Category Archives: urbanity

The specialists who aspire to heartless elegance

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 08.02.04A light little well-bred laugh

Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud (1950) ought, writes Dalrymple,

to be given to every medical student to read.

Dalrymple draws attention to this passage in the (unfinished, posthumously published) novel:

One day a specialist was in the ward, examining a patient, when the patient fell down in front of him in a fit. The patient was a fat middle-aged man; he shrieked and trembled and rolled on the floor, as if he were wallowing in mud. It was a terrifying and grotesque sight, but the specialist watched it with a smile on his face. He neither raised the patient up nor prevented him from cutting his head on the corner of the bedside locker.

Denton Welch

Denton Welch

When at last the convulsions had subsided and the patient, with blood on his face, looked up bewildered, the specialist’s smile grew even more Buddhistic and bland and he said in a fluting voice, so that other people should hear, ‘Well, I must say there’s one improvement this week — you’re falling so much more gracefully!’

He gave a light little well-bred laugh, which at once raised up in my mind a picture of some woman with enormous bust measurement, swathed in strainingly tight red velvet. He seemed delighted with his own urbane, unsentimental wit, and I felt that at that moment he would have used the words heartless elegance about himself. He seemed really to be living for a moment in his own conception of an 18th-century French marquise in her brilliant salon.

I suddenly began to hate the specialist for his clownish show of vanity and facetiousness. I hated him so much that my face began to burn. I felt insulted and outraged; I wanted to have the specialist publicly beaten in front of all the staring patients. I imagined his black pin-striped trousers being taken down, and his squeals of shame and pain ringing through the ward.

Welch, Dalrymple explains, also describes in the novel

the petty cruelties and humiliations visited upon him by the nurses.

Welch suffered chronic, painful illness caused by a road accident in which his spine was fractured. Dalrymple writes that he

was 33 when he died. He suffered from Pott’s disease of the spine as well as the injury. His heroic efforts to remain productive make one ashamed — at least temporarily, while one recalls them — to carp about trivial inconveniences.