It was 1937; and there was trouble on the horizon.  They recognized each other at a funeral. There was a spark.  Then they found they were sitting next to each other at the Cushing’s dinner party.  He was Dr Edward Haggard, house surgeon at St Basil’s and a bit of a loner; she, Fanny Vaughan, a delicate dark beauty; older, more sophisticated than he and married to the Senior Pathologist.  They conversed easily.  She made him feel confident and clever.  She laughed a lot. She insisted they talk about pleasure, not medicine.  Wickedly, she asked him if surgeons made good lovers.  Amazed at his temerity, he replied ‘try me’.  

She did. Their affair started a few weeks after. It was she who made the running and set the limits. They would meet, make love in his room, and then part without agreeing further assignations.  He would be in an agony of anxiety until she reappeared.  But slowly, a pattern emerged.  She bought stuff for his room; rugs, lamps, bed cover, flowers unguents, transforming it from a monastic cell to a boudoir.  Then she got careless.  On a whim, she came to meet him in the hospital.  They made love on a bench in the hospital lobby.  She was spotted and word got back to her husband.

When next Edward met the senior pathologist, they argued.  Dr Vaughan hit him and he fell down the stairs, breaking the neck of his right femur.  It was a double blow.  Fanny broke off their relationship and refused to see him again. 

Edward’s recovery was slow.  It was as if the pain of his grief was transferred to the pin in his hip.  Whenever he thought of her, it attacked him.  He became addicted to morphia. 

He was sacked from St Basil’s and left to take over a remote single handed general practice on the south coast.  He thought of Fanny constantly and was determined to keep their relationship alive n his mind. At times, her presence was so strong, he could smell her perfume, hear her voice, feel her softness of her skin. He even took to wearing her fur coat.

Then James, Fanny’s son, came to visit him, a slim delicate dark haired boy, much like the mother. He was stationed at the nearly RAF base. They became friends. He learnt that Fanny had died of nephritis, but he felt he had regained her through the son.  One day, while treating James for a shrapnel wound, he noticed that James did not only have his mother’s soft skin, he had ambiguous genitalia and some breast development. It was like he was transforming into her. James was killed when his Spitfire crash landed.  Edward cradled his head in his arms, kissed her for the last time. 

As in his other novels, Spider and Asylum, Patrick McGrath has written a dark gothic suspense on a background theme of mental illness. What was Dr Haggard’s illness?  He had fallen in love with Fanny, and whereas she was much more realistic and in control,  he had imbued her with all the virtues and attributes.  He made up stories.  She was the victim bride of a bully. He had to rescue her. She would run away with him. She was the  missing half that would make him whole. But for Fanny, it was an affair, a thrill, a bit of excitement in an otherwise dull life. It had a beginning, a climax and an end.

The ending was cruel, she was ruthless.  He was devastated. But even after she rejected him, Edward still continued to worship her idea. He suffered agonies in his hip from his broken heart but he would not, could not, let go. Without her, there was no meaning in life. 

Meeting her son restored the connection, but that was when reality and fantasy entwined.  The body was transforming into hers’.  He became his angel, a high flyer, who would die consumed by fire. His love had been returned to him.  And Edward was transforming too into a small figure in a black fur.  He was merging with her.

So as the story limped its painful path to a catastrophic conclusion, we realize that Edward is not only deluded but hallucinating.  With penetrating insight and consummate skill, McGrath has once again demonstrated the power of infatuation to instigate the decline of a lonely personality into obsessive psychosis.

Edward Haggard was always at risk.  He was intensely solitary, much preoccupied with metaphysics and passionately fond of poetry.  His father was a rector and Edward ‘had all the makings of a certain type of priest’.  It was predictable that he would imbue their affair with so much more meaning than she. He would create a phantasy (Melanie Klein’s spelling) out of it and would continue to inhabit that phantasy even though the reality had long gone.  His disease was an excess of meaning, a toxic imagination.  What started as the sort of identification that all lovers experience, descended by degrees to fixation, obsession, delusion and hallucination.  There is a point in the story when we realize that things are not right,  perhaps the embodiment of Fanny in James.  After that we begin to question the whole fabric of the story.  How much of it was delusion and when did it take hold?  There was probably an affair – some crisis had to propel Edward out of Earth’s orbit – but did he ever meet James, did James ever exist, did Fanny become frightened by his obsession with her and was Ratcliffe really the boorish bully he described? 

The passionate phantasy of love cannot last.  It has to be transformed into the fond reality of everyday life or shatter and be rationalized as a mistake.  Edward could do neither.  He preserved his meaning, fed it, allowed it to grow until it took over his whole personality, disconnecting him from the conventions of society and ultimately defining him as mad.  In selfishly seeking out the sensitive man who would provide some meaning to her life,  Fanny never considered the possible consequences.

 

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