Every age and every place has its protean illness, a malady whose symptoms are so varied that it seems to incorporate those of all other illnesses and is known to doctors as ‘the great mimic’. When I was a student, it was diabetes; when I practised in the Central Pacific, it was tuberculosis; nowadays, it is Aids. Before the advent of penicillin, it was syphilis.
Syphilis was to French writers of the nineteenth century what alcoholism was to American writers of the twentieth century: virtually an occupational hazard. It was almost as if it were communicated by ink rather than venereally, and Alphonse Daudet, a prolific and popular author who has now been relegated to the second di vision if not lower, was among those who suffered from it.