Education And Debate

Illnesses and creativity: Byron's appetites, James Joyce's gut, and Melba's meals and mésalliances

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 20 December 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1697
  1. JH Baron, honorary professorial lecturera
  1. a Gastroenterology Division, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Box 1069, New York, NY 10029-6574, USA
  1. Correspondence to: Dr J H Baron Surgical Division, Imperial College School of Medicine, Hammersmith Hospital, London W12 0NN


Even for amateurs the retrospective rediagnosis of the famous is one of the lowest forms of medical history, but I hope this three course dinner with its appetiser (Byron), main course (Joyce), and dessert (Melba) will prove worthy of Christmas 1997.

Byron's appetites

George Gordon Byron1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 was born in 1788 and was unfortunate in his ancestors. On his father's side were psychopathic noblemen. His great uncle, the 5th “wicked” lord, killed his cousin in 1765 in a duel over the best way to hang game, and after his wife left him begat a bastard by one of his servants, “Lady Betty.” 5 Byron's admiral grandfather, “Foulweather Jack”, was an irresponsible rake, as was his father, “Mad Jack”, who degraded, impoverished and deserted Byron's mother, had an incestuous affair with his own sister Frances,7 and died in 1792. Catherine Gordon, Byron's mother, boasted descent from James I of Scotland, but her ancestors were brigands and melancholics, with her grandfather in 1760 and her father in 1779 both drowning, presumed to be suicidal.

Byron's widowed mother abused him for his father's vices. Byron claimed his nursemaid beat and seduced him.9 In 1798 the 5th lord died, and at the age of 10 Byron inherited the title and moved with his mother from Aberdeen to Newstead Abbey, given to the family by Henry VIII. He lived there on and off until he left England in 1816, never to return.

It would be presumptuous to extol the glories of Byron's poetry or his role as the exemplar of the Romantic hero. His general medical history is well known, especially his lameness, usually thought to be a club foot, for which he wore a brace and boot “which haunted him like a curse.”2 It was probably a simple dysplasia10 for which John Hunter alone correctly predicted “it will do very well in time.” Byron also suffered from biliousness, catarrh, chilblains, convulsions, constipation, faintness, giddiness, gonorrhoea, haemorrhoids, kidney stone, liver complaints, rheumatism, scarlet fever, sunburn, tertian fever, and warts.

In 1823 Byron went to fight for the liberty of Greece against the Turks. There he caught a fever after a sudden downpour while riding. His doctors bled him with leeches and lancets, gave him blisters and clysters, purgatives, antimony, laudanum, and ether. After a painful, pathetic illness, probably malaria, he died at Missolonghi on 19 April 1824. He was only 36.

Summary points

Byron's appetite problems were not simply sexual; there is evidence that he had a bulimia or anorexia eating disorder

James Joyce's writings show a profound knowledge of human disease; his own epigastric pain, despite various attempts at cure, eventually led to his death

Melba loved luxury and good food, but after a doomed affair with a duke she developed erratic eating habits; her immortality is as much gastronomic as operatic

Byron's body image

“In his attention to his person and dress, to the becoming arrangement of his hair [he slept in curlers] ‘I am as vain of my curls as a girl of sixteen’11 and to whatever might best show off the beauty with which nature had gifted him, he manifested … his anxiety to make himself pleasing to that sex who were, from first to last, the ruling stars of his destiny.”2 Byron is notorious for what is technically known as sexual polymorph perversity—that is, voracious enjoyment, be it of man, woman, child, or even his half-sister. His most passionate temptress, Lady Caroline Lamb, encapsulated him forever in just six words: “mad—bad—and dangerous to know.”12

Byron had appetite problems which were not simply sexual, and Wilma Paterson has developed the hypothesis that he had a bulimia or anorexia eating disorder.13 14 Byron was a miserable, fat, and bashful boy, scurrilously and violently abused by his ungainly, obese mother.3 6 He was wretched at leaving Harrow in 1805, and wretched at going to Cambridge instead of Oxford. When he went up to Trinity College he was miserable and untoward. However, he soon became less diffident: “I took my gradations in the vices with great promptitude, but they were not to my taste … I could not share in the common place libertinism of the place and time without disgust. … College is not the place to improve either morals or income. … Since I left Harrow I have become idle and conceited, from scribbling rhyme and making love to women.”2 6 Thomas Moore claimed that Byron's singularities were chiefly to be ascribed to his college associates, but Hobhouse did not accept this: “Certainly Byron had nothing to learn [in depravity] when he came from Harrow.”15

By the age of 18 Byron was 5 feet 81/2 inches (174 cm) tall and weighed 14 stone 6 pounds (90 kg) and was increasingly melancholic. “I am grown very thin, however it is the Fact, so much so, that the people here think I am going, I have lost 18 LB in my weight … since January … on account of a Bet with an Acquaintance, however don't be alarmed, I have taken every means to accomplish the end, by violent exercise&Fasting, as I found myself too plump.—I shall continue my Exertions, having no other amusement, I wear seven waistcoats, and a great Coat, run and play at Cricket in this Dress, till quite exhausted by excessive perspiration, use the hot Bath daily, eat only a quarter of pound Butcher's meat in 24 hours, no Suppers, or Breakfast, only one meal a Day, drink no malt liquor, little wine,&take physic occasionally, by these means, my Ribs display Skin of no great thickness, and my Clothes, have been taken in nearly half a yard, do you believe me now? … I grow thin daily; since the commencement of my System I have lost 23 lbs in my weight … to 12 st 11 lb … I shall still proceed until I arrive at 12 st and then stop, at least if I am not too fat, but shall always live temperately and take much exercise. … I have reduced myself … to 12 stone 7 lb. … I … now … weigh 12 stone … I shall reduce myself to 11,&there stop … many of my acquaintance … have hardly believed their optics, my visage is lengthened, I appear taller,&somewhat slim,&mirabile dictu!! my Hair once black or very dark brown, is turned … to a light Chesnut, nearly approaching yellow, so that I am metamorphosed not a little. … I … am barely 11 stone … with all my clothes, heavy shoes, gaiters &c … I find I am not only thinner, but taller by an Inch since my last visit, I was obliged to tell everybody my name, nobody having the least recollection of my visage, or person. … My weight is now 10 stone 11 lb!!! … now only ten stone and a half.6

This crash diet brought him down to 9 stone 11 1/2 pounds (61 kg). He later became a “leguminous-eating Ascetic.” 6 “I have long left off Wine entirely … my meal is generally at ye Alfred, where I munch my vegetables in place. … For a long time I have been restricted to an entire vegetable diet, neither fish or flesh coming within my regimen, so I expect a powerful stock of potatoes, greens,&biscuit, I drink no wine.” 6 Nothing gratifies him so much as being told that he grows thin: “Don't you think I get thinner? Did you ever see any person so thin as I am, who was not ill?”3 “Webster … found me thinner even than in 1813, for … I have subsided into my former more meagre outline. … I am as thin as a skeleton—thinner than you saw me at my first arrival in Venice and thinner than yourself there is a climax!” 6 Byron's accounts reveal payments for all his food and drink, and in 1811 he bought a treatise on corpulence.7 This treatise was probably William Wadd's Cursory Remarks on Corpulence, published anonymously in 1810. Wadd cited Coelius Aurelianus's triad of diet, exercise, and sweating. “His food is to be chiefly bread made with bran, vegetables of all kinds; a very small quantity of animal food, which should be dry and free from fat. He advises very little sleep, and positively forbids it after meals.”16

When Byron dined with Samel Rogers in November 1811 he asked for just “hard biscuits and soda water.” These were not available, so he dined on bruised potatoes drenched with vinegar.17 Rogers's anecdote that Byron later went to his club “and eaten a hearty meat-supper” is probably a fiction. In 1821 his breakfast “consisted of a cup of strong green tea, without milk or sugar, and an egg, of which he ate the yolk raw. … My digestion is weak; I am too bilious … to eat more than once a-day, and generally live on vegetables. To be sure, I drink two bottles of wine at dinner, but they form only a vegetable diet. Just now, I live on claret and soda water.”1

In spite of his cult of thinness he remained a passionate gourmet and giver of famous dinner parties. One menu does survive from a Byron dinner, on 2 January 1822 in Pisa, with just three main courses, but 18 dishes.7 For each course all the dishes would have been served at once and laid on the table for the guests to help themselves. The first course was thick dark vegetable soup, or herb soup à la santé, with fried sweetbreads or cream cheese; a salami of pork with lentils, spinach, and ham; boiled capons; beef garnished with potatoes; and a fish stew. That course would then have been removed and in came the grand set piece, which the host carved. There was veal, roast capons, roast woodcocks, baked fish, a fricasee of poultry, and another stew. The dessert was blanched and plain almonds with pears, oranges, and chestnuts. With dinner they would have drunk claret and hock, and afterwards coffee and tea. (This was a modest dinner compared with what the Prince Regent was serving in Brighton about the same time, when in 1817 the kitchens of his Royal Pavilion produced 36 courses of 112 dishes.18)

Yet Byron was almost never seen, and did not like to see others, eating. “I don't know how I shall manage this same wooing … I am sadly out of practice lately, except for a few sighs to a Gentlewoman at supper who was too much occupied with ye fourth wing of her second chicken to mind anything that was not material. … I only wish she did not swallow so much supper, chicken wings—sweetbreads—custards—peaches and Port wine—a woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster sallad&champagne, the only true feminine&becoming viands. … I have prejudice about women: I do not like to see them eat.” 1 “He disliked seeing women eat, or to have their company at dinner, from a wish to believe if possible, in their more ethereal nature … his chief dislike … arose from the fact of their being helped first, and consequently getting all the wings of the chickens, whilst men had to be content with legs or other parts.” 11 He rarely dined with his wife, Annabella, who remarked, “For four or five months before my confinement, he objected unkindly to dine with me, though I was willing to conform to his hours, and once when his dinner was accidentally served at the same table with mine, he desired his dish to be taken into another room.”19 20 Nor did he sit and eat with his devoted mistress, Teresa Guiccioli.5

Probably he dined alone to gorge in secret, and then perhaps make himself sick. His sister Augusta wrote, “I am quite convinced that if he would condescend to eat&drink&sleep like other people he would feel ye good effects—but you know his way is to fast till he is famished&then devour more than his stomach in that weak state can bear—& so on.”19 “Stuffed myself with sturgeon, and exceeded in champagne and wine in general, but not to confusion of head. When I do dine I gorge like an Arab or a Boa snake; on fish and vegetables, but no meat. I am always better, however, on my tea and biscuit than any other regimens and even that sparingly. … To dine today … for which I have some appetite, not having tasted food for the preceding forty-eight hours. I wish I could leave off eating altogether.”6

Byron refused most dinner invitations. “I dare not venture to dine with you tomorrow—nor indeed any day this week—for three days of dinners during the last seven days—have made me so head-achy and sulky. … I hope you will not take my not dining with you again after so many dinners—ill—but the truth is—that your banquets were too luxurious for my habits.” 6 When he did dine with the Blessingtons in 1823 in Genoa he took two helpings of plum pudding à l'Anglaise: “for several months I have been following a most abstemious regime, living almost entirely on vegetables; and now that I see a good dinner, I cannot resist temptation though tomorrow I shall suffer for my gourmandise, as I always do when I indulge in luxuries.”3 “Forgot there was a plum-pudding, (I have added, lately, eating to my ‘family of vices’). … Mrs Ingram has promised me a minced pie, a dainty I have not seen these seven years.” 6

“Last night I supped with Lewis;—and, as usual, though I neither exceeded in solids nor fluids, have been half dead ever since. My stomach is entirely destroyed by long abstinence. … That confounded supper at Lewis's has spoiled my digestion and my philanthropy. I have no more charity than a cruet of vinegar. Would I were an ostrich, and dieted on fire-irons,—or any thing that my gizzard could get the better of. … I am in the most robust health—have been eating and drinking—& fallen upon illfortune. … I began very early and very violently—and alternate extremes of excess and abstinence have utterly destroyed—oh! unsentimental world!—my stomach—and as Lady Oxford used seriously to say a broken heart means nothing but bad digestion. I am one day in high health—and the next on fire or ice—in short I shall turn hypochon driacal—or dropsical—whim sical I am already—but don't let me get tragicalthree days of dinners during the last seven days—have made me so head-achy and sulky—that it will take me a whole Lent to subside again into anything like independence of sensation from the pressure of materialism.”6

His medical adviser had advised a more nutritious regimen, “but he declared, that if he did, he should get fat and stupid, and that it was only by abstinence that he felt he had the power of exercising his mind. … When he eats as others do he gets ill, and loses all power over his intellectual faculties.”3 “I have dined regularly today, for the first time since Sunday last—this being Sabbath too. All the rest, tea and dry biscuits—six per diem. I wish to God I had not dined now!—It kills me with heaviness, stupor and horrible dreams;—and yet it was but a pint of bucellas [a Portugese wine], and fish. Meat I never touch,—nor much vegetable diet. I wish I were in the country, to take exercise,—instead of being obliged to cool by abstinence, in lieu of it. I should not so much mind a little accession of flesh,—my bones can well wear it. But the worst is, the devil always came with it,—till I starve him out, and I will not be the slave of my appetite. If I do err, it shall be my heart, at least, that heralds the way.”6 He feared being dominated by animal appetites “the wear and tear of the vulture passions.”6 Byron knew his sexual excesses came when he was at his fattest. He avoided meat for the curious philosophy one sometimes still hears from patients today that “animal food engenders the appetite of the animal fed upon.3 Thus he dined alone often with Thomas Moore but ate nothing, just drinking claret. “Moore, don't you find eating beef-steak makes you ferocious? … I have been fat,&thin (as I am at present) and had a cough&a catarrh&the piles and be damned to them, and I have had pains in my side and left off animal food which has done me some service.”6 For two days he ate only a few biscuits and chewed mastic to appease his appetite, and then after seeing Kean playing Othello he managed three lobsters, half a dozen glasses of brandy, and a bottle of claret.2


George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, painted in 1813 by Richard Westall


“I am better than ever—and in importunate health—growing (if not grown) large&ruddy—& congratulated by impertinent persons on my robustious appearance—when I ought to be pale and interesting.”6 He would then boast of intolerable leaness, a meagre outline, “nearly transparent.”6 Yet to Hunt in 1822, “Upon seeing Lord Byron, I hardly knew him, he was grown so fat.”21 Byron's friends confirmed his eating disorder. Trelawny wrote: “Byron had not damaged his body by strong drinks, but his terror of getting fat was so great that he reduced his diet to the point of absolute starvation. He was of that soft, lymphatic temperament which it is almost impossible to keep within a moderate compass, particularly as in his case his lameness prevented his taking exercise. When he added to his weight; even standing was painful, so he resolved to keep down to eleven stone, or shoot himself. He said everything he swallowed was instantly converted to tallow and deposited on his ribs. He was the only human being I ever met with who had sufficient self-restraint and resolution to resist this proneness to fatten: he did so; and at Genoa, where he was last weighed, he was ten stone and nine pounds, and looked much less. This was not from vanity about his personal appearance, but from a better motive; and as, like Justice Greedy, he was always hungry, his merit was the greater. Occasionally he relaxed his vigilance, when he swelled apace. I remember one of his old friends saying: ‘Byron, how well you are looking! … You are getting fat,’ Byron's brow reddened and his eyes flashed— ‘Do you call getting fat looking well, as if I were a hog?’ Byron said he had tried all sorts of experiments to stay his hunger, without adding to his bulk. ‘I swelled,’ he said, ‘at one time to fourteen stone, so I clapped the muzzle on my jaws, and like the hybernating animals, consumed my own fat’ … his brain was always working at high pressure. … By starving his body Byron kept his brains clear. He would exist on biscuits and soda-water for days together, then, to allay the eternal hunger gnawing at his vitals, he would make up a horrid mess of cold potatoes, rice, fish or greens, deluged in vinegar, and gobble it up like a famished dog.”22

He took quantities of vinegar to lessen his appetite, dosed himself with Epsom salts, magnesia, and strong laxatives, and always had the highest spirits when he had emptied himself at one or both ends, that is after the purgatives had acted, or he had vomited. He also used tobacco “to take off the pinguify propensities of the appetite.”23 In Athens he had Turkish baths daily and a diet of vinegar, water and rice.9 He drove himself to excess exercise and perhaps would be classified today as also having exercise bulimia. “I am in tolerable leanness, which I promote by exercise and abstinence.”6 He swam the Hellespont, in imitation of Leander, enjoyed being tossed by the sea for days on end in a boat6 and his last fatal illness followed being drenched during a long ride in Greece.

James Joyce's gut

James Joyce,24 25 26 perhaps the greatest of the many famous Irish writers, was born in Dublin in 1882. Both he and his father became medical students, his father at Cork from 1867 to 1869: “He was enrolled in the school of medicine for three years … studied as little as possible, and instead made a big name in sport and dramatics, and by his wild life while a student … many human lives were saved by his giving up the study of medicine.”24


James Joyce, painted in 1935 by Jacques-Emile Blanche


Joyce entered medical school in University College Dublin in October 1902. By December he had transferred to the Sorbonne in Paris. (“Of all the wild youths I have ever met he is the wildest.”24) He came home the following Easter because of the fatal illness of his mother. He could not have spent much time studying medicine, but he did spend his evenings frequenting the doctors' quarters of Dublin hospitals for the social life. Joyce was a close friend of many Dublin medical students, especially Oliver St John Gogarty, the Buck Milligan of Ulysses, physician, journalist, senator, and poet—but bizarrely fated to be best known anonymously as the author of a limerick:

There was a young man of St John's

Who wanted to bugger the swans

Oh no! said the porter

Oblige with my daughter

For the swans are reserved for the dons.

Joyce had a profound knowledge of human disease, and diseases and doctors and hospitals are continually referred to in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in Dubliners, and in Ulysses. He met his wife to be, Nora Barnacle, on 16 June 1904—the famous Bloomsday.

I shall ignore his urethritis, arthritis, intestinal disorder, and recurrent iridocyclitis, recently attributed to Reiter's syndrome.25 From the age of 21, however, Joyce had bouts of epigastric hunger pain. These began when he was a penniless student in Paris, when he might pass 20, or once 42, hours without food while waiting for a money order to come from Dublin. He used to vomit on waking, and this continued after his mariage to Nora. Joyce blamed his own psyche—for example, “two days of severe gastrical disarrangement” if his brother did not write; and “trouble and bustle always finds its way into the bosom of my stomach.” He was better when he feasted (box).24

James Joyce, feasting—Rome 1907

10.30 am Ham, bread and butter, coffee

1.30 pm Soup, roast lamb, potatoes, bread, wine

4.00 pm Beef-stew, bread, wine

6.00 pm Roast veal, bread, gorgonzola cheese

8.30 pm Roast veal, bread, grapes with vermouth

9.30 pm Veal cutlets, bread, salad, grapes, wine

His friends with similar symptoms told him that he had an ulcer, but his French doctors made other diagnoses. In 1928 it was inflammation of the intestine. In 1933, after a night of acute soreness of all his inside, leaving him helpless and strengthless, he was seen by Dr Debray's assistant, Dr Fontaine. She had a particular interest in contemporary literature in English and looked after other expatriate authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Samuel Beckett. Dr Fontaine discounted the diagnosis of colitis and attributed the spasms to a “disequilibrium of the system of the sympathetic nerve with the focus of the dislocation in the epigastric part of the stomach”: she advised absolute and complete calm.

Joyce was then well for some months, but the pains returned with a loss of 7 kg in weight. The pains lasted up to eight hours and were attributed by Dr Debray to “nerves” from his worries over so many years; Debray treated him with laudanum compresses. His friends and family still considered that he had a peptic ulcer, which made Debray even crosser—”une interpretation trop facile.” In 1934 Jung described Joyce's “psychological style” as “definitely schizophrenic.” 24

He continued to be ill over the next four years, with similar symptoms. In 1939, with constant stomach cramps and indigestion, he was described as abnormally pale. In 1940 he and his family fled Paris from the Germans; on arrival in Switzerland he was described as so undernourished as to look like an angular figure in a Picasso drawing.

At 4 am on Friday 10 January 1941 at his home in Zurich, he was woken by severe abdominal pain. His usual doctor was away and another came, made no diagnosis, and gave an injection of morphine. Joyce did not improve and in the evening was seen by the surgeon Heinrich Freysz, who had studied in Lausanne, Munich, and Zurich under Kocher, Krönlein, and Sauerbruch (who had dismissed him) and then worked in Strasbourg, Berne, Geneva, and Vallence before returning to Zurich.

Freysz found Joyce with a rapid pulse and a tender distended abdomen, but without rebound tenderness, presumably because of the morphia. Joyce was admitted to the Schwesterhaus vom Roten Kreuz, where the next morning gastric aspiration gave positive results on a benzidine test and x ray films showed air below the diaphragm. It was 32 hours after the perforation when, at midday on Saturday 11 January, Freysz opened the abdomen under local anaesthesia and found and sutured a 2 mm perforated indurated duodenal ulcer near the pylorus, and then covered it with a patch of omentum. Joyce was given intravenous fluids but later that afternoon collapsed from an internal haemorrhage.

Blood donors were summoned, and Joyce thought it a good omen that one of them came from Neuchatel because of Joyce's liking of the wine of that area; indeed, he had drunk a considerable amount of it the evening before the ulcer perforated. The transfusion was given by William Löffler (famous for Löffler's syndrome), later director of the medical clinic and policlinic of Zurich University. Paralytic ileus developed, and at 1 am on 13 January Joyce asked the nurses for his wife and son before he died. “Lonely in me loneness. For all their faults. I'm passing out. O bitter ending. I'll slip away before they're up.”24

The necropsy showed enormously dilated loops of intestine with a fibrinous exudative peritonitis. Freysz's patchwork on the perforated ulcer was intact, but there was a second shallow ulcer containing blood clots in the duodenum. The pancreas had a rag-like consistency; perhaps alcoholic pancreatitis? William Osler once boasted that any patient admitted to his service at Johns Hopkins was guaranteed thrice over: a careful history, a thorough physical examination, and a scrupulous postmortem examination. But Osler did not live in Switzerland, where there is a fourth dimension: the bill (300 Swiss francs—£20 in 1941).

Melba's men and meals

My third course, the dessert, must be Dame Nellie Melba, who was born Helen Mitchell in Melbourne, Australia, in 1861.27 28 29 30 She was determined to be a singer and trained as such. In 1882, however, when she was 21, she met the first of the many men in her life on a visit to Queensland: Charles Nesbitt Armstrong, the youngest son of an English baronet. She married him but was soon unhappy with him and with both the cultural desert of Queensland and its tropical climate, which made mouldy her clothes, music, and piano. In 1884 she had a son, but she left her husband two months later.


Dame Nellie Melba, photographed by Baron Adolf de Meyer in 1926


Her father took her to Europe, where she studied with Mathilde Marchesi in Paris before her debuts, in Brussels in 1887 and the next year in Covent Garden, where she sang almost every season until she retired in 1926. She had a wide repertoire, and she sang frequently at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where in 1896 she had her only failure as Wagner's Brünnhilde.


Escoffier, Savoy chef


In spite of, or because of, her frugal Scottish-Australian background, Melba loved luxury and good food. In London she always stayed at the newly opened Savoy Hotel, for which D'Oyly Carte had hired Ritz as manager.30 The first reference to her eponymous peach is at a bizarre lunch party. The earliest peaches of the year had just arrived and were thought precious and costly—whereas in her garden in Melbourne peaches had grown as profusely as blackberries. Her host picked up a peach and threw it at the occupants of the benches in the public gardens below; then Melba and all the other diners joined in this riotous behaviour.

The chef at the Savoy was Escoffier, who had worked for Emperor Napoleon III and for the Kaiser, who had entitled him the Emperor of Cooks. Escoffier was the son of a blacksmith and he was 14 before he could read or write, and he never mastered more than a few words of English. He explained that if he spoke English he might also learn to cook like an Englishman. He had two nightmares, the English and the Americans: the English because they gorged tea and cakes, ruining their palates for his divine dinners; the Americans because they ruined their palates by drinking cocktails before, and iced water with, his dinners. Like Byron, Escoffier dined alone, on no more than vegetable soup, and rice, followed by fruit.

In 1890 Melba, aged 31, met the second and last great love of her life, a mésalliance destined to be one of the royal love scandals of the 1890s. Louis Philippe Robert, 14th Duke of Orléans, was the eldest son and heir of the Comte de Paris, the Bourbon Pretender to the throne of republican France. He was eight years younger than Melba, lean, handsome, 6' 2” (188 cm), highly educated, and an entertaining companion. He had been educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and then spent a year with a British regiment in India. The Bourbon family had been exiled from France in 1886, but the duke went back to Paris demanding as a Frenchman to do his military service. He was arrested and sentenced to two years in jail. Released after a few months, he returned to England and fell in love with Melba.

He followed her to St Petersburg, where she sang Juliette. At the end he of course applauded, which was against court etiquette: no one must applaud before the Tsar. Melba's duke was promptly expelled from Russia. Melba and the duke lived and travelled together throughout her performances at the opera houses of Europe. To achieve his ambition to return to France, however briefly, Melba “hired a carriage, dressed him in livery, and made him act as her coachman.” They crossed the frontier from Germany, “lunched in France and returned without the slightest contretemps.”27

Disaster struck. The affair reached the newspapers, and eventually the Australian papers reprinted the scandal. Melba's husband sued for divorce and cited the duke. To avoid the process servers the Duke moved around Europe, but eventually they caught up with him in Vienna. Heavy political pressure was applied, from French official quarters and probably through British diplomatic channels, and the divorce action was dropped in October 1892. Nevertheless the affair was doomed. The duke could not marry Melba: she was a commoner. Moreover, she was a Protestant, and he was Catholic. And she was already married.

Melba had one last attempt to keep her duke. At Covent Garden in 1894 she sang Else in Wagner's Lohengrin, with Jean de Reszke as the swan prince. The next evening she gave an intimate supper for the duke and asked Escoffier for pêches flambées. Escoffier was determined to excel even himself on such a critical evening and wheeled in as dessert a swan carved out of ice in tribute to Lohengrin. Escoffier had made a nest of spun sugar and strawberry leaves with a superb peach resting on a vanilla flavoured ice, coated lightly with raspberry jam.

Thus Pêches Melba was created. Alas, the Duke submitted to family pressure, deserted Melba, and was sent off to Africa on safari for two years to forget her, after which he agreed to marry a Hungarian archduchess. Nevertheless France is still a republic. Escoffier also created Poires Melba and Fraises Melba, but they are not remembered.

Then Melba, like so many opera singers, went to seed and put on much weight. She developed erratic eating habits, gorging and fasting on alternate days. Again Escoffier was called to the rescue. For her to lose weight, he created the crisp austerity of the thin Melba toast, and at one stroke he doubled Melba's gastronomic immortality.


Today's doctors, and indeed any British or American gastroenterologist in the 1930s or 1940s, would have diagnosed and treated James Joyce's chronic duodenal ulcer. We have all struggled with patients with anorexia or bulimia, or both. A good read is Byron's fantastic Don Juan, with its clear associations of sexual and gastric preoccupations. The next time you gorge or diet, think of Byron, James Joyce, and Melba and then recall the refrain of every waiter in New York: “Enjoy your meal!”


I am grateful to Wilma Paterson for allowing me to explore further her studies of Byron's eating disorder. Details of the references to Byron's letters may be obtained from the author.


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