The diarist who made a literary classic from his life with MS

7 February 2017

Journalist David Bradford had never seriously contemplated what it’s like to have multiple sclerosis before he chanced upon a second-hand copy of The Journal of a Disappointed Man by WNP Barbellion in a bookshop five years ago. Since then he has dipped into the Journal more or less daily. "It’s become almost like a bible to me," he says. Here he explains just who Barbellion was, and why his writing is so powerful.

The real name of the diarist behind the The Journal of a Disappointed Man is Bruce Cummings. He was born on 7 September 1889, and kept a diary from age 13 until shortly before his death, aged 30, in October 1919. Cummings — or Barbellion as we ought to call him — grew up in Barnstaple, Devon, trained as an entomologist, eventually got a job at the Natural History Museum in London, and lived just long enough to see the publication of his Journal — to a mixed reception, but with HG Wells among his many plaudits — in March 1919.

But those are just facts. If Barbellion’s writing contains a message, it’s that life is so much more than the sum of its putative main events. He enchants the everyday of every day, delights in life’s minutiae, and makes a virtue of each minor defeat through humour and candid confession.

"Like a jellyfish on stilts..."

During the early years of his diary, writing as a youth, Barbellion records frequent bouts of illness: persistent infections, wheeziness, coughs and colds. The first sign of more serious health problems comes on Christmas Day 1909, when he is 20:

“Feeling ill — like a sloppy tadpole. My will is paralysed. I visit the doctor regularly to be stethoscoped, ramble about the streets, idly scan magazines in the library and occasionally drink — with palpitation of the heart as a consequence. In view of the shortness, bitterness, and uncertainty of life, all scientific labour for me seems futile.”

By 13 February 1911, he is feeling even flimsier. 

“Feel like a piece of drawn threadwork, or an undeveloped negative, or a jellyfish on stilts, or a sloppy tadpole, or a weevil in a nut, or a spitchcocked eel. In other words and in short—ill.”

Never reluctant to frame his circumstances in the direst terms, Barbellion overstates for comic or bathetic effect, always leaving a little room for interpretation — which seems to me quite honest. Do we ever know exactly how we feel when reacting to disappointment or shock? I recall being diagnosed with the degenerative eyesight condition retinitis pigmentosa (RP) in 2006 and feeling not so much upset as nonplussed. I had nothing to show for my bewilderment, unable as I was to fathom what the diagnosis would mean for my life. Without wanting to presume, I’d guess that being diagnosed with MS is for many, in that sense, a similar experience. 

Optimist and pessimist

Throughout the Journal, Barbellion is preoccupied with his own mortality, appearing to sense the fragility of his health. It is an awareness that wrenches him to and fro between wildly different perspectives. Some days, he’s ardently craving more life and a deeper understanding of the natural world; in his words, to be “revelling in the sensuous enjoyment of my animal existence”. On other days — as in the lugubrious quotes above — he’s resigned to the imminence of death as that which renders everything futile, bitter and pointless. And when he’s not cracking a joke or battling despair, he’s lacerating himself for his inconsistencies and egotism, or waxing stoical with sallies such as “it is useless to bewail the course of fortune”. Barbellion contains multitudes, is always at least double, always divided: both optimist and pessimist, both sentimentalist and cynic; simultaneously infatuated and disgusted with himself. Aren’t we all like this much of the time? But who among us has the courage to admit it?

Barbellion does not know he has MS until 27 November 1915, aged 26, when “under pressure of the authorities” he attends the army recruiting office “armed with a certificate from my doctor in a sealed envelope”. He is rejected as soon as the recruiting doctor stethoscopes his heart, without need of the certificate, which, on the way home, he rips from its envelope, and reads: “‘Some 18 months ago, Mr Barbellion shewed the just visible symptoms of [disseminated sclerosis]’... He went on to refer to my patellar and plantar reflexes, by which time I had had enough, tore the paper up and flung it out of the railway carriage window.”

Disseminated sclerosis was an earlier term for MS, which by the time of Barbellion’s diagnosis had been a recognised condition for around 50 years. Even so, it remained poorly understood and — unlike today — was regarded as a terminal disease with no effective treatments.

"On the whole I am amazed at the calm way in which I take this news..."

It seems topsy-turvy by today’s patient confidentiality rules, but the information had been communicated to Barbellion’s relatives while being withheld from the patient himself; the certificate instructed the recruiting officer to reject him “without stating on what grounds”. His immediate reaction is to go directly to his workplace library and consult a textbook to find out what disseminated sclerosis is, but he thinks better of it, and later the same day notes: “On the whole I am amazed at the calm way in which I take this news. I was a fool never to have suspected serious nerve trouble before.”

The following day, he resolves: “I have decided never to find out what it is. I shall find out in good time by the course of events. A few years ago, the news would have scared me. But not so now. It only interests me.”

His self-imposed ignorance is upended almost a year later, on 3 September 1916, when he stumbles upon the newly published  ‘The Histology of Disseminated Sclerosis’ by James W. Dawson in the scientific journal The Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh — a paper described in a 2012 review as “the greatest pathological account of multiple sclerosis in the English language”. Barbellion does not specify which aspects of this article disturb him, but records:

“I was browsing in the library at the time when this hit me like a carelessly handled gaff straight in the face. I almost ran away to my room.”

Finding another perspective

It is here that I am fascinated by the interplay between illness and insight, suffering and creativity. On the very same day he makes that shock discovery, he composes a wide-ranging, virtuoso passage on how, even if his health allowed, he’d be unwilling to go to war and kill fellow human beings; how conflicted he feels about continually writing about himself during such troubled times; and how the war trivialises and debases everyone’s hopes and ambitions.

“We scarcely anticipated that the War was going to discover for us our emotions so despicably small by comparison, or our hearts so riddled with selfish motives…. And how pathetically some of us cling still to fragments of the old regime that has already passed — like ship-wrecked mariners to floating wreckage, to the manner of the conservatoire amid the thunder of all Europe being broken up; to our newspaper gossip and parish teas, to our cherished aims — wealth, fame, success — in spite of all.” 

Could he — or would he — have written so excoriatingly, chiding himself as savagely as his compatriots, had he not received the jolt of unexpected knowledge (and thus foresight) about his condition? Feeling he has been brought low, almost reduced to nought, liberates him to lash out at not only his own fate and foibles but those of the whole world. 

Reading Dawson’s article clearly also influenced Barbellion’s beliefs about the nature of his illness. He would have read that MS may be caused by “toxin- or microorganism-induced primary degeneration of the myelin sheath.” It is now known that microorganisms — that is, bacteria — play no role in the breakdown of nerve cells, but in one of his most vivid and memorable passages, from 20 January 1917, Barbellion writes:

“Even as I sit and write, millions of bacteria are gnawing away my precious spinal cord, and if you put your ear to my back the sound of the gnawing I dare say could be heard.”

This is classic Barbellionian overstatement once again. Of course he doesn’t honestly believe the bacteria attacking his spine are so voracious they’re audible to human ears, but why hold back when science has provided the germ for such an arresting image? Barbellion won’t allow his illness, or other people’s expectations, to impose fusty terms upon him; he shows us that each knock-back is an opportunity to look closer, to think again, to find another perspective.      

With thanks to Simon Webster, Information Officer at the MS Trust, for kindly providing advice on the medical history of MS.