THERE WAS A TIME WHEN I was in thrall to a photograph of syphylitic noselessness. It was a late-19th-century photograph of a young woman, quite clearly patrician, and I remember being bewildered by the operatic calamity that was the hole in her face. The external nose was completely absent following an ulcerative destruction. Most of the nasal septum had been eaten away; what could be seen were the triangular bony rims of the nares. Her noselessness marked her body as corrupt and dangerous, as a legatee and keeper of syphilis. It warned against the quality of her flesh, against her virtue, or that of her husband’s. And withal, her eyes were still lambent with the pride and assurance of the well-born.
She seemed to occupy a world of Victorian moral fiction. The photograph was from the collection of the surgeon Jonathan Hutchinson—annalist, analyst and registrar of all things syphilitic. In the accompanying text he warned that her sunken nose would be transmitted to her newborn, who would, from infancy, bear the insignia of corruption in the form of peg-shaped teeth, saddle-nose, sabre shin and blindness from clouded corneas.
She was in an old book, crumbling at the edges, that belonged to a particularly misanthropic professor of surgery. I can no longer be sure if it was a photograph or a picture of a daguerreotype or even a watercolour illustration; I remember her as a sitter in the great continuum of Victorian portrait culture. In my recreation aft