The Medical Puzzles of Dornford Yates

Updated: 15 June 2023
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Dornford Yates was the pen-name of Cecil William Mercer, 1885 - 1960

The books of William Mercer contain several puzzling medical matters.


In the Berry series Berry himself suffers from what is called muscular rheumatism- a complaint that reduces him to rigid immobility if he is to avoid spasms of agonising pain.

Mercer appears to be drawing on his own experience here, for according to A J Smithers in his biography, Mercer contracted rheumatism from the wet and cold while on active service in Macedonia in 1915-17. However, the term rheumatism covers such a range of different problems that to call something "rheumatism" is not to say very much: rheumatism and arthritis between them cover at least 200 different disorders. Smithers does not call it muscular rheumatism which is a very different condition from, say, rheumatoid arthritis. Modern medical thinking does not recognise wet and cold as a way catch any kind of rheumatism, which is in general an auto-immune disease.

Whatever it was, Mercer was clearly seriously affected. He was sent back to England, and as Smithers puts it:
"There can be no doubt about the seriousness of the rheumatism that wrecked him, for it was a time when any trained officer not completely disabled would have been packed off by the War Office to some unit somewhere; if he were not yet fit to fight, at least he might be fit enough to instruct or to administer. No such appointment was found for him."

Mercer suffered from this ailment for years afterwards, and it was a major factor in his move to the warmer climate of Pau in 1921.

Muscular rheumatism is today known as Fibromyalgia, and whatever else it may be, it is not a clear-cut medical condition. As one current medical text puts it:

"People affected have widespread aches and pains in their muscles, tendons and ligaments... ...Fibromyalgia is a condition that's hard to define. There is no obvious physical explanation for the persistent aches and pains, but it is clear that the symptoms can make it hard to cope with daily activities like employment and housework. Fibromyalgia is sometimes considered to be like chronic fatigue syndrome (which used to be called ME). It is a real illness and not something that is simply in the mind of people who have it."

However, despite that last sentence at various periods it has been considered a psychosomatic disorder, and it does not sound like the kind of condition that would excuse you from the First World War at a period when every possible man was needed. It is all very strange.


The title of this rather peculiar book derives from the famous quote by Aneurin Bevin: "So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin." He was specifically talking about the Tory Party, and no argument there. He was not attacking the upper classes and landed gentry as such, but these are the people defended in Lower Than Vermin. I am almost tempted to think that the book was written as a result of a misunderstanding.

The nobs in this book seem to be particularly subject to mysterious medical conditions that could finish them off in short order; if these are the finest specimens of the English aristocracy then clearly their breeding is not helping them much. Here are the most notable cases:

One of the main characters in Vermin is Phillip Brabant, the Fifth Earl of Ringwood, (for once, Mercer really let himself go with the aristocratic titles in this book) who suffers a strange medical condition brought on by his experiences in the First World War. In February 1921 he gets 'a chill' and three days later is seriously ill with pneumonia. He survives, but his doctor says:

"...But his constitution was undermined by the War. He'll never regain the resistance he used to have. Let me give you an example- unless the weather's set fair, he must never hunt. That is because, if ever he should get wet, he must immediately change. If you hunt, you can't do that. I'm very sorry indeed to issue orders like this: but I shouldn't be doing my duty, unless I did." (p239)

What were these experiences that render Phillip unfit to go out in the rain for fear of instant pneumonia, to the detriment of the supervision of his estates? Apparently they were "overwork, exposure, and strain". (p237) He is stated to have spent the War as a colonel, though how he achieved that rank is mysterious for although he had been in the Guards he had apparently never seen active service before. Anyway, we are told that he was "...constantly in the front line" for four years, which is of course no place for a colonel, and if true would have been the gravest dereliction of duty.

On p121 we discover that Phillip's father, the Fourth Earl of Ringwood, had 'a bad chill' when he refused to cancel a dinner with the current Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and died four days later; presumably this was again some sort of high-speed pneumonia. Given that Mercer spends a lot of time banging on about heredity and good blood in the book, this sounds suspiciously like a serious inherited pulmonary weakness. Obviously Mercer is making the point that the 4th Earl did his social duty in dining with the PoW even though it killed him, but one cannot help but wonder if the PoW was that all grateful for being exposed to the viruses of a 'a bad chill'. Quite what this means is unclear- it could mean a bad cold, though it is hard to visualise the unfortunate Fourth Earl coughing and sneezing his way through a royal dinner. It may mean simply that he was exposed to cold, and in this extraordinarily delicate aristocratic family that appears to be a death sentence.

Mercer's undoubted talent for naming his characters distinctively seems to have been a bit tin-eared here; Ringwood is awfully close to ringworm. Unusually for Mercer, Ringwood is a real place, a market town in Hampshire. In the past it has been held by Earls, but none were called Brabant.

One of the minor characters, Virgil Coleton, appears to expire from fatal tiredness in a rather strange way. (In Mercer's world, when anyone declared they felt "very tired" they were invariably on borrowed time) This Coleton is said to have volunteered for WW2 when he was 44, (p260) and spent four years in the ranks, steadily refusing a Commission, for reasons undisclosed. This experience, which would would not have been very different from the experience of thousands of of other men, appears to have so fatally undermined his health so that twelve years later he fell an easy prey to being Very Tired, and dies quite suddenly at the age of 61. The embarrassing death-bed scenes give no further clue to this mysterious medical condition, which seems to manifest itself as "A sort of catch in the breath." according to its victim. Mercer makes it clear that four years in the ranks has proved fatal to a "fastidious man". Presumably the working classes have an inherent immunity to this condition.

Seriously, it's as nasty a bit of snobbery as ever left a bad taste in the mouth.

Virgil Coleton is almost certainly a disguised portrait of Hector Hugh Munro, (Saki) who joined up as a private and was killed in 1916 at the age of 46.

John Rivers eventually becomes the second husband of Vivien, sister of Phillip Brabant, after a lot of unlikely dithering and scruples stemming from the heroic death in battle of her philandering husband Hugo. Rivers is painted as a rather colourless character. He too succumbs to a 'bad chill' on p301, having used his greatcoat to exinguish a burning German airman.

Page numbers in Lower Than Vermin refer to the first edition, published in 1950 by Ward Lock.


In Mercer's books, not just Vermin, on several occasions characters imperil their lives by working excessively hard at being a trustee; apparently extreme exertion is the only way in which they can fulfil their duties. I have been a trustee myself, in a quiet way, and I did not find the very limited amount of work that was required of me to be in any way life-threatening.

Mercer clearly felt that the public would have little sympathy with a pack of complete idlers, and so dangerously onerous trusteeships occur from time to time.

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