The Empty Room

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of around 50 or 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting one each Wednesday to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Some writers are better known abroad than in their own countries: among them is Charles Morgan (1894 – 1958), the British novelist who has long been more highly appreciated in France than in Britain. Perhaps this is because he is a novelist of ideas, and the British do not really like ideas; he is also accused by certain critics, from whom I would not entirely demur, of more than occasional descent into flatulent portentousness. He is also that rara avis, a writer who not only had no sense of humour, but was positively opposed to humour.

In 1941 he published a short novel called The Empty Room. It was set in the war, at a time when its outcome could not have been known. The book opens as follows:

On the last Saturday in November, the third month of the war, Richard Cannock performed, on a woman’s eye, a bold and subtle operation that gave him the satisfaction a writer may have in a flawless paragraph.

One suspects that this was a pleasure to which Morgan himself was more than usually susceptible. The above is Maugham without the irony or easy elegance.

The operation over, Cannock takes himself to the Garrick Club for lunch, where ‘the wine steward brought his pint of claret.’ Pint of claret at lunch! It is just as well, perhaps, that Cannock tells a younger surgeon, also lunching at the Garrick, that the operation he performed that morning was probably his last for a long time – thanks to the war, not to drunkenness or the alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Cannock appears from his character to be an oldish man, and one learns with surprise that he is only forty-four. He is deputed to a research establishment where he helps to develop better bomb-sights. While at this establishment he stays at the house of a friend of his, whose wife, Venetia, deserted him early in their marriage while he was a prisoner-of-war in Germany during the First War. More than twenty years later she returns to him, he having told the only daughter of the marriage that her mother was dead.

Alas, she is not the woman she was, but ill:

While she was in London, she had faced her illness alone; for many days it would leave her free, then there would be a pain in her foot and in the upper part of her nose; it would spread across her left brow, and grip her head, and at the same time her strength, even her will would go from her…

I confess that I thought of a patient whose pain started in her foot and finished in her hair, where it was at its worst. It was far from comic, for she ended up one day by throwing herself, fatally, from the roof.

Venetia, too, kills herself, with the ‘eleven and a half grains of morphia that a young doctor, whose name she did not know, had given her as payment in kind.’ Her intermittent illness, then, was probably a tabetic crisis, and it always left her weak and exhausted.

In the matter of Charles Morgan I think the British rather than the French are right. But even in Britain he had his enthusiasts. My copy of his book was given to its first owner, according to the inscription, in January 1942. In the back, in pencil, is the following:

Re-read Feb. 1977
Re-re-read May 1984

Of how many books is such the fate?

One thought on “The Empty Room

  1. Pingback: Diagnosed with flatulent portentousness | A dose of Theodore Dalrymple

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