With its gaudy colors and faux historicism, The English Patient sometimes feels more like a paint-by-numbers novel than a prize-winning masterpiece. Set during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, Robert Richardson’s novel tells the story of Estelle Field, a young, beautiful Englishwoman who travels to the deserts of Marrakesh to undergo an operation to remove her cancer, which she has kept secret from her husband, George. While there, she is targeted by the deranged British Lieutenant Francis Campion and his lecherous cohort Albert Schweitzer, but ultimately spared by the timely intervention of her fellow Englishman, Stephen Maturin. The novel examines British imperial attitudes in the early 20th century and the effects of the Spanish Flu on a generation of Anglo-Saxon men and women.
The film adaptation, directed by Christopher Nolan and released in 2019, updates the plot a bit. In the film, the character of Estelle Field is renamed Amelia Belmont, a name which makes more sense in a film setting. But that’s not all the film changes. The biggest deviation from the novel is that Stephen Maturin is no longer an Englishman. Played by an unrecognizable, Welsh actor, Richard Madden, he is described as an Irishman in the film. Additionally, the character of George Field is updated to be a mute, wheelchair-bound war hero. But what makes these alterations valuable isn’t just that they’re faithful to the spirit of Richardson’s novel. It’s that they flesh out the story with more depth than the original text ever did.
Where Does The English Patient Come From?
Like a lot of modern literary fiction, The English Patient grew out of World War I. Born in London in 1881, Richardson was a student at Cambridge in 1908 when the sudden end of the Great War brought the university’s end-of-year examinations to a halt. With the authorities no longer demanding he spend his time memorizing Greek plays for an A-level in English Literature, Richardson found himself with a lot of free time on his hands. Inspired by the stories his mother used to tell him about her time in Tangiers as a young woman, where she had met her husband, an English army doctor, Richardson decided to set his next novel there as well.
Richardson arrived in Tangiers in October 1918 and, within weeks of his arrival, was invited to join a group of friends in playing tennis at the British embassy. It was during one of these games that Richardson’s future literary agent, Harold Ober Associates, first approached him about a possible book deal. In a letter to his mother dated December 4, 1918, Richardson mentioned that he had received a check from his publisher for £130 advance money on the condition that he deliver the completed manuscript by Christmas. In the end, Ober Associates was responsible for negotiating the £125,000 purchase price for what was then the fastest-ever advance on a novel by an English author. Only later would Richardson learn that his wife, Hilda, had passed away during his time in Tangiers. The loss hit him hard. Like a lost soul, he would wander the streets of Tangiers in a daze and only occasionally emerge to write.
What Is So Special About The English Patient?
While the genteel prequel Jane Eyre may not have used any special tricks to achieve its success, Richardson’s experimental masterpiece certainly does. The English Patient was the first book that Richardson ever wrote – indeed, the first book he ever published. It was serialized in 1919 in the magazine New York Times, before being picked up by a London publisher who brought out the hardback edition the following year. The year before that publication, Richardson was approached by a Hollywood producer who wanted to make the novel into a movie. Despite the film industry’s usual blacklisting of any British subject matter at the time, the producer believed Richardson’s unique insight into English character and society during the early decades of the 20th century could make for an intriguing cinematic story.
The novel takes its time carefully establishing the cultural nuances which would later color its depiction of the Spanish Flu pandemic. As a result, it didn’t become popular until decades after its initial publication. In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that the novel finally found its audience and, even then, it took some time for it to hit its stride.
How Does It End?
If you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering how Richardson’s tale of love, loss, and heroism ends. The answer is quite simply, it doesn’t. In fact, what makes The English Patient so special is that it never ends. Or, rather, it never stops. Or, rather, it keeps going. One of the first things you’ll notice if you try and put the book down is that it won’t let you. Like a bad trip to Wonderland, you’ll find yourself compelled to keep reading.
Upon finishing the novel, you’ll discover that it isn’t quite over yet. That, despite the fact that it’s been years since you last turned a page, the story continues. George Field’s cancer returns, this time in the form of a brain tumor. Knowing that his condition is almost certainly fatal, he asks his daughter, Pauline, to leave her comfortable life in England and move in with him so they can be together one last time. Inevitably, the story of Georgina and her father isn’t finished yet.
As with a lot of literary fiction, a lot of The English Patient‘s appeal comes from exploring the complexities of human nature and relationships. The novel asks questions about morality, ethics, and loyalty which still echo today. Whether you agree with his answers or not is, of course, a matter of personal opinion. But, at least, you’ll come away from the story with a better understanding of what makes people the people they are.