The Telegraph has published an extract from Paul Kildea’s forthcoming biography of Benjamin Britten in which he attributes the unsuccessful heart surgery that made him an invalid to previously undiscovered tertiary syphilis, presumably contracted from his lover, Peter Pears.
Kildea’s evidence is based on something the surgeon, Donald Ross, confided ten years later to a cardiologist friend, Hywel Davies. There are more holes in it than there were in Britten’s heart. Having just emerged from a bout of late Britten, my scepticism is founded on the following qualms:
photo: (c) Brian Seed/Lebrecht Music&Arts
1….It is substantively documented that Britten was reduced to invalidity by a minor strike he suffered during the six-hour operation.
2… According to Kildea’s own account, one of the consultants involved mistakenly diagnosed him as an alcoholic.
3… British cardiac surgery in the early 1970s lagged behind the advances in other countries.
4… If Britten had syphilis, the doctors would have been ethically obligated to contact his sexual partner or partners. There is no suggestion in Kildea’s argument that Peter Pears was ever informed.
Britten’s death was correctly registered as the result of congestive cardiac failure. It was a failure that British cardiac medicine failed to treat with the confidence that would be expected in 2013.
Kildea’s ‘discovery’ strikes me as little more than stale medical gossip. But I’ll run it past some consultants and see what they think.