The Doctor in the Victorian Novel
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The Doctor in the Victorian Novel

Family Practices

Tabitha Sparks

  1. 186 pages
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eBook - ePub

The Doctor in the Victorian Novel

Family Practices

Tabitha Sparks

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About This Book

With the character of the doctor as her subject, Tabitha Sparks follows the decline of the marriage plot in the Victorian novel. As Victorians came to terms with the scientific revolution in medicine of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the novel's progressive distance from the conventions of the marriage plot can be indexed through a rising identification of the doctor with scientific empiricism. A narrative's stance towards scientific reason, Sparks argues, is revealed by the fictional doctor's relationship to the marriage plot. Thus, novels that feature romantic doctors almost invariably deny the authority of empiricism, as is the case in George MacDonald's Adela Cathcart. In contrast, works such as Wilkie Collins's Heart and Science, which highlight clinically minded or even sinister doctors, uphold the determining logic of science and, in turn, threaten the novel's romantic plot. By focusing on the figure of the doctor rather than on a scientific theme or medical field, Sparks emulates the Victorian novel's personalization of tropes and belief systems, using the realism associated with the doctor to chart the sustainability of the Victorian novel's central imaginative structure, the marriage plot. As the doctors Sparks examines increasingly stand in for the encroachment of empirical knowledge on a morally formulated artistic genre, their alienation from the marriage plot and its interrelated decline succinctly herald the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of Modernism.

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Chapter 1
Doctoring the Marriage Plot: Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook and George Eliot’s Middlemarch

In 1866, the Positivist philosopher Frederic Harrison wrote a letter to his friend George Eliot, in which he urged her to use her fictional talents to portray the benefits of a “future, Positivist society,” led by secular and empirical ideals. Eliot had recently published Felix Holt: the Radical (1866), her most political novel, but Harrison was disappointed by this novel’s facility in meaning different things to different people. In short, he objected to its naturalism. Her next novel, he proposed, could show the possibility of “healthy moral control over societies,” reveal “the positive fruits of science and industry,” and thus “illustrate the superiority of the new [science of Positivism] to the old way of life” (Haight 288–89). This idealistic community could be led, in Harrison’s words, by “the local physician, who would represent science and would gradually acquire … an entirely moral ascendancy over both capitalist and laborer” (Haight 287-288). The doctor, he continues, would allow Eliot to resolve “the darker passions” of class conflict by the “active intervention” of the trusted physician. To Harrison, the doctor-hero could reflect leadership in a utopian future, which, after the tenets of Positivism, would be organized by empiricism and what he sees as the inevitable moral and social progress that follows from the teleological power of scientific thinking.
Eliot, however, envisioned no such confidence in the example of the doctor to assuage social ills with medical science. Her 1872 novel Middlemarch does include many of the elements suggested by Harrison, among them a talented doctor and a provincial society divided by class interests. But the resolutions of Middlemarch frustrated Harrison (Vogeler 417); far from achieving the transcendent influence of a scientifically minded leader, Eliot’s doctor Tertius Lydgate fails to translate his great ambitions into practice, and thus dies a disappointed man.
While Harrison’s advice to Eliot attaches transformative power to modern science and medicine, Lydgate’s experience in Middlemarch attests to the human framework that shapes, and in his experience, limits empirical knowledge. Eliot further checks the great potential associated with Lydgate by setting her novel in the late 1820s and early 1830s, and so attesting implicitly to history’s invisible record of scientific intentions. To find a more optimistic version of Positivist triumph, we must revisit a novel that both shares its setting with the heady beginning of Positivism in England, and aligns its hopeful vision with an as-yet-untested future. Harriet Martineau’s little-known novel Deerbrook (1838–39) serves virtually all of the plot requirements of Harrison’s imaginary utopia. In Deerbrook, general practitioner Edward Hope achieves transcendent leadership of a divided and ignorant populace, and through his characterization, Martineau forges new literary ground with one of the first sustained studies of a middle-class, professional man in a Victorian novel. As this chapter argues, Martineau, like Harrison over thirty years later, believes that the characterization of a local physician can proffer a powerful example of new, Positivist leadership. But while Harrison’s confidence in the medical hero situates study of the Victorian doctor in its expected domain of scientific and empirical authority, Martineau’s interest in a doctor-hero is in fact guided by her political and democratic ideals, and her Mr. Hope thereby represents a mode of civic interaction above and before medical practice. My comparison between Hope and Lydgate, then, argues that Hope’s success in fitting into a domestic plot reflects pre-scientific medicine’s essentially civic and social identification, which for Martineau was an excellent guide for marriage relationships. In contrast, Lydgate’s scientific ambitions (and Eliot’s later-Victorian knowledge of modern science and medicine) shape a marriage relationship that is negatively informed by a emotional-empirical divide not yet visible to Martineau in the 1830s.
The science of Positivism was developed by French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), who imagined it as a modern and secular antidote to religion. Comte’s Positivism was organized by three historical stages that mark humanity’s development. The first stage is Theological and employs supernatural beliefs as its mode of explanation; the second, the Metaphysical stage, relies on an abstract but incomplete epistemology, and the third, the Positive stage, indicates human understanding of the natural laws that rule the world. The Positive stage as Comte conceived it represented mankind’s control of what previously had been a hostile and unpredictable universe, including the elimination of suffering and illness. The rationalist basis of Positivism relies on evidence (and hence eliminates the suppositions of faith-based theology); as Comte wrote, “there can be no real knowledge but that which is based on observable facts” (Lenzer 72). Positivism’s appeal to medical science was consistent with the nineteenth-century medical drive to establish a more physiological basis of disease, in a large part through advances in surgery, anatomy, and dissection.
Positivism also considers how scientific knowledge can influence human behavior. After Comte’s example, Martineau, for instance, ambitiously imagines that empirical logic could ultimately guide even irrational passions like the emotions. Eliot, while sympathetic to Comtean Positivism and friendly with many of its principal adherents in England, is more skeptical, which perspective I explore through Middlemarch in the closing section of this chapter.1 Both Deerbrook and Middlemarch operate as testing grounds for Positivism’s success insofar as they imagine the influence of doctors in provincial villages that are beset by very irrational emotions like love, jealousy, and fear. Hope’s great success and Lydgate’s failure mark their respective author’s commitments to Positivism.
But beyond modeling the science of Positivism, the lessons that Hope imparts in Deerbrook can be more precisely identified when we consider Martineau’s goals for the domestic realist novel than if we look at her representation of science and medicine. Hope’s utility, above all, is the exemplification of an unsentimental point of view that is consonant with his profession, and that explains Martineau’s revisionary ambitions for fiction in Deerbrook. Determined, like George Eliot after her, not to add to the numbers of “silly novels by lady novelists,” Martineau embarks in Deerbrook on no less than a rejection of the romantic marriage plot that has structured domestic realism since the novels of Jane Austen.2
It is one of my contentions that the fictional Victorian doctor reflects not only the rise of science in culture, which is logical, but also the revised and revising fortunes of domesticity and marriage. Called upon to serve both professional and medical interests as well as domestic and intimate ones, the doctor’s role in Victorian culture accordingly maps a dynamic interface between the public and private spheres. When the doctor-character participates in the romantic or marriage plot, as do Hope and Lydgate, we necessarily confront a collision between public and private interests. That is, while the doctor as a Victorian professional man personifies a rational perspective, the doctor-in-love (or marriage, as is the case with Hope) must also engage in a convention that is embedded in literary culture and pre-dates the rise of modern science. The experience of the rational doctor in love and/or marriage, then, posits a struggle between the growing authority of professional medicine and the sentimental and intuitive feelings that inflect the convention of romance. The Victorian doctor-in-love thus uniquely exemplifies novelists’ efforts to coalesce literary conventions of marriage with newer, scientific objectives.
My focus on the interaction between the rationalist doctor and the marriage plot leads to my interpretation of the reason why Martineau, Harrison, and Eliot saw the novel as a place to debate medical authority. Marriage constitutes the most revealing interpersonal relationship in the domestic realist novel, and as such it can serve as our index of other power relations and social visions in the genre. But scholarship on Deerbrook (which is scarce) and Middlemarch (which is extensive) usually separates the “medical” from the “domestic”; in doing so, it ironically betrays an allegiance to the same separation of spheres that both Martineau and Eliot overtly critique in these novels. Martineau uses her doctor-hero to typify a distinctly modern figure whose participation in social and political life surmounts his medical work. Indeed, not least important in the character of Edward Hope is his function as an enlightened husband and recovered lover. The consolation of work and duty that Hope and his wife Hester eventually model in their marriage crystallizes Martineau’s advocacy of novels as practical guides to middle-class life. In this way, Martineau uses “doctor” to exemplify a logical, dispassionate, and revised picture of marriage that in turn advocates a new role for the domestic novel. Eliot, in contrast, ultimately demands less from her doctor-hero. Lydgate, at the end of Middlemarch, compromises his scientific and professional goals for more self-interested ends. In his case, “doctor” signifies a limited professional and scientific perspective that conflicts and ultimately is trounced by his subjective and romantic identity.
The comparison between these doctors draws attention to the ways that romantic and domestic plots are impacted by medicine in the pre-scientific age (when Martineau wrote and situated Deerbrook) and in an age deeply informed by science (the period in which Eliot wrote – but did not place – Middlemarch). Eliot’s Lydgate fails at his career and research aspirations, and his scientific perspective also leads him to misjudge his marital fortunes. In this way, he resembles other medical men conceived in the later century (such as those I study in Chapters 4 and 5) more than he does Edward Hope. In contrast, Hope’s deft amalgamation of the identities of doctor and husband reflect the pre-scientific world of Deerbrook. Martineau’s rendering of marriage as a civil and cooperative union complements her conception of medicine as a similarly socially conscious and service-oriented domain.


Set in the small, Midland-shire village of Deerbrook, Martineau’s novel begins with the arrival of two sisters from Birmingham, Margaret and Hester Ibbotson, who have been welcomed after the deaths of their parents by their distant cousins, the Grey family. The Ibbotson sisters are initiated into village life and its social politics, which include a feminine preoccupation with scandal and gossip. The Greys introduce Hester and Margaret to the much-admired local doctor and eligible bachelor, Edward Hope. Mr. Hope soon falls in love with Margaret, the plainer but more sensible of the sisters. But Mrs. Grey, who means well but persistently meddles in others’ lives, urges him to marry the less virtuous Hester, who mistakenly believes that it is she whom Hope loves. Out of a strong sense of duty and self-sacrifice, Hope marries Hester, resolving to quell his love for Margaret.
After the wedding of Hope and Hester, Deerbrook takes a darker turn, leading to a more focused analysis of Hope and his changing fortunes. Hope and Hester are both disappointed by marriage; Hope still loves Margaret, and Hester senses his emotional reserve and is frustrated by the difference between her romantic expectations and the ordinary trials of domestic life. Their relationship is soon taxed by outside forces as well. Hope is victimized by a jealous neighbor woman, Mrs. Rowland, and by the local aristocracy, who objects to his liberal politics and gradually curtails his once-thriving practice. The Hope family subsequently is forced to practice strict domestic economy – as Hope refuses to accept help from friends, or give in to the pressures of the villagers to adjust his political ideals, even when rioters demolish his surgery. Beset by indifference to the poor and to the political activism that Hope sees as an antidote to its suffering, Deerbrook is contaminated by a typhus epidemic. Showing that his missionary dedication to the villagers transcends his own persecution, Hope tirelessly works to cure the sick – which he largely does through improved domestic hygiene and the abandonment of folk-medicine in favor of ‘modern’ sanitation. Inspired by Hope’s unselfish example, Hester’s character sufficiently improves so that, by the end of the novel, she has become the wife Hope deserves. Hope masters his feelings for Margaret and by the novel’s end, is able to celebrate her engagement to neighbor Phillip Enderby.
Bucking such familiar conventions as the handsome squire (Austen) or the courageous warrior (Scott), Martineau’s choice of a homely general practitioner3 in Deerbrook was for many an inauspicious choice for a hero. While other novelists of the time wrote about doctors, they most often wrote about them as undifferentiated stock figures in the service of (but not participating in) the novel’s central plot, as we see in Thackeray’s Pendennis (1850). The doctor, Thackeray writes, “comes – sits beside us – encourages us to complain, and listens. Oh, what can equal the blandness and sympathy of a listening doctor! We detail our minutest sensations with a modest pride at possessing so many indisputable claims on his attention” (623). Patrick McCarthy claims that “it was the ambiguous social status of the doctor [in the early Victorian period] which troubled authors” and prevented them from figuring doctors as heroes unless they were “purged … of any association with mere trade” (807). More recently, Lawrence Rothfield explains the “relative paucity of explicit literary representations of physicians,” at least until the 1870s (“Doctors” 173) by drawing near my argument in Family Practices. For Rothfield, “Lawyers or churchmen could be imagined as suitable romantic interlocutors in a way that medical men, [whose “respectability” was “questionable”] for the most part, could not” (171). But Rothfield does not dwell on the relationship between a doctor’s participation in the romance or marriage plot and a novelist’s willingness or capacity to depict him; instead, he suggests that the doctor’s “way of exercising power and manifesting authority” (171) were both threatening and ambiguous to novelists, and so, by and large, they left him alone. While I agree with Rothfield’s thesis, this book ventures where he does not by tracing the impact of medical knowledge on the Victorian novel by and through the doctor character’s unwieldy juxtaposition to the marriage plot.
Responding directly to Deerbrook, reviewer Sydney Smith mocked the idea of a “poticary” as fictional, showing how far the hero’s role was subsumed by romantic connotations. Smith jokes that if a doctor-hero “took his mistress’s hand, he would feel her pulse by force of habit; if she fainted, he would have only Epsom salts; he would put cream of tartar in her tea and flower of brimstone in her bosom – no, a ‘medicinal lover’ would not do” (Webb 185). But Hope was, explicitly, not a lover at all, unless we count his love for political and social responsibility; his discipline of his love for Margaret is one of the triumphs of the novel. Martineau’s choice of the medical profession for Deerbrook’s hero most importantly is an entrée into an example of disinterested work in general, in the same way that Deerbrook’s Austenian beginning (the arrival of the marriageable Ibbotson sisters and the courtship plot concerning them and Hope) leads Martineau into the more pragmatic design of domestic and social compromise.
Hope’s role as a doctor, that is, does not reflect medicine and its interventions so much as the ethical Positivism for which his doctoring stands. As a middle-class professional who rejects material and selfish objectives in favor of a disinterested commitment to social equality and stability, Hope broadly personifies Martineau’s stance against the ‘romantic’ in fiction, as his thwarted love for Margaret also makes clear. Martineau’s professed goal in Deerbrook is to revise the prototype of the novel that she regarded as dated, impractical, and escapist. The prospective design for this new mode of fiction takes shape in an oft-cited review she wrote of Sir Walter Scott in 1833. While praising Scott’s genius, Martineau suggests that his extravagant drama be replaced by more immediate and realistic subject matter in fiction.
[W]hy not now take the magnificent subject, the birth of political principle, whose advent has been heralded for so long? What can afford finer moral scenery than the transition state society now is! Where are nobler heroes to be found than those who sustain society in the struggle; and what catastrophe so grand as the downfall of bad institutions, and the issues of a process of renovations? (qtd. in Sanders 27)
In adhering to a fundamental realism, a straightforward depiction of ordinary lives, and skepticism towards the possibilities available for heroic action or dramatic reversals of fortune, Martineau’s revision of the novel focuses on her prioritization of the civic over personal goals. The position of the doctor at this time necessarily imparts these values. Hope has a private practice (a surgery attached to his house) but is also a civic employee, appointed to practice at the local almshouse. The modesty of this position resonated with Deerbrook’s contemporary critics (as Sydney Smith’s review demonstrates) and entered the novel into a growing number of realistic novels that carried serious social ambitions.
Despite its relative obscurity in the canon of nineteenth-century novels, Deerbrook’s role in inaugurating the middle-class domestic novel has been long noted by critics. Gregory and Kathleen Tillotson consider Deerbrook “the first serious novel of middle-class provincial life since Jane Austen” (324). Vineta Colby stresses Martineau’s attention to those spheres of life that the novel, after the pattern of Austen, had not previously examined. Colby calls Deerbrook a “pioneering work, a model for many later novels. [Martineau] breaks out of the confines of the purely domestic scene and personal love story, moving freely from the hearth to the marketplace and the village green” (252).
Such “serious” ambitions for fiction met with much popular resistance. Writing wistfully in 1833 about the waning appeal of dramatic fiction that his own Newgate and historical novels typified, Edward Bulwer Lytton describes the period’s growing interest in “didactic” art:
When Byron passed away, the feeling he had represented craved utterance no more. With a sigh we turned to the actual and practical career of life; we awoke from the morbid, the passionate, and the dreaming … Hence that strong attachment to the Practical, which became so visible a little time after the death of Byron, and which continues … to characterize the temper of this time. Insensibly acted upon by the doctrine of Utilitarians, we desired to see Utility in every branch of intellectual labor. (ii)
Bulwer Lytton refers to a community of revision-minded novelists; Martineau was not alone in her attempt to use fiction as a model for social values founded upon pragmatic principles. Other prominent female novelists of the age used fiction as a medium by which they could fashion a more practical ethic for industrial culture and for women writers, whose most evident contribution to letters heretofore was the romance novel. Most prominently, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and Frances Trollope helped to popularize the genre of instructional fiction, which often focused o...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Dedication
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Table of Contents
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Introduction
  9. 1 Doctoring the Marriage Plot: Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook and George Eliot’s Middlemarch
  10. 2 Textual Healing: George MacDonald’s Adela Cathcart
  11. 3 Marital Malpractice at Mid-Century: Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife and Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters
  12. 4 Myopic Medicine and Far-Sighted Femininity: Wilkie Collins’s Armadale and Heart and Science
  13. 5 New Women, Avenging Doctors: Gothic Medicine in Bram Stoker and Arthur Machen
  14. 6 The “Fair Physician”: Female Doctors and the Late-Century Marriage Plot
  15. Conclusion – “The Overstimulated Nerve Ceases to Respond”: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Medical Modernism
  16. Bibliography
  17. Index