'The Falling Sickness' in Literature

Jeffrey M. Jones, MD, Neurology of Battle Creek, Battle Creek, Mich.

South Med J. 2000;93(12) 

In This Article

Bleak House

Charles Dickens is considered by many to be the greatest British novelist of all time. He described many medical conditions, including the Pickwickian syndrome, neuropsychiatric conditions, dystonias, and sleep disorders, as well as epilepsy. Although Dickens reportedly had seizures in childhood,[10] he outgrew them, and there is no convincing evidence they influenced his work.

Dickens realistically described seizures in three of his main characters: Monks, alias Edward Leeford, Oliver Twist's villainous half-brother; Charley Hexam's headmaster in Our Mutual Friend; and Guster, a maidservant in Bleak House.[11] In 1994, Cosnett[12] outlined these descriptions and alluded to the many other lesser characters who had seizures. The descriptions of epilepsy in Bleak House are particularly insightful.

Bleak House is a long book, more than 800 pages, but probably one of Dickens' best works. In the book, Guster is a maidservant to the Snagsby family, and Dickens brings out several features that often affect people with epilepsy. One feature involves the social consequences of epilepsy. Dickens describes Guster as so worried about being sent back to the workhouse that she is always working. If she has an episode, she can hide it by being busy. Then too, Dickens describes status epilepticus. Dickens reports that the Snagsby household had "anything but a night of rest" because Guster would go into one "fit" after another of unusual duration. In addition, Dickens describes some of Guster's episodes being provoked by fear. At times, Guster even appears to have some control over the seizures.

The picture of epilepsy that Dickens describes in Bleak House is different from that of "being possessed"; it is a more modern view of someone being affected by a condition.

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