Friday, February 27, 2015

Too many cups of coffee proved fatal for Honoré de Balzac, 51

Honoré de Balzac loved a cup of coffee. In fact, it was said that he loved coffee so much that he drank some 50 cups a  day, and caffeine proved to be his undoing. 

Born May 20, 1799, Honoré was schooled with the Oratorian fathers before enrolling at the Sorbonne. The son of a social-climbing lawyer, who changed the family named from Balssa to the aristrocratic-sounding Balzac, Honoré was not to be outdone in upward mobility: he later added the “de” before Balzac in order to sound even more aristocratic.

Known for his novels La Comédie humaine, Eugénie Grandet, Le Père Goriot, and La Cousine Bette, Balzac started his career as a lawyer, and then was a businessman, with interests in slag processing, lumber mills, type foundries, and publishing. One ill-fated venture was the issuance of cheap editions of Molière’s plays, which did not sell and had to be discarded as waste paper.

During his various business ventures, he was also writing. His novels were often scandalous, dealing with such subjects as incest and immoral priests, and not surprisiingly incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church, although Balzac himself apparently remained a believer. He wrote in La Comédie humaine, “Christianity, and especially Catholicism, being a complete repression of man's depraved tendencies, is the greatest element in Social Order.”

Balzac’s work regimen was highly disciplined. As he described it: “I go to bed with the chickens at six or seven in the evening. I wake up at one o’clock in the morning, and work until eight. Then I go to sleep again for an hour and a half, when I have a little nourishment and a cup of black coffee, and go back into my harness until four in the afternoon. That’s when I take a bath, receive guests, and perhaps go out. Then after dinner I go to bed again. I’ll have to lead this life for some months, not to let myself be snowed under by my debts.”

Balzac explained his caffeine addiction in an essay called “The Pleasures and Pain of Coffee,” in which he confessed, “Coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale. It sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles. It accelerates the digestive processes, chases away sleep, and gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects.”

In 1832 Balzac received a letter about one of his novels from a woman in Russia and he began a fifteen-year correspondence with her. Ewelina Hanska was married to a wealthy Polish landower, and when he died Balzac wooed her, winning her hand over a formidable rival, the pianist and composer Franz Liszt.

Apparently his excessive coffee consumption was the cause of Balzac’s deteriorating health: frequent stomach cramps, headaches, nervous twitches, and hypertension. Shortly after his marriage, his wife wrote to her daughter of his “extreme weakness” and “profuse sweating.”  On the night of August 18, just five months after his wedding, Balzac became gravely ill.  His wife had gone to bed, but his mother was still with him when he died, of caffeine poisoning leading to heart failure, at the age of fifty-one.

The funeral was attended by virtually every noted writer in Paris. Pallbearers included Alexandre Dumas père and fils and Victor Hugo, who also delivered the eulogy. In his remarks he noted, “It is not the end, it is the beginning! It is not extinction, it is eternity! Is it not true, my listeners, such tombs as this demonstrate immortality? In the presence of the illustrious dead, we feel more distinctly the divine destiny of that intelligence which traverses the earth to suffer and to purify itself—which we call man.” Balzac was buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Essayist Charles Lamb, 59, dead of erysipelas after grazing his cheek

The poet and essayist Charles Lamb was taking a walk in London a few days before Christmas in 1834, when he tripped and fell, scraping his cheek slightly on the pavement. A few days later he was dead from that tiny scratch. Known nowadays mostly for his Essays of Elia, his Dissertation Upon Roast Pig, and the Tales from Shakespeare written with his deranged sister, Mary, Lamb was born on February 10, 1775, in London.

Both he and his sister suffered mental disorders, but Mary was homicidally psychopathic. In 1796 she murdered their mother. The Times of London gave this account: 
               It appeared by the evidence adduced, that while the  
         family were preparing for dinner, the young lady seized 
         a case-knife laying [sic] on the  table, and in a menacing 
         manner pursued a little girl, her apprentice,              
         round the room. On the calls of her infirm mother to 
         forbear, she renounced her first object, and with loud 
         shrieks approached her parent. The child, by her cries, 
         quickly brought up the landlord of the house, but              
         too late. The dreadful scene presented to him the 
         mother lifeless, pierced to the heart, on a chair, her 
         daughter yet wildly standing over her with the              
         fatal knife, and the old man her father weeping by her 
         side, himself bleeding at the forehead from the effects of 
         a severe blow he received from one of the forks she had 
         been madly hurling about the room. 

Charles arrived on the scene too late to stop her and could only snatch the knife from her hand to prevent more mayhem. He devoted the rest of his life to caring for Mary, who was eleven years older and outlived him by thirteen years.

Lamb’s essays were written under the pen name Elia, the name of a co-worker at South Sea House, the trading company that was the subject of one of the first essays. In two volumes, the essays are elegant, whimsical observations on scenes from his childhood and later life. When the South Sea House went out of business, Lamb took a job as a clerk at the East India Company, where he remained for twenty-five years. The Shakespeare tales, co-authored with Mary during her lucid periods, are simplified re-tellings of Shakespeare’s plays for children.

One of those people known as “spiritual but not religious,” Lamb had a distaste for organized Christian denominations but regarded the New Testament as the “best guide” for one’s life. At times he seemed drawn to Unitarianism. His good friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge was of the opinion that Lamb’s “faith in Jesus had been preserved” even in the light of his sister’s ghastly violence, and William Wordsworth also regarded Lamb as a faithful Christian. He wrote of him in a long poem after his death: “O, he was good, if e’er a good Man lived!”

Shortly after Lamb tripped and fell during his walk, he developed erysipelas, a streptococcal infection of the skin and soft tissue sometimes known as St. Anthony’s fire. It is accompanied by fever, chills, and malaise, and it can be fatal if it causes bacteremia or septic shock, which infect the blood system. This is evidently what happened to Lamb, and after four days of illness, he died on December 27, 1834, in the home on Church Street, Edmonton, in north London, that he shared with Mary. He was fifty-nine.

He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints Church in Edmonton, where Mary joined him in 1847.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Montaigne, 59, Victim of Rare Quinsy Infection While At Mass

“The first modern man,” Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, is remembered for inventing a new literary form in his Essais—a word that means “attempts” and that consisted of his cogent observations on religion, love, friendship, death, and his own psyche. “Modern” in the sense that he elevated the individual human being to a position of pre-eminence in the scheme of things, he said when his first book of essays was published, “I am myself the matter of my book.”


Montaigne  was born February 28, 1533, to a family of minor nobility and major wealth at the Chateau de Montaigne near Bordeaux, France, of which his father was mayor. He was tutored at home, and in the aristocratic manner spoke only Latin until he was six. Every morning he was awakened by a musician playing a zither or lute.  He continued his education at the College of Guyenne and the University of Toulouse, where he studied law.  Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a member of the Bordeaux local assembly.

A turning point in his life was meeting Étienne de la Boétie, a judge and writer of political philosophy, who became Montaigne’s closest friend and mentor. La Boétie died of dysentery at the age of thirty-three, and Montaigne supervised the posthumous publication of his works.

In 1565 Montaigne married Françoise de la Chassaigne, daughter of a colleague in a wedding pre-arranged by his family. They had six daughters, only one of whom survived to adulthood.

In 1571, Montaigne retired from public life and devoted himself to writing his Essais. He set up a retreat in a round room in the family castle, lined with thousands of books, where he worked in seclusion for most of every day. The first two books of his Essais were published in 1580. They reflected Montaigne’s skepticism of absolute truths in matters of religion, philosophy, and politics. He is famous for posing the rhetorical question Que sais-je? (“What do I know?”)

Despite his skepticism, Montaigne remained a loyal Roman Catholic who said daily prayers and was an important moderating influence in the hostilities between Catholic and Protestant factions in France. He served as mayor of Bordeaux and continued his writing with a third book of Essais published in 1587.

In his youth Montaigne was terrified of death; not only had his friend La Boétie died at an early age, Montaigne’s father succumbed to kidney stones shortly afterward, and his younger brother had a fatal hemorrhage after being hit in the head by a tennis ball. "With such frequent everyday examples passing before our eyes," he wrote, "how could we possibly avoid thinking of death and of how it constantly grips us by the throat?"

He got over that fear in an out-of-body near-death experience in his thirties. He was thrown off his horse and knocked unconscious in a collision with another rider. As his friends rushed to help him, he began to cough up blood and clutch at his chest. His own recollection, however, was that he was floating on a cloud of pleasure.  He concluded from this experience that death was a natural occurrence and worrying about it was a waste of time.

Montaigne had much to say about death in his Essais. In “To Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die,” he wrote: “Of the many benefits that virtue confers upon us, contempt for death is one of the greatest, as the means by which human life acquires a gentle tranquility, and a pleasant taste for living, without which no other pleasure would exist. The end of mankind is death; it is a necessary goal. The ignorant do not think about it—but one must take the bull by the horns and face it squarely. We can fight death by disarming him of his strangeness if we are familiar with him and think about him often. That will encourage and strengthen us, even as we remember in the midst of our jollity and feasting, that we are frail beings.”

In 1578 Montaigne had an attack of kidney stones, which continued to plague him for the rest of his life.  He disdained the advice of local physicians and sought cures during travels to Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. It wasn’t the stones, however, but an attack of quinsy that caused his death on September 23, 1592.

Quinsy, also known as peritonsillar abscess, is a rare bacterial infection, resulting in a concentration of pus between the tonsils and the throat wall. It is accompanied by fever, sore throat, neck pain, swollen lymph nodes, paralysis of the tongue, and eventually an inability to swallow or even to open the mouth. Afflicted with these symptoms and sensing that death was near, Montaigne summoned several friends and a priest, whom he asked to say mass. Montaigne tried to raise himself up during the elevation of the consecrated host, and he died immediately afterward. He was fifty-nine.

Montaigne was buried on his estate, but after some months the remains were moved to a church in Bordeaux. During the French Revolution, what was thought to be his coffin was moved with much fanfare to a museum—but it was later discovered it was the wrong coffin. Today, the Bordeaux Tourist Office says that Montaigne is buried at the Musée Aquitaine in Bordeaux, but others sources say that tomb is a cenotaph that does not contain the body, which is at the church of Foeuillens in Bordeaux. It is also claimed by some that Montaigne’s heart is separately interred in the parish church near his home in the town of Saint-Michele-de-Montaigne.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Jaundice, dropsy, gout, and asthma deadly for Henry Fielding, 47, in Lisbon

Henry Fielding led a harum-scarum life—as a country squire, theatre manager, playwright, lawyer, journalist, judge, tippler, and womanizer—before writing the comic masterpiece Tom Jones and then meeting his untimely death at the age of only forty-seven. Born April 22, 1707, to a lieutenant general and a judge’s daughter, he was placed in the custody of his maternal grandmother after his mother died when he was ten and his father landed in debtors’ prison. Schooled at Eton, he tried unsuccessfully when he was seventeen to elope with his cousin, then went to London and lived as writer and man-about-town. He wrote some unsuccessful comedies and at age twenty-one went to the University of Leyden in Holland, where tuition was cheaper than in England.

In 1734 he married Charlotte Craddock, who brought to the marriage a dowry of £1,500—the equivalent of £200,000-300,000 today. They retired to an estate in Dorset to live as country gentry and had a daughter named Amelia. In just over a year, Fielding’s spendthrift habits reduced them to poverty, and they moved to London, where Fielding sought to make a living as manager and occasional playwright at The Little Theatre and at The New Theatre. He enjoyed considerable success—one of his plays, Tom Thumb, reputedly made Jonathan Swift laugh for second time in his life. But Fielding’s political satires ran afoul of the law, and he was banned from writing for the stage.

By this time the Fieldings had two daughters and needed income, so Henry began to study law and also to write for various newspapers. In 1739 he became editor of The Champion, a political journal, and in 1740 obtained his law license. He also began to write novels, turning out Joseph Andrews in 1742 and Jonathan Wild in 1743. His elder daughter’s illness and death disheartened him, and in 1744 the death of his wife left him despondent and contributed to his failing health, which had been deteriorating for several years with frequent attacks of debilitating gout and asthma. He was greatly consoled by his wife’s sympathetic maid, Mary Daniel, whom he married in 1747 when she was six months pregnant.

Meanwhile, Fielding had become a criminal-court magistrate in London and also continued to write fiction, publishing the highly praised Tom Jones in 1749. In addition, he was instrumental in organizing the first London detective force, which evolved into Scotland Yard. Having also developed dropsy—a swelling of his abdomen that is symptomatic of congestive heart failure—Fielding was reduced to using crutches.

He resigned his judgeship in 1752 and in 1754 determined to move to Lisbon, in the hope that the warmer Portuguese climate would be beneficial. His dropsy was so severe that just before sailing, as he reports in his posthumously published Journal of Voyage to Lisbon, he called a doctor to the ship to drain his abdominal cavity of ten quarts of fluid. He and his wife reached Lisbon, but en route he had contracted jaundice, and he died there two months later, on October 8, 1754, at age forty-seven. He was buried in Lisbon’s British Cemetery.