E.S. Thomson knows the pain of fleshing out a character

[Guest post by Magnus Linklater, previously published in The Times]

The heroine of Elaine Thomson’s crime novel 'Beloved Poison' has a strawberry mark on her face. It is as nothing to the afflictions of the author herself. While she was writing, eczema covered her face and body. Her hair fell out and she had to wear a wig. The drugs she took to counteract the disease turned her skin red and it began to flake off. If ever a writer felt at one with her character, it was Elaine Thomson.
"It was unmeasurably horrible," she admits, as she sits in her Edinburgh flat, thinking back to the two years she spent writing her book, which is set in Victorian London. "It was the pain as much as the sight of it. It was on my face that it was particularly awful, because that is what people look at when they want to speak to you, and when they did so, they would slightly recoil. They wouldn’t realise they were doing it, but I could see when they were looking at my face they were seeing the thing on it, not the person."

She understands the isolation that people with some sort of facial blemish feel. They are looked at, but rarely seen, she says.

"You ask anyone with a disfigurement to their face, and they feel quite lonely and isolated, so I gave [my heroine] all those things. I thought it would add a bit of depth to the character."

Today Elaine Thomson is clear of her eczema. A lifelong sufferer, she realised that the steroid creams she had been using to treat it had become part of the problem. “After a while you become addicted to them,” she said. "If you’re not careful, the rash gets worse and worse, and when you give up the steroid creams your whole skin melts off. It’s called red skin syndrome and not a lot of people know about it. It’s hideous and debilitating and people feel very depressed, almost suicidal, because of the pain and the ugliness."

The cure, she realised, was to give up the steroids and let the body cure itself, which it did.

Meanwhile, she has ploughed her experiences into a book suffused with grim details about the primitive way that medicine was administered in Victorian hospitals, before anaesthetics such as chloroform or modern ideas about hygiene.

"I was a little bit against doctors I have to say, so filling the book with evil doctors who don’t listen to what you say was on my mind a little bit," she joked.

It was not the only battle she has had to fight. Two previous books, 'Bleakly Hall' and 'A Proper Education for Girls', were published under her married name of Elaine di Rollo. Though widely praised these books failed to sell in sufficient quantities and, in her own words, she 'fell off the radar'. Publishers took one look at her previous sales, and turned her down. She decided to turn to crime fiction. She wrote 'Beloved Poison' as Elaine di Rollo, but when it, too, was rejected she changed to her maiden name, Thomson, and immediately found three publishers who were keen to take it. She now writes under the name E.S. Thomson, and has a four-book contract, all crime novels set in the 19th century.

With a PhD in the social history of medicine from Edinburgh University, E.S. Thomson has studied the role of women doctors in medicine as they struggled to be accepted. But it was the 1850s that intrigued her.

"If you move back a bit, just before anaesthetics, just before chloroform, before the telegraph, and with the railways only just starting, it’s like a different world," she says. "I felt I could describe the indescribable, they were such terrible times, before you got slum clearance, sewage works or public health. Places like Glasgow, London and Manchester were on the very brink of survival, almost falling into their own mess."

'Beloved Poison)' is set in a crumbling infirmary, with stinking wards and cramped corridors, where doctors do amputations without anaesthetics and a "blood box” is kicked around to catch the patient’s blood as it pours off the operating table. “I was fairly graphic about it because I do feel that as a historian you should know about that. It should not be prettified in a Hollywood sort of way."

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