Before he turned his hand to writing operas, the French composer Hector Berlioz had intended to pursue a career in medicine. He changed his mind the first time he entered a dissection room, leaping out of the window in revulsion at ‘the limbs scattered about, the heads smirking, the skulls gaping, the bloody cesspool underfoot … the repulsive stench of the place’. If you find his remarks distressing, you should not even open The Butchering Art, the pages of which are packed with far more grisly descriptions than his. In the book’s promotional material, the author, Lindsey Fitzharris, describes herself as ‘a purveyor of gruesome artefacts’, presumably ones similar to the dilapidated human skull she clutches in her author’s photograph. If, like her, you are intrigued by the grim realities of human suffering, you will find this a riveting and sympathetic description of one man’s quest to help humanity.
If Berlioz had been less squeamish and alive today, he might have adapted Fitzharris’s lurid and melodramatic account of Victorian medicine for a libretto: her surgeons behave like divas, flourishing their scalpels on the stages of raked anatomy theatres, boosting their fame with periodic outbursts of anger. The Butchering Art