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The Doctor in the Victorian Novel: Family Practices (review)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 206-208 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0017

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Tabitha Sparks's title might lead one to expect only a straightforward discussion of changes over time in representations of the doctor within the Victorian novel. But, while laying this foundation, her work goes beyond it to offer a fascinating look at the intersection between two competing narratives in the Victorian novel: the tried and true marriage plot and the new narrative offered by the empiricism of medicine and science as represented by fictional Victorian doctors. This work was originally part of her dissertation, individual chapters of which have appeared as journal articles in the Journal of Narrative Theory and Nineteenth-Century Feminisms, and the edited collection Beyond Sensation: Mary Braddon in Context.

Each of the six chapters in The Doctor in the Victorian Novel builds upon Sparks's central idea of the conflicting ideologies behind these two narratives—marriage and medicine—as the century progresses. Sparks tracks how physicians' roles move from minor sideline roles to romantic heroes to Gothic threats (in which role, these doctors, at the very least, complicate the marriage plot, if not acting in direct conflict with it), finally addressing the question of how the historical rise of the female physician in the 1870s further complicates the competing narratives of medicine and marriage. In a comprehensive overview of the Victorian texts that focus on physicians, Sparks includes more than two dozen representative novels or short stories, ranging from the expected canonical texts such as Middlemarch and Villette to lesser-known works such as Charles Reade's A Woman-Hater. A few related works, such as Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders and Rudyard Kipling and Wolcott Balestier's The Naulahka, are missing from her extensive overview.

Sparks begins by comparing Harriet Martineau's Deerbrook and George Eliot's Middlemarch, showing how both women writers saw the novel as a place to debate medical authority and how both created representations of married physicians toward this aim. However, as Sparks then demonstrates, Martineau is more optimistic in her presentation of Hope as the doctor who, even in his marriage, is a "model of civic engagement," whereas Eliot—who, writing thirty-some years later, had a different understanding of medicine—positions Lydgate as "a failed pathological 'explorer' and unsuccessful innovator of the medical profession," (39), due in large part to his marriage.

In chapter 2, Sparks explores how George MacDonald's Adela Cathcart represents a "countermove" (47) to the dominant Victorian trend that privileged the scientific, the medical, and the empirical over the literary, fantastic, and imaginative (47). MacDonald's aim, through his doctor Harry Armstrong, is to show that stories themselves are medicine, capable of healing, a point that leads not only to Armstrong's healing of Adela Cathcart but also to their subsequent marriage.

Chapter 3 contrasts Mary Elizabeth Braddon's sentimentalism in The Doctor's Wife with Elizabeth Gaskell's realism in Wives and Daughters, positioning both within a larger overview of texts written in the 1850s and 1860s that, like Baudelaire's Madame Bovary, look at "the conflicted unions between professional doctors and their unfulfilled, romantic wives" (63).

Chapter 4 analyses the shifts within Wilkie Collins's representations of fictional doctors, from Armadale to Heart and Science (with a limited look at Ezra Jennings from The Moonstone). Sparks argues that in saving his heroines from doctors and science, Collins is also, in effect, saving himself—and, by extension, the Victorian novelist—from science.

Chapter 5 looks at the reactionary discourse of Gothic novels, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Gothic short stories, such as those written by Arthur Machen, as texts that work to contain the perceived cultural threat of the New Woman. Sparks's argument extends beyond the doctors' rationalizing of their destructive actions to address the issue of their complicity in the creation of such "dangerous" women. She concludes, "According to the medical logic of these texts, doctors are permitted to destroy sexually dangerous women for the good of the English race, even if they—the doctors—have been complicit in the transformation of the women from good to evil" (131).

Lastly, Sparks works with seven late-Victorian texts to explore the "contradiction inherent in the 'female doctor'" (22). With the rise...



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