unenlightened as they are, and under the influence of a Catholic clergy, a despotism is the proper government for them, but there is no reason why it should not be a wise and virtuous one.
Unfortunately, Santa Anna was incapable of being either wise or virtuous. Back in power, he sold another chunk of territory to the Americans so they could build a railway, making sure that some of its $15 million price tag found its way into his pockets. Even his conservative allies finally decided he was a liability and, in 1855, he was deposed for good, exiled to Cuba, and tried and convicted in his absence for corruption.
The late 1860s found him living in exile on Staten Island in New York. Here, inadvertently, he made his most significant and lasting contribution to world history. He had become friendly with an American inventor, Thomas Adams. Adams was intrigued by the general’s habit of chewing chicle, the gum from the evergreen Manilkara tree, something Mexicans had been doing since the times of the Mayan empire. Adams hoped to make it into a cheap rubber substitute and bought a ton of chicle from Santa Anna, just in case. He failed to make rubber, but discovered that, by adding sugar, he had a terrific new confectionery product: chewing gum. In 1871, he launched it as Adams New York No. 1. His company later merged with Wrigley’s. In 2006 the chewing-gum giant had a turnover of $4.6 billion and a 63 percent global market share.
Santa Anna didn’t make a peseta from his role as father of American chewing gum. In 1874 he was finally allowed back into Mexico. In the two decades since he had left, the country had been plunged into civil war and had had an Austrian puppet emperor imposed on it by the French. Now the liberals were back in power. President Benito Juárez was the first indigenous Amerindian (and the first civilian) to govern Mexico. He ignored Santa Anna’s return: There was to be no reentry to political life for him this time. The “Napoleon of the West” died, almost blind and penniless, stripped of property and honors, in Mexico City in 1876. His wooden leg remains in exile. Several attempts to return it have foundered: The last received a frosty response from a historian at the National Museum in Mexico. Santa Anna, he said, was a theatrical opportunist who looked out for only himself: “Returning the leg wouldn’t mean much. We do not want the leg returned.”
Did the loss of a leg profoundly alter the course of Santa Anna’s life? Probably not. Was it a defining moment? Without doubt. The lost limb was the symbol of his self-appointed role as savior of his country, a kind of visual proof of his canonization. At the same time, as with Stuyvesant, it became a national joke. Santa Anna’s life, with its vanity, cruelty, and lack of integrity, nonetheless has a compelling quality, rather as if Casanova had put his energy into politics instead of sex. Though the immortal national hero status he lusted after was ultimately denied him, how many people have ever inspired a sea shanty?
O! Santianna had a wooden leg
Heave away, Santianna!
He used it for a cribbage peg
All on the plains of Mexico
O! Santianna’s day is o’er,
Heave away, Santianna!
Santianna will fight no more.
All on the plains of Mexico!
There are no songs dedicated to the “surprising Corpulency” of Daniel Lambert (1770–1809), but for a while his name was the universal cliché for anything big. London was “the Daniel Lambert of cities” and any especially erudite scholar, the “Daniel Lambert of learning.” There have been heavier men since—but not many, and none as fondly remembered. Perhaps for this reason he has kept an honorable mention in the Guinness Book of Records. When he died, aged thirty-nine, he weighed nearly 750 pounds and his waist was 9 feet 4 inches in circumference. In today’s terms that would give him a Body Mass Index of 104—three times the level at which obesity kicks in. Quite how he got so large was as much a puzzle to him as to others. He didn’t eat to excess and drank only water. He just kept getting bigger.
Obesity is not a modern phenomenon, although it has become a modern obsession. Today, in Britain and America, one in four adults is obese, and the cost (in terms of health care and lost earning potential) runs into hundreds of billions. Cheap food has meant that, for the first time in history, the bottom 20 percent of earners are, on average, more obese than the top 20 percent. The diet industry in the United States alone is valued at $60 billion per annum, more than the global turnover of Microsoft and McDonald’s combined. This double hysteria—overeating then trying to lose weight again—is a long way from rural Leicestershire in the late eighteenth century.
Lambert came from a cheerful lower-middle-class family. None of the rest of his relatives was in the least remarkable, either in size or achievement. His father was keeper of the Leicester County “bridewell,” or house of correction. Bridewells got their name from the original Bridewell in the city of London, first a royal palace, then a hospital, and finally a prison. They were run by local magistrates and were used to keep the streets clear of vagrants, idlers, and minor offenders. Keepers were salaried but were allowed to supplement their income by hiring out inmates as a source of cheap local labor. Lambert’s institution had eight rooms, three for men and five for women (it wasn’t considered appropriate for women to share a room).
Daniel grew up living the active, outdoor life of a Leicestershire countryman. He was a passionate devotee of cockfighting and hare coursing, rode with the hunt, and taught children to swim in the River Soar. He matured quickly, reaching almost six feet tall in his teens. He was also extremely strong, said to be able to carry huge cart wheels and quarter-ton weights and swim with two men clinging to his back. Once Lambert’s dog attacked a dancing bear that was due to perform in the town. The bear had retaliated and, to encourage some sport, its handlers removed its muzzle. When they refused Lambert’s request to restrain the bear, he felled it with a single blow to the jaw and rescued his dog.
When Lambert’s father retired, Daniel took over the running of the prison. He was well liked by his charges, working hard to improve their living conditions and ensure all of them were treated fairly; there are even reports of inmates crying with gratitude for his kindness as they left. The only problem with the job was that it didn’t involve much more than sitting on his seat in the street outside the prison. He became a popular character in Leicester, puffing on a pipe of tobacco, striking up conversations with people as they passed or swapping tips about breeding fighting cocks and greyhounds. It was this sudden transition to a sedentary life that Lambert blamed for his rapid weight gain, but it’s probable he suffered from a metabolic disorder. Within two years he weighed 450 pounds and was too big to find a horse that would carry his weight. Even simple physical tasks started to exhaust him: It was easier to sit and watch the world go by. In 1803 a prison inspector noted Lambert’s “constitutional propensity to ease…. He is spoken of as a humane, benevolent man but I thought him a very improper person to be the Keeper of a prison.”
Then, in 1805, the Leicester magistrates decided to close the correction house and set the inmates to forced labor instead. Lambert was awarded a one-off annuity of about $75 as a thank-you, but this wasn’t enough for him to live on (it would be worth about $6,000 today). He was now thirty-five years old and his weight had crept up to seven hundred pounds, making it impossible for him to find work. He couldn’t even squeeze into a standard-sized coach to visit the races. By the end of the year, out of money and deprived by his immense size of the hobbies he loved, Lambert found himself practically housebound. Things weren’t helped by a string of visitors wanting to see if the rumors of Leicester’s “Human Colossus” were true. One pushy man from Nottingham pressed for admission on the grounds that he had a particular favor to ask. Lambert eventually let him in only to have the man ask the pedigree of a local mare, information readily available from the owner. Lambert, who had by now developed a smart line in witty put-downs, answered, “Oh! If that’s all, she was got by Impertinence out of Curiosity.”
Annoying as these visitations were, they helped him conceive a plan. In early 1806, he surprised everyone by renting a house on Piccadilly in London. He announced his arrival with a flurry of handbills and newspaper advertising: For the price of one shilling, the gentlefolk of London would be able to enjoy an audience with “the Heaviest Man in Britain.” Lambert had decided that because his condition prevented him from working, he would turn people’s nosiness into an income. He had strict rules: Politeness was an absolute prerequisite, and gentlemen were ejected if they refused to remove their hats. He did what he could to defuse the invasiveness of some people’s questions with humor. When a young beau accosted him by peering through the fashionable device of a quizzing glass (a monocle on a long stick) and asking what he most disliked, he retorted, “To be bored by a quizzing glass.” A woman who asked him how much his enormous red coat cost was told, with a twinkle, “If you think it proper to make the present of a new coat, you will then know exactly what it costs, madam.” For rudeness, he operated a zero-tolerance policy: A man who accused him of paying too much attention to the lady guests was threatened with immediate defenestration. His “act” was simply to tell amusing stories, discuss the news of the day, and pick over in detail the qualities of particular horses or packs of hounds. He did brisk business on the side, selling his own lines of pedigree pointers and spaniels. His pet terrier was so admired he was once offered a hundred guineas for it—equivalent to more than $15,000 today—but he refused, pleading that it was his closest and most loyal companion. A visit to Lambert became a must for every fashionable Londoner, and some afternoons as many as four hundred people would pass through his house. The Times wrote admiringly:
To find a man of his uncommon dimensions possessing great information, manners the most affable and pleasing, and a perfect ease and facility in conversation, exceeded our expectations, high as they had been raised. The female spectators were greater in proportion than those of the other sex, and not a few of them have been heard to declare, how much they admired his manly and intelligent countenance.
For all his handsome profile and his witty conversation, there is no record of Lambert’s ever having had a romantic attachment. He was not, by this point in his life, built for love:
When sitting he appears to be a stupendous mass of flesh, for his thighs are so covered by his belly that nothing but his knees are to be seen, while the flesh of his legs, which resemble pillows, projects in such a manner as to nearly bury his feet.
One of his regular visitors was the celebrated Polish dwarf Count Joseph Borulawski whose “entertainment” Lambert remembered visiting in Birmingham when he was an able-bodied apprentice, twenty years earlier. As Lambert stood to show the count his full bulk, the tiny visitor grasped one of his calves (by then more than three feet in circumference) and exclaimed, “Ah mein Gott! Pure flesh and blood. I feel de warm. No deception! I am pleased: for I did hear it was deception.” In turn, Lambert asked if his (normal-sized) wife was still alive. “No she is dead,” the midget replied. “I am not very sorry, for when I affronted her, she put me on the mantel-shelf for punishment.”
Lambert returned to Leicester later that year wealthy and famous. Through his excellent manners and his cheerfulness, he had turned the nightmare of his condition to good account. Most important of all, he had done it on his own terms, escaping the horrors of the freak show. Even allowing for a more tolerant attitude to fatness than in our own diet-obsessed times, Lambert was considered an astonishing phenomenon, in the words of the Morning Post, “the acme of mortal hugeness.” But perhaps because of his dignity and his utter lack of self-pity, he became a symbol of British pride. Rather like a champion bull, his size and good nature showed off the best of the national character. In a cartoon of April 1806 a gargantuan Lambert is shown taunting the amazed (and tiny) Napoleon:
I am a true born Englishman from the county of Leicester—a quiet mind and good constitution nourished by the good air of Britain makes every Englishman thrive.
In another, Napoleon eats a small bowl of soup while Lambert feasts on a round of roast beef, with a bowl of mustard, a whole loaf, and a foaming pot of stout. No further caption was needed. Here was John Bull in all his splendor.
Over the next two years, Lambert toured the country in a specially reinforced coach to exhibit himself in provincial cities such as Birmingham, Cambridge, and York, as well as twice returning to London. But the constant traveling took a toll on his health and he started to make plans for his retirement. In September 1809, he returned to Stamford, in Lincolnshire, for what would be his last residency. He loved the Stamford race meeting, and in the times when he was merely huge rather than vast, he had enjoyed laying bets in the town’s many pubs that, given a small head start, he could win a race from one end of Stamford to the other. The town was a maze of narrow alleys, and he knew that once he got ahead of people, he could literally block their passage and they would never be able to get past him.
As he could no longer climb stairs, he had taken a room on the ground floor of the Wagon and Horses inn and sent a droll note to the Stamford Mercury asking them to send someone to take an order for printed handbills announcing his arrival: “As the mountain could not wait on Mahomet, Mahomet would go to the mountain.” The printer came, and though Lambert complained of being tired, he seemed full of enthusiasm for his appointments the next day. The following morning he was about to shave when he complained to the landlord that he was finding breathing difficult. Ten minutes later he was dead. There was no autopsy but the likelihood is that he suffered a massive blood clot to his lungs. Two days later he was buried, the Mercury commenting that “his remains had been kept quite as long as was prudent.”
Burying Lambert was a feat of engineering. It took 112 feet of elm wood to construct his gargantuan square coffin and the entire wall of his hotel room had to be dismantled to get him out. The coffin was fitted with axles and wheeled slowly down toward the church, where a huge crowd had gathered. It took twenty men half an hour to lower Daniel Lambert into the grave. His friends paid for a memorial that carried this affectionate epitaph:
In Remembrance of that PRODIGY in NATURE DANIEL LsAMBERT a native of LEICESTER who was possessed of an exalted and convivial Mind and, in personal Greatness had no COMPETITOR
It is a fitting tribute to a decent man. The famous Leicestershire horse trainer Dick Christian remarked that Lambert “was a cheery man in company but shyish of being looked at.” By pure force of character he had overcome his shyness, and the shame and discomfort of his size, to become a national hero. Today, the local tourist office proudly bills him as “Leicester’s largest son.”
The relaxed jollity that Daniel Lambert managed throughout his short life would elude Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) until the very end of hers. Most people now have an inkling that the “ministering angel” or “Lady with the Lamp” image hides a more complex reality, but it still comes as a shock to learn that she spent more than half her life not as a nurse but as an invalid, much of it bedridden in her Mayfair flat.
The precise nature of this illness has been the cause of much speculation. She did her best to keep up appearances and would, on most days, get washed and dressed before retiring to the bed again, ready to receive a maximum of one visitor a day, if strictly necessary. But she also kept herself manically busy. Perpetually armed with a pen and writing paper, she produced books, papers, and a stream of correspondence with her family and famous friends, starting her working day as early as 5 a.m. In her life, she wrote more than fourteen thousand letters, although many of the most personal ones she marked “Private. Burn.” Most of what we now associate with her—the foundation of modern nursing practice and improved standards of hygiene—were products of her years in bed rather than her brief stay in the Crimea. In the century since her death, biographers and historians have variously accused her of malingering, of strategic invalidism in order to manipulate others, of hypochondria, and even of neurotic lesbianism. More charitably, she has also been retrospectively diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, manic depression, schizophrenia (because she claimed to hear God’s voice), and chronic fatigue syndrome.
The medical evidence all points to the fact that she was properly ill. Her physical symptoms are consistent with the bacterial infection we now call brucellosis (then known as Crimea or Mediterranean fever), which she probably picked up by drinking unpasteurized milk while working in the military hospital during the war. Without treatment it leads to long-term health problems, consistent with those that Florence Nightingale experienced in later life. From 1861 to 1868 she was especially unwell, and had to be carried from room to room. Her own descriptions of her symptoms are terse but telling. In 1863 she complained of “over pressure of the brain”; in 1865, it was “rheumatism of the spine and right elbow.” That year she also experienced “great breathlessness,” and in 1866 “spasms of the lungs.” By 1867, she was “bereft of an ounce of strength,” and in 1868, “felt as if the top of my head was blown off.” In 1879, she complained of “rapid palpitations” and “ninety hours without sleep.”
But these physiological symptoms, though undoubtedly real, masked a strong psychological component. Her compulsive attitude to work and desire to hide from the world were the outward expression of an inner turmoil that stretched back deep into her childhood. Florence’s early life was apparently happy and balanced. Her parents were kind and loving and the family was well off, with houses in Derbyshire, Hampshire, and London. Her parents’ home was part of a lively intellectual scene that encompassed theologians, social reformers, historians, and artists. The Nightingales were Unitarians, liberal Christians who believed in a single, beneficent God, but also in science and progress. William Nightingale had named his younger daughter Florence after the city of her birth, establishing it for the first time as a popular name for girls. Until then it had been a boy’s name. Her sister, born a year earlier in Naples, got saddled with Parthenope, the Greek name for that city, which (so far at least) has not caught on to the same extent. William undertook the education of his two daughters himself, and it was apparent from the start that Florence was academically exceptional: brilliant at languages, arts, and sciences. This, however, was to prove a constant source of tension in her life. For much of it, she was by far the brightest person in any room and she knew it. “I must overcome my desire to shine in company,” she wrote in her diary while still a teenager. She was also attractive. The novelist Mrs. Gaskell described her as “tall, willowy in figure, [with] thick shortish rich brown hair, a delicate complexion, and grey eyes that are generally pensive but could be the merriest.” Her profile in the Times makes her sound almost too perfect: “a young lady of singular endowments … her attainments are extraordinary.”
Florence Nightingale didn’t have the horrors of poverty, neglect, or abuse to contend with, yet she was plagued by fits of depression and suicidal self-loathing—a typical diary entry reads “In my thirty-first year, I see nothing desirable but death.” The source of her unhappiness was her deep sense of being at odds with the stultifying social requirements and hypocrisy of the world she had grown up in. Far from the stiff-collared, sharp-tongued martinet of popular legend, the young Florence was like the heroine of a Mrs. Gaskell or George Eliot novel: fiercely bright, passionate, and headstrong. She was desperate to be loved, but couldn’t bear the idea of falling into the same polite, bourgeois trap as her parents:
It is not surprising that husbands and wives seem so little part of one another. It is surprising that there is so much love as there is. For there is no food for it. What does it live upon—what nourishes it? Husbands and wives never seem to have anything to say to one another. What do they talk about? Not about any great religious, social, political questions or feelings. They talk about who shall come to dinner, who is to live in this lodge and who in that, about the improvement of the place, or when they shall go to London…. But any real communion between husband and wife—any descending into the depths of their being, and drawing out thence what they find and comparing it—do we ever dream of such a thing? Yes, we may dream of it during the season of “passion,” but we shall not find it afterward. We even expect it to go off, and lay our account that it will. If the husband has, by chance, gone into the depths of his being, and found there anything unorthodox, he, oftenest, conceals it carefully from his wife,—he is afraid of “unsettling her opinions.”
This passage is from a book called Cassandra, written when she was in her early thirties but, on the advice of her learned male friends, never published. At various times a novel, a philosophical dialogue between two sisters, and a heartfelt polemic, it is the most complete statement of her belief that only work would make sense of her life. It is one of the great feminist texts of the nineteenth century, intellectually and emotionally intelligent but so raw that later writers found hard it to swallow. Virginia Woolf acknowledged its influence but thought it “a shriek of nervous agony.”
The more of Florence Nightingale’s work one reads, the more one senses that had she been born a man, she might have become a great moral philosopher like John Stuart Mill or a respected historian like Thomas Carlyle (both of whom admired her writing). Instead, she grew up in a household where men idly theorized and women wasted their lives “looking at prints, doing worsted work and reading little books.” Acutely conscious as a child of the suffering of the Victorian poor, from the age of six she set her mind on “a profession, a trade, a necessary occupation, something to fill and employ all my faculties.” Only this could liberate her “from the accumulation of nervous energy which has had nothing to do during the day” and which makes women feel “every night, when they go to bed, as if they are going mad.”
At the age of sixteen Florence had a religious experience in which “God had called her to his service.” This didn’t mean fiddling around doing charity work at her local church: It meant using her hands and brain to right the wrongs of the world. She asked her parents if they would support her intention to go into nursing. They were horrified and refused. In fact, her mother, Fanny, fainted at the shock of what her youngest daughter was suggesting. “We are ducks,” she later lamented “who have hatched a wild swan.” So Florence continued to live at home and tried to escape the glacial atmosphere in the house by plunging herself into a study of mysticism. Over the next decade, she would develop her own theology, which she outlined in another book that was destined to remain unpublished, Suggestions for Thought to the Searchers after Truth among the Artizans of England. Her studies took her far beyond the shores of Christianity—one wonders how many other English women in the 1850s would ever conceive of writing to a friend: “You must go to Mahometanism, to Buddhism, to the East, to the Sufis & Fakirs, to Pantheism, for the right growth of mysticism.” At the same time, she dutifully fulfilled her social obligations and entertained a string of enthusiastic suitors.
Her most persistent male admirer was Richard Monckton Milnes, a literary patron and minor poet, who was also the MP for Pontefract. He was a good friend of Tennyson’s, the first biographer of John Keats, and the man who introduced the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson to Britain. On the face of it, he was the perfect match for Florence: clever, well connected, and wealthy. He obviously thought himself the right man for the job: He patiently paid court to her for nine years. She was also clearly tempted by him:
I have an intellectual nature which requires satisfaction, and that would find it in him. I have a passional nature which requires satisfaction, and that would find it in him. I have a moral, an active nature which requires satisfaction, and that would not find it in his life. Sometimes I think I will satisfy my passional nature at all events, because that will at least secure me from the evil of dreaming. But would it? I could be satisfied to spend a life with him in combining our different powers in some great object. I could not satisfy this nature by spending a life with him in making society and arranging domestic things.
By early 1849 Mr. Monckton Milnes decided he needed a definite answer. She said no. Her parents were furious and Florence tortured herself with remorse:
I know that if I were to see him again … the very thought of doing so quite overcomes me. I know that since I refused him not one day has passed without my thinking of him, that life is desolate without his sympathy.
By the end of the year, she was in a state of near mental collapse, and friends of the family offered to take her on a trip through Greece and Egypt. She would turn thirty in 1850 and was determined to make it a new beginning.
To-day I am 30–the age Christ began his mission. Now no more childish things. No more love. No more marriage. Now Lord let me think only of Thy Will, what Thou willest me to do.
But her diary of the year is anything but a peaceful acceptance of God’s will. She was obviously still being assailed by “the evil of dreaming”:
March 15: God has delivered me from the greatest offence and the constant murder of all my thoughts.
March 21: Left the boat ringing our hands. Such a delicious hour in the gardens of Heliopolis—where Plato walked and Moses prayed. Undisturbed by my great enemy.
June 7: But this long moral death, this failure of all attempts to cure. I think I have never been so bad as this last week.
June 12: To Megara! Alas it matters little where I go—sold as I am to the enemy—Whether in London or Athens, it is all alike to me.
June 17: After a sleepless night physically and morally ill and broken down, a slave—glad to leave Athens. I have no wish on earth but sleep.
June 18: I had no wish, no enemy, I longed but for sleep. My enemy is too strong for me, everything has been tried. All, all is vain.
June 21: Two delightful days at Corfu. My enemy let me go. I lived again, in both body and mind. Oh! today, how lovely it was, how poetic—and I was free
June 29: Four long days of absolute slavery.
June 30: I cannot write a letter, can do nothing.
July 1: I lay in bed at night and called upon God to save me. My soul spoke to His & I was comforted.
These enigmatic entries read very like the tortured spiritual travails of the Christian mystics she had studied: St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross. Like them, she often refers to God as her “husband.” There is more here than just religious ecstasy. No one can be fully sure what the “dreaming” that so disturbed her at night was, but it seems most likely to have been sexual fantasy, possibly even masturbation. In rejecting Milnes, she was rejecting marriage itself, and, by extension, sex. She makes it plain that she was physically attracted to Milnes and we will never know what passed between them privately. He was certainly not a sexual innocent: After he died it was revealed that he had one of the largest collections of erotic literature ever assembled, with a particular fondness for the works of the Marquis de Sade. Her embrace of mysticism, of marriage with God, may well have offered her a way of sublimating some of this energy. But by the end of the year, she was convinced that the solution to her “dreaming” was to keep her hands and her mind busy.
In 1851 she went to Kaiserswerth Hospital in Germany to take a basic three-month course in nursing with the Institute for Protestant Deaconesses. This was a revelation to her: “The nursing there was nil, the hygiene horrible,” she later wrote, “But never have I met with a higher tone, a purer devotion than there. There was no neglect.” She followed this with a stint with the Sisters of Mercy near Paris, but on her return home, plunged into another depression in which she hardly stirred from her bed. The family doctor persuaded her parents that moving her out of the house would be good for Florence’s “nerves” and in 1853 she was appointed superintendent of the Institution for Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances at Harley Street in London. An outbreak of cholera in nearby Soho allowed her to demonstrate for the first time her flair for administration and unflappability under pressure as she helped local hospitals manage the huge flood of patients.
Toward the end of 1853 Britain became embroiled in the Crimea, siding with France to support Turkey against Russia. Newspaper reports alerted the British public to the poor standards of care given to the troops evacuated from the Crimean peninsula to Scutari in Turkey. Sidney Herbert, a close friend of Florence’s, was appointed secretary of state for war and asked her if she would lead a party of British nurses to the war zone. In November 1854 she arrived at the Barrack Hospital with thirty-eight nurses and proceeded to reorganize it from top to bottom. Fresh air, cleanliness, good diet, and exercise were her principles, and in the midst of the chaos and the stench, her nurses were impeccably turned out and records were kept with a military precision. Florence set an inspiring example, covering four miles each evening walking through the wards, helping injured soldiers to write letters home, and checking on their welfare. Although she was always more of a nursing theoretician than an actual emptier of bedpans or bandager of wounds, these nocturnal walks are what gave rise to her legend among the troops and the public back home.
Her first few months at Scutari were disastrous. Death rates at the hospital soared and even nurses and doctors succumbed to disease. The death rate began to drop only after the sewage system had been overhauled and the source of infection was removed. Nightingale didn’t make this connection herself until the war had ended. She returned to London in 1856 a heroine and, despite being traumatized and ill, threw all her energy behind getting a Royal Commission on army health established. She met Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to press her case. Afterward the queen remarked, “What a head! If only we could have her at the War Office.” Her efforts paid off and Sidney Herbert was appointed to chair the commission.
In 1858 Florence submitted her evidence to the commission in the form of an 830-page report, Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army. Appended to it was what she called her “coxcomb” of statistical diagrams, devised with the help of William Farr, head of the General Registry Office. This included her famous “polar area diagram,” a kind of pie chart that has since become a standard of statistical graphics. What the figures and diagrams showed came as a profound shock. During the first awful winter of the war, soldiers had been three times more likely to die in Scutari than they had been in the basic field hospitals at the front. What had killed most of the soldiers in the Crimea wasn’t their wounds, but infections caused by poor sanitary conditions in the wards. Scutari, as one historian put it, was more of a death camp than a hospital. Florence was mortified. If she had overhauled the sewage and general hygiene sooner, thousands of soldiers’ lives might have been saved. All the hand-holding and ward walking had been beside the point. In an agony of trepidation she put forward her report, fully expecting “the Lady of the Lamp” to be exposed as a fraud: “The lamp shows me only my utter shipwreck.” The report was never published. Although its conclusions framed British policy on hospital hygiene and nursing practice for generations to come, the government decided that to present the full weight of the evidence would be too damaging to national morale. This was too late to save Florence. The stress of preparing the figures, the weight of personal blame she felt, and the symptoms of her worsening brucellosis led to a physical collapse, and she came close to death. At the age of thirty-seven she took to her bed and never really emerged again.
Nonetheless, her fame and her influence grew steadily. From her bed in Mayfair, insulated from the disruptions of her family, she directed the course of health, hygiene, and sanitation all over the world. A public collection in her name raised £45,000 (equivalent to more than $1 million in today’s money) and was used to set up the Nightingale School of Nursing at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. She became the first woman to be made a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society (her experience in Scutari had taught her that “statistics were the measure of God’s purpose”). In 1860 she published Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not, a book that made her “fresh air and cleanliness” gospel available to everyone. Although she rarely ventured out, she corresponded with many of the most famous people of her time, including Mrs. Gaskell, General Gordon (of Khartoum), William Gladstone, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. As far as romantic entanglements went, the closest she came to that was a long and witty correspondence with Benjamin Jowett, the master of Balliol College in Oxford, who became her spiritual confessor, encouraging her to write the last in her now tall pile of unpublished books, Notes from Devotional Authors of the Middle Ages, a history of mysticism. He called her “Florence the First, Empress of Scavengers, Queen of Nurses, Reverend Mother Superior of the British Army, Governess of the Governor of India.” She responded with: “Maid of all dirty work rather, or, the Nuisances Removal Act, that’s me.” As Lytton Strachey remarked, “She remained an invalid, but an invalid of a curious character—an invalid who was too weak to walk downstairs and who worked far harder than most Cabinet Ministers.”
Against all odds, Florence Nightingale outlived the misery of her condition. She died in her sleep at the age of ninety, shortly after becoming the first woman to receive the Order of Merit. In the last two decades of her life, she had mellowed. The intellectual arrogance, the not-suffering-fools-gladly impatience, and the perfectionism that had driven her faded, and she became an indulgent, eccentric old lady, devoted to her cats. Animals had always been a solace to her and she had often recommended the healing power of pets to her patients. For a while she had shared her life with a small owl she had found while visiting the ruins of the Parthenon in 1850. A fledgling, it was being tormented by some Greek boys after falling from its nest. Florence gave them a farthing and kept the owl, which she named Athena. It lived in a bag in her coat pocket during the day and flew around the house at night. But cats were her constant companions during the long years spent in bed. She owned more than sixty over the years, including Quiz, Muff, Dr. Pusey, and Bismarck. As enigmatic, self-contained, and sedentary as a cat herself, you can see why she liked them:
I learned the lesson of life from a little kitten, one of two. The old cat comes in and says, “What are you doing here, I want my missus to myself.” The bigger kitten runs away. The little one stands her ground, and when the old enemy comes near, kisses his nose and makes the peace. That is the lesson of life: kiss your enemy’s nose while standing your ground.
Few people have stood their ground like Florence Nightingale. She once boasted she had never been “swayed by a personal consideration.” Her body may have let her down, but she always knew her own mind. The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) suffered from an entirely different affliction. He had a hundred different minds to choose from. Like Florence Nightingale he was a depressive who died a virgin. He was also an alcoholic hypochondriac who died of liver failure at forty-seven. He had published almost nothing. The problem with Pessoa, though, is, who exactly was “he.”
After Pessoa died, a wooden trunk was discovered containing more than twenty-five thousand handwritten sheets of his work, much of it still unsorted to this day. The archive contains both poetry and prose, everything from horoscopes to detective stories. The contents established him as one of the great poets of the twentieth century, or maybe several of the great poets—the work was written by Pessoa’s hand but under more than a hundred different names, not mere pseudonyms but individual literary identities who wrote in consistently different styles. Pessoa said that the names were not synonyms but “heteronyms.” He described his alter egos as “nonexistent acquaintances.”
Pessoa began creating heteronyms at age six, writing letters to himself in French from “Le Chevalier de Pas.” His best-known creations are Alberto Caeiro (1889–1915), whom he described as “an ingenious unlettered man who lived in the country and died of TB,” and Ricardo Reis, a doctor who wrote classical odes. There was also Alvaro de Campos—a monocle-wearing existentialist and naval engineer who liked writing in free verse. Caeiro, Reis, and de Campos even wrote about one another’s work, dissecting it and being critical when needed. Some of the minor heteronyms were exotic, like the Baron of Tieve, a suicidal aristocrat, or Jean Seul de Méluret, a French essayist with an interest in dancing girls. Only one of Pessoa’s heteronyms was a woman—Maria José, a tubercular hunchback with crippled legs who pined after a handsome metalworker who passed by her apartment every day.
Pessoa’s best-known identity is Bernardo Soares, who wrote most of The Book of Disquiet, a remarkable, sprawling biography that reads, in part, like a diary and was published long after Pessoa’s death. In his letters, Pessoa referred to the book as “a pathological production” and a “factless autobiography.” At the beginning of the book he wrote, “These are my confessions, and if in them I say nothing, it is because I have nothing to say.” Soares’s personality, said Pessoa, “is not my own, but it doesn’t differ from it, but is a mere mutilation of it.” He said Soares “appears when I am tired and sleepy, when my inhibitions are slightly suspended; that prose is a constant daydreaming.” This might sound more like fun than misfortune, but that would be to miss the quiet desperation of much of Pessoa’s life, a pain he numbed with drink. It also assumes that he was in control of his heteronyms, which it seems he wasn’t. That is what makes him so fascinating. As far as we can tell, he wasn’t suffering from a psychological condition like schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder, but his “possession” was so extreme and complete that it chips away at our stable notions of “self” and “personality.” In his influential essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” another great poet, T. S. Eliot, makes a very pertinent observation:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
What was Pessoa escaping from?
He had spent much of his childhood in South Africa: His stepfather was the Portuguese consul in Durban. As a result, he became bilingual in Portuguese and English from the age of seven. His father had died from tuberculosis two years earlier (the year before Fernando created his first heteronym), and the following year he lost his younger brother, too. His mother and stepfather soon produced two half sisters and two half brothers, but the rapid disappearance of his original family left Fernando feeling isolated and rejected.
At school in Durban he excelled, winning poetry prizes and creating his own “newspaper” in which he wrote all the stories and drew all the illustrations under the name Alexander Search. By the time he was fourteen he was sending riddles to a newspaper in Lisbon under the pseudonym Dr. Pancrácio (Dr. Simpleton). When his mother took the family back to Portugal in 1902, he sent newspaper articles in the opposite direction—to a Durban newspaper—written under the name Tagus or signed with the initials J. G. H.C. or as Charles Robert Anon.
When Pessoa’s grandmother died in 1907 she left him some money. He used this to set up a small printing company called Ibis, but it soon failed. Few anecdotes survive about him, but his half brother João said that Fernando used to embarrass the family by staggering along the street, swinging on lampposts pretending to be drunk. Standing on one leg he would shout out “I am an ibis.” It’s fairly tame behavior for a twentieth-century poet, but in the staid confines of Lisbon society it probably seemed extreme. Later on, Pessoa didn’t need to pretend to be drunk, as alcohol increasingly took over his life.
Pessoa’s rejection of self is fascinating, especially as, of all ironies, pessóa means “person” in Portuguese. (His name should properly be spelled Pessóa but he removed the accent over the o because it felt more cosmopolitan.) Outside his immediate family Pessoa seems to have had no close friendships. He eked out a living as a translator, working for businesses that needed to conduct relationships with English speakers, and kept himself to himself in a set of small, furnished rooms in the old city of Lisbon. “Bernardo Soares” explained:
The idea of any social obligation—going to a funeral, discussing an office matter with someone, going to the station to wait for someone I know or don’t know—the mere idea disturbs a whole day’s thoughts.
When he was thirty-two he formed an attachment with a young woman of nineteen named Ophelia Queiroz. There was probably no physical side to the relationship; he just wrote to her under different heteronyms for nine months and then broke it off. Almost a decade later, he made contact with Ophelia again but once more stopped communicating suddenly and refused to answer her letters. He also wrote to the English occultist Aleister Crowley, helping him to fake his own suicide when he visited Lisbon in 1930. Crowley must have found him beguiling. Pessoa would be gripped by what he called automatic writing, during which he transcribed communications from the Other Side. He also received messages from his dead uncle, from the English philosopher Henry More (1614–87), from an inscrutable entity called Wardor, and occasionally from Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. Some of these spirits rather sensibly urged Pessoa to stop masturbating and encouraged him to lose his virginity. He ignored their advice. Pessoa himself ridiculed the idea that actual spirits were getting in touch with him, but said he liked the fact that he could ask them for advice. They provided him with the social contact he couldn’t get from real people. For Pessoa, the only true reality was the one he (or, in this case, Soares again) created for himself:
The experience of life teaches nothing, just as history teaches nothing. True experience consists in restricting our contact with reality and increasing our analysis of that contact. In that way our sensibility extends and deepens itself, because everything is within us; all we have to do is look for it and know how to look for it.
Pessoa was twenty-six when he was first seriously “possessed” by one of his heteronyms. He was standing beside a chest of drawers when he was overcome by the urge to write poetry. Standing upright at the chest he pumped out thirty poems in quick succession, titling the collection “The Keeper of Sheep” and signing it “Albert Caeiro.” He compared the experience to being in a trance, saying “my master had appeared inside me.”
The literary critic Cyril Connolly once said that Pessoa “hived off separate personalities like swarms of bees,” but these were only apparent on the page: They were never shared with anyone else. Pessoa was a loner. He dined in the same restaurant every day for thirty years.
If after I die, they want to write my biography,
There is nothing more simple.
There are only two dates: my day of birth, day of death.
Between one and the other all the days are mine.
Eerily, it was Alvaro de Campos (the monocle-wearing existentialist) who said, “Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, didn’t exist.” The man called “person,” with over a hundred different personalities, spent almost his entire life denying his own existence.
Like so many bright children denied proper affection from their parents, Pessoa read his way out of the lonely realities that surrounded him. The bustling pages of Dickens were a particular favorite:
There are children who really suffer because they weren’t able to live in real life with Mister Pickwick and could not shake hands with Mister Wardle. I am one of them. I have wept real tears over that novel, for not having lived in that time, with those people, real people.
Again this is not Fernando Pessoa but “Bernardo Soares.” Pessoa read the novels but Soares wrote about them. When reading any of Pessoa’s authors, the constant danger is to mistake the mask for the man. Though Soares wrote “I will never write a page that will reveal me or reveal anything else,” Pessoa actually revealed a great deal. He is a unique writer—one who can be uniquely described as “multiply unique”—because he delivers so many different styles, so many ideas, such a rich mix of insights and possibilities. It’s almost as if he created his own self-referential literary tradition as both inspiration and company. His own life might have been sad, short, and tragic, but every bit as much as Florence Nightingale or Daniel Lambert, he—or rather his team—turned his misfortune into something of lasting value:
If a man only writes well when drunk, I would tell him: Get drunk. And if he said to me that his liver suffers because of that, I would answer: What is your liver? It’s a dead thing that lives as long as you do, while the poems you write live forever.
If Fernando Pessoa had more selves than he could handle, the English writer Dawn Langley Simmons (1937–2000) had only one, but she had two different bodies. Her life veered wildly between vaudeville and Greek tragedy, beginning as Gordon Langley Hall, the illegitimate son of Vita Sackville-West’s chauffeur. Later she was adopted by the English character actress Margaret Rutherford and had one of the first sex-change operations performed in America. In 1969 she broke another taboo by marrying her black butler in Charleston, South Carolina, the first legal mixed-race marriage in the state. As one of her obituaries commented: “It is a measure of the ascending scale of prejudice that, of all her transgressions, it was her crossing of the racial divide that most shocked her Southern neighbors.”
Dawn Simmons was born either with both male and female genitalia, or—as she always insisted—with female genitalia that an adrenal abnormality had caused to look male. In any event, although she always felt female, her family brought her up to be a boy called Gordon. “He” was raised by his grandmother Nelly Hall Ticehurst and spent the holidays at Sissinghurst, home of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. As a small boy, their son, the writer and publisher Nigel Nicolson, played with Gordon, known to everyone as Dinky. Sackville-West was famously the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando (1928), in which a boy is transformed into a beautiful woman. Simmons would later write in her autobiography: “Had she lived a little longer, Vita would have been intrigued to know that the child ‘Dinky,’ as she called me, would become a real-life Orlando.”
Gordon started writing early, having his first poem published at the age of four and his first interview—conducted sitting in Mae West’s lap—appearing in the Sussex Express when he was nine. In 1953, his grandmother died and he emigrated to Canada, becoming a teacher on an Ojibwa native reservation. Despite having had periods through “her” teens and “his” voice not having broken, Gordon still at this stage appeared male, and he wore a crew cut. He turned his experiences with the Ojibwa into a bestseller, Me Papoose Sitter, published in 1955, and soon after moved to New York, where he worked as a journalist and society biographer, writing critically acclaimed lives of Mary Todd Lincoln, Princess Margaret, and Jackie Kennedy. Witty, eccentric, and ostentatious, Gordon made friends across a very broad swath of New York society, from fellow writers like Carson McCullers to actresses like Joan Crawford and sportsmen like the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. A distant relative, the wealthy painter Isabel Whitney, took to him at once and invited him to live with her in her West Tenth Street mansion. Here Gordon met Margaret Rutherford, the matronly actress still best remembered as Madame Arcati, the medium in the 1945 film of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit.Rutherford had come hoping to be cast in the role of the grandmother in the proposed film of Me Papoose Sitter, but was immediately smitten by the person of Gordon himself. She described him as “a child … with large brown eyes inherited from some long dead Andalusian ancestor … a large green and red Amazon parrot named Marilyn on his shoulder.” When Isabel Whitney died of leukemia in 1962, Margaret Rutherford and her husband legally adopted Gordon. He was twenty-five.
Whitney left Gordon her house and $2 million estate. He used the proceeds to buy a faded 1840s pink stucco mansion in the gay neighborhood of Charleston, South Carolina. Gordon displayed impeccable interior design sense, filling the house with Chippendale and early American furniture and transforming the garden with designs sent over by Vita Sackville-West. He was regarded as a fixture in Charleston high society: an eligible, if undeniably camp, bachelor. He once threw a coming-out party for two of his dogs, where the pooches were displayed on velvet cushions, dressed in chenille, long gloves, and pearls.
Then, in 1968, it all changed. Gordon checked himself into the brand-new Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and underwent corrective genital surgery and a course of counseling. One of the psychiatric reports noted with a hint of foreboding that despite her high intelligence, as far as men were concerned, the newly female Dawn had “the mind of a fourteen-year-old girl.” So it was to prove. She returned to Charleston as Dawn Pepita Hall, sporting “a Dippity-Do hairstyle—a dowdy doppelganger of Jackie Kennedy” according to one neighbor—and within a very few months announced her engagement to a black motor mechanic, butler, and aspiring sculptor, John-Paul Simmons. “His black hand touched my white one; it was as simple as that,” she wrote in her autobiography.
Charleston was outraged. Bomb threats meant the ceremony had to take place in their front parlor, and Newsweek claimed the event had “shaken the Confederacy.” It certainly didn’t shock Margaret Rutherford. She told Time magazine, “I am delighted that Gordon has become a woman, and I am delighted that Dawn is to marry a man of another race, and I am delighted that Dawn is to marry a man of a lower station, but I understand the man is a Baptist!” She offered practical support, too, leaning on the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher (with the help of her friend Tony Benn), to organize a second, English, ceremony in Hastings.
In Charleston, things went from bad to worse. The crate containing the couple’s wedding presents, sent over from England, was deliberately set on fire in the street. The local police chief arrived personally to serve Simmons a ticket, claiming that the smoldering remains of the blaze (which his own men had swept into the street) were obstructing the highway. The couple’s dogs were poisoned; they were shot at on the street for walking hand in hand; there were rumors of a Mafia contract taken out on Dawn’s life. The birth of her daughter, Natasha, in 1972 was the final straw. Charleston denounced it as a stunt, but Margaret Rutherford was able to produce a Harley Street surgeon to confirm that Dawn Langley Simmons had a fully functioning womb. Shortly afterward, the baby was attacked by an intruder who proceeded to rape Dawn and left her with a broken nose and severely injured arm. The Simmonses decided enough was enough and moved to Catskill, New York.
By then, however, their marriage had turned sour. John-Paul was drinking heavily. She claimed he was also beating her and selling her possessions to buy whiskey. In 1974 he left her for another woman “who had shot and killed her first husband,” but soon afterward he was committed to a mental institution, suffering from schizophrenia. Dawn divorced him, but continued to look after him until her death in 2000.
In 1981, when Dawn was still living as Gordon in Hudson, New York, working as a teacher in a Catholic school, he/she was commissioned to write a biography of his/her adoptive mother, Margaret Rutherford. Her own autobiography, Dawn: A Charleston Legend, followed in 1995. Both were well received and widely reviewed. Dawn’s final years were spent back in Charleston with Natasha and her three granddaughters, to whom she was a proud and devoted granny. The city that had once tried to ruin her now happily accommodated her as a much loved, if slightly wacky, local celebrity.
After Dawn’s autobiography was published in 1995, Nigel Nicolson wrote a moving piece about her in the Spectator. “I have maligned her in the past, mocked her strange fate and refused to meet her,” he wrote. “She had asked me for help in arranging an English marriage, and when she called on me, I hid.” He had even refused to meet her when he visited Charleston. It was only when he saw her interviewed on television and saw pictures of his own mother on her wall that he relented. “For the first time, I was touched.” He added that, in spite of his unkind behavior toward her, “there is not a word of reproach for me in her book. Like everything else about Dinky, it is gallant, resilient and unfailingly generous.”
The unlikely and optimistic story of Dawn Langley Simmons concludes this catalog of men and women assailed by bizarre and unlooked-for misfortune.
As we have seen, such disaster may not bring self-knowledge (Santa Anna), victory (Stuyvesant), love (Florence Nightingale), longevity (Lambert), or happiness (Pessoa), but (the appalling Santa Anna apart) it always produced a change for the better, giving each of them an assured place in history.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung believed that difficulties were necessary for health. They offer potential for change, most particularly a change of attitude. The Stoics of ancient Athens based a whole school of philosophy on this idea, but it is the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (whose only misfortune was to have an even more brilliant and famous brother) who expressed it most succinctly:
I am more and more convinced that our happiness or unhappiness depends far more on the way we meet the events of life, than on the nature of those events themselves.