Little Red Man My minister father composed sermons. My uncle praised their “taste and elegance”: a word man long before me. Son of a Geneva clockmaker, mon pere, Jean Roget – “little red man,” from the French rouge – immigrated to London at 24 to become pastor at Le Quarré, the French Protestant church in Soho. Papa preached in the little Huguenot church on Little Dean Street, a few blocks north of St. James’s, the colossus near Piccadilly Circus, Christopher Wren’s largest church – where I was christened in 1779. Papa’d married Catherine Romilly a year before, in St. Marleybone Church, welcomed into their family without reservation. My uncle, Samuel, rhapsodized about our happiness, “as complete as is ever the portion of human beings,” but only months after my birth, Papa was “seized with an inflammation of the lungs,” as my uncle described it, “attended with a violent spitting of blood.” Papa and Mama left for Switzerland, hoping a rest cure might save him, leaving me with my grandparents in London. I wouldn’t see my parents for two years, when Uncle Samuel took me to Switzerland. Papa’d resigned from Le Quarré, knowing he’d never return to England. He died in the spring of 1783, soon after my sister Annette’s birth. I’d just turned four that January. ** Roget at the Pneumatic Institute, 1800 Coleridge couldn’t get enough of it – a kid in a candy store: “The first time I felt a pleasurable sensation of warmth all over my whole frame,” he confessed, “the fourth time more unmingled pleasure than I had ever before experienced.” Humphry Davy loved nitrous oxide, too; it gave him a sensation bordering on ecstasy, he claimed. Robert Southey, the poet, wrote in praise of the potential benefits of pneumatic medicines. But Peter Roget? He agreed to take it because he was working for Davy at Bristol’s Pneumatic Institute, Thomas Beddoes’ baby; Beddoes had written a book on the treatment of Pulmonary Consumption. They’d hoped to use nitrous oxide for their tubercular patients. The disease had taken Peter’s father Jean, when he was still a child, so he’d been eager to help. But Peter didn’t enjoy it; he felt queasy, lost control of his rational faculties. Sucking down several quarts of the gas, he just felt dizzy, the room spinning. The Institute closed after a couple of years. Nitrous had some fleeting effects on the healthy volunteers, but it did nothing for the patients with tuberculosis. In the end, it would be the mid-century anesthesiologists who’d discover nitrous oxide’s value for numbing pain during surgical procedures. ** The Anatomy Museum I’d just turned twenty-seven when I began my lecture series on physiology for the university students in Manchester, where I’d already been seeing patients at the Infirmary for over a year. The lectures took place at the anatomy museum Dr. White, the founder of the Manchester Infirmary, maintained in his house on King Street where my modest apartment was, too. What an eminence, Charles White! He’d saved so many new mothers dying from puerperal fever by developing measures for sanitizing maternity wards. Skeletons and “specimens” festooned the room like odd decorations, including a jar labeled “African Penis: Multo Firmior et Durior.” But the freakiest exhibit in White’s museum? The grandfather clock at the back. A wealthy female patient left him 25,000 pounds in her will, with a single stipulation: once a year he had to view her embalmed body. White stuffed the mummy inside the clock, and yes, once a year, accompanied by colleagues, he peeked inside. Nervous, averting my eyes from the clock, I began my first lecture. “The study of anatomy and physiology is highly interesting….” (Absorbing, engrossing, fascinating, riveting, gripping, compelling, engaging, though-provoking…) ** Chess A polymath – or nerd, the term coined a century and half later – Roget researched articles for Encyclopedia Britannica, perfected the slide rule to calculate roots and powers of numbers – no mere abacus, the forerunner of the calculator that rendered it obsolete in the 1970’s, more than a hundred years after he died. Is it any surprise he loved chess, too? For Roget, chess wasn’t simply a pastime, a game, but something like an academic discipline. He’d even publish a paper titled, “Description of Moving the Knight over Every Square of a Chess-Board Without Going Twice over Any One.” He even invented a pocket chess set, the Economic Chess-Board, one of the first, marketed in 1846 by De La Rue. Wonk, geek, trainspotter, obsessive. ** Manchester United My aunt and uncle rescued me from Manchester. Not that it was that bad – filthy, true, the industrial waste of “Cottonopolis” overwhelming – smoke and ashes from the factory chimneys blanketing the city in soot, the dyehouses turning the Mersey and Irwell black, Watts’ steam engines polluting the air. But my colleague Dr. John Ferriar and I worked to put Manchester on the map, a center for the upcoming field of public health. We treated the sick; we saved lives. Still, four years after I got there, Uncle Samuel’s dear wife Anne wrote me, “Your uncle and I have frequently been lamenting that your time and talent should be so thrown away in Manchester.” London snobs? Well, they had a point. I’d come to Manchester for the opportunity to be a senior physician in the city’s infirmary, and I had made a difference, hadn’t I? But now? Now maybe it was time to become a Bloomsbury doctor! ** The Suicide I was his physician as well as his nephew. Known as “the honestest man in the House of Commons,” Uncle Samuel was loved by the whole nation. It seemed his death was all my fault. Aunt Anne had died from cancer just three days earlier, at Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight, after suffering for weeks, her pain and distress a blow to her husband; dying so young, only forty-four. Insomniac, Uncle Samuel feared he was going mad, insanity running in the family. I took it upon myself to break the news when Anne finally died. He quickly became unhinged, his whole body twitching uncontrollably, the spasms like waves under his skin and over his body. He moaned that “his brains were burning hot.” But even though he expressed a desire to recuperate in the country, I insisted he return to Russell Square. Sitting in the same chaise with his daughter Sophia, Uncle Samuel tore at his flesh, drawing blood. Why didn’t I see the signs? I was his doctor! I should have been more attentive! My medical practice was flourishing, thanks to my uncle. I’d been elected as a fellow at the Royal Society. Still a bachelor, closing in on forty, I also lived in Bloomsbury, just two blocks away. Amidst all those reminders of his dear wife, Uncle Samuel asked to be left alone in his room. Downstairs, we heard a crash. I ran up to his bedroom, pried open the door. Uncle Samuel, only wearing a shirt, staggered next to the washstand, blood everywhere. He’d slit his throat with a razor. Gesturing for pen and paper, he scribbled a couple of words before dropping to the floor, dead. “My dear … I wish …” He’d started a letter to his dear wife Anne. I had to accept the fact, then, that I was a failure as a physician; clinical practice was not for me. I would devote myself to research, to writing. ** Don Samuel That cur Byron, enraged as a rabid dog. snarled and fumed when Uncle Samuel helped his wife, Annabella, the mathematician, secure her separation from the depraved brute, in 1816. They’d separated only two years after the marriage. Annabella’d discovered her husband’s affair with Susan Boyce, the Drury Lane Theater actress where he was a director, feared he was going mad, suspected incest with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Not long after their daughter Ada’s birth, Annabella travelled to her parents’ home in Leicestershire, never saw her husband again. (Their daughter, Ada, likewise a mathematician, worked with Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage, all the great mathematical minds of the day. Ada wrote the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine.) Only a year after Uncle Samuel’s death, the manky maggot published his spiteful verses in the first canto of his satirical epic poem Don Juan: “Like the lamented late Sir Samuel Romilly … Whose suicide was almost an anomaly… (The jury brought their verdict in ‘Insanity’).” Such gratuitous nastiness. I certainly didn’t shed a tear when the bloody bastard died in Greece five years later. I’d just met Mary Hobson that year, the loveliest creature in England, sixteen years my junior, soon the mother of our son and daughter. I couldn’t have been happier. ** Roget’s Strumpet In her diary for February 19, 1956, seven years and a week before her suicide, head in the oven at the age of 30, Sylvia Plath wrote, “Today my thesaurus, which I would rather live with on a desert isle than a bible, as I have so often boasted, lay open after I’d written the draft of a bad, sick poem, at 545: Deception, 546: Untruth, 547: Dupe, 548: Deceiver.” A week later, Plath would write about her first kiss with Ted Hughes – “that big, dark, hunky boy” – whom she would marry that June, confessing, “I already have a lover,” calling herself, “Roget’s strumpet.” Flirt, coquette, whore, trollop, wench, hussy, slut, nymphomaniac: unchaste woman, easy lay.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives with his wife Abby. He contributes a monthly book review to North of Oxford and is a frequent reviewer for The Lake, London Grip, Misfit Magazine and The Compulsive Reader. A poetry chapbook, Mortal Coil, was published in 2021 by Clare Songbirds Publishing and another, Sparring Partners, by Moonstone Press. A full-length collection, The Field of Happiness, will be published in 2022 by Kelsay Books.
This is his third publication on The Fictional Café. You can view his first two here.