THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE ELEPHANT MAN by Michael & Peter Ford Howell

THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE ELEPHANT MAN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The strange saga--basis of the Broadway play--of one of the most deformed of all men and the Victorian society that first exploited, then succored him. Howell and Ford tell the story straight, with only an occasional dramatic flourish and without attempting to draw out a moral. (They do note that ""Like the relationship between Prospero and Caliban. . . the emphasis may seem to shift subtly in time, as new social parables are read in or drawn out."") The simple story itself is compelling. Joseph Merrick's great deformity was said to have come from his pregnant mother's being frightened by a runaway circus elephant. By his teens his rare skin disease had so deformed his body that he would have spent his life in the Leicester Union Workhouse had he not been picked up as a freak for a traveling exhibition. During the showing in London one Frederick Treves, a promising young surgeon, first saw the ""elephant man""; and it was to Treves that the elephant man turned after a nasty experience on the Continent. The surgeon arranged for Merrick to be cared for by London Hospital, and in an appeal for funds the hospital management stressed Merrick's high moral character. In Victorian society, as Howell and Ford note, ""To be utterly deserving of charity it was essential to be utterly virtuous."" Merrick, apparently, was, or nearly so. In any case, the highest of Victorian society responded: actress Madge Kendal and Princess Alexandra became friends of Merrick, visiting him in his hospital quarters and sending mementos and gifts. And many of the elephant man's dreams were granted: he saw a West End play from a private box, and spent a few days on a private estate communing with nature (and collecting violets). Howell and Ford marvel at such philanthropy, remarking ""It is chastening to reflect on how society's attempt at the management of the acutely deprived and disabled in our own day would compare. . . ."" Throughout, a strange and touching story.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1980
Publisher: Allison & Busby--dist. by Schocken