booksforfood (booksforfood) wrote in bookish,

Book 7: The True History of the Elephant Man - Michael Howell and Peter Ford

7. The True History of the Elephant Man - Michael Howell and Peter Ford - 213 pages (5 stars)

Joseph Merrick's life was terrible. It seems that modern day people disparage the Victorian era for not understanding his condition and gawking at him. While it's true that he was in the freakshows because he had no other choice, I would argue that the Victorians treated him far better than they could have, and that today, even with our superior knowledge of medicine, we would gawp no less. His life was wretched, but it could have been far worse were it not for the kindness of others.

Joseph Merrick was born in Victorian England perfectly normal, but as he grew his deformities grew more apparent and more severe. He was driven from his home by a shrewish stepmother, driven from his uncle's home by a shrewish aunt, and then forced to barely survive in a workhouse. He could have chosen to languish in the workhouse, but he chose instead of join the circus and become an attraction in the freakshow. While having people flinch in horror at the sight of him must have been awful mentally, psychically and financially he was far more secure.

Unfortunately, while travelling around mainland Europe, his manager stole his not inconsiderable savings and he was left to limp home to England, where he threw himself upon the mercy of a doctor who had examined him earlier, a Dr. Frederick Treves. And after this, after suffering so much pain, he was able to live the rest of his life in relative comfort thanks to the charity of the Victorian elite.

He had a room in the hospital, the best care he could be given, and he was in time visited by various members of the nobility and even the royalty. For Joseph Merrick by all accounts was as lovely on the inside as he was hideous on the outside. He read, he assembled models of buildings with his one good hand, and he dreamed. It's such a shame that he had to suffer such physical deformities during his life.

This book is well-researched and it is apparent that the authors had respect for both Merrick and Treves. The appendixes at the end are also very fascinating, with a brief autobiography by Merrick himself and an account of Merrick written by Treves. The Elephant Man is an uplifting story about the human spirit and humans will always  find the story of Joseph Merrick heartbreaking and inspiring.

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